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Conference examines evangelism methods for postmoderns

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–The young woman in the video spoke freely about her views on God. As Lindsey took a puff from her cigarette, she explained that God was everywhere and in everything, including the cigarette she was smoking.

Will McRaney, associate professor of evangelism at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, shared the video during his presentation at the American Society of Church Growth annual conference held on the NOBTS campus Nov. 6-8. Church growth experts and seminary professors from across the country gathered to discuss the topic of “Growing a Church in Post-Modern America.”

The 22-year-old woman in the video told of having tried Catholic churches, Baptist churches, Buddhist temples and even aura readings but finding nothing compelling in organized religion. She agreed that the Bible has “good morals” but denied its absolute truth.

Conference participants watched the video screen in a somber silence as Lindsey said things like “I’m smoking God.” Knowing nods confirmed that many in the crowd had encountered individuals like her.

The beliefs of the young woman filmed on the streets of New Orleans are common among those the church is trying to reach today, McRaney said. The challenge, he said, is: If the church is to grow, it must find a way to reach people like Lindsey.

True church growth, he said, only will come through personal evangelism, sharing the premise of his recently published book “The Art of Personal Evangelism.” Because of the changes in culture, he noted that the methods of evangelism that worked well with past generations are not effective with the current one.

“All of our evangelism methods have been geared toward the intellectual side,” McRaney explained. “How you feel about it doesn’t really matter. Theologically, that is correct, but how people are processing truth is the issue.”

Logical evangelism presentations worked well with modern thinkers. When they processed truth they started with logic, the professor said. The starting point for postmodern individuals, however, is their feelings, and then they work toward logic, he said.

While the changing culture will require different evangelism methods, McRaney said Christians must share the same foundational message.

Door-to-door evangelism and one-time encounters worked well with those in the modern generation. McRaney said the opposite is true for those of the postmodern mindset. Multiple encounters are key in reaching this generation.

“The idea that we are going to walk up to Lindsey for the very first time and lead her to Christ probably won’t happen,” McRaney said. “We’re not going to get all her questions cleared up in the first meeting.”

Many people in the postmodern generation perceive themselves as spiritual, McRaney said. They see no need for Christianity because they are rarely around Christians. Christians, meanwhile, spend most of their time with other Christians and fail to understand those who are not, the professor said.

“We struggle with evangelism because we are isolated from the very people God has called us to reach,” McRaney said. “We don’t know their questions, we don’t know their issues.”

Creating dialogue and listening are key factors in understanding and reaching this generation, he said. The witness must learn to ask questions to keep the dialogue going.

“We are going to have to spend more time planting seeds,” McRaney said, noting that evangelism now requires a real interest and an investment in a person’s life.

NOBTS President Chuck Kelley also spoke during the three-day event. He began his session on training seminarians to reach the current generation by sharing a troubling statistic about Southern Baptist churches.

“Seventy percent of all Southern Baptist churches are plateaued or declining,” Kelley said. “Therefore, our purpose is to equip leaders to fulfill the Great Commission and [Jesus’] great commandments through the local church and its ministries.”

Kelley said that the faculty began developing a new curriculum in 1998 with the goal of reversing the decline in SBC churches. The faculty redesigned coursework around the key competencies a minister would need to lead a healthy church.

“We asked our faculty and alumni, ‘What does someone need to know when they walk in the door to serve a Southern Baptist church?'” Kelley recounted. “After identifying seven competencies, we started over from scratch and built a church-focused, competency-based curriculum designed to equip people to make a difference in the church.”

The seven competencies NOBTS focuses on are biblical exposition, Christian theological heritage, disciple making, interpersonal skills, servant leadership, spiritual and character formation, and worship leadership. Kelley said he believes this type of training at the seminary level will help churches begin to grow again.

“The faculty came up with a really outstanding curriculum,” Kelley said. “It is a much stronger curriculum in the classical areas with additional courses in biblical languages and philosophy. We also strengthened the practical aspects of our degrees.”

NOBTS added leadership training and interpersonal relationship courses to degree requirements. Discipleship courses also were added to the curriculum. The faculty wanted to equip students to disciple and get along with the believers they will be leading.

“It really does matter what you do in an academic setting,” Kelley said. “We want to raise up godly men and women who are passionate about the local church.”

Kelley said he keeps faculty and students aware of the challenges facing the local church, giving a “State of the Church” address each year in chapel and talking about local church issues in faculty meetings.

“The ASCG participants included some of the most effective church growth practitioners, teachers and consultants in North America,” said David Meacham, professor of church planting and interim director of the Leavell Center for Evangelism and Church Health at NOBTS. “The group operates as a think tank to tackle the challenges churches are facing today. This is also one of the primary objectives of the Leavell Center.”

Speakers at this year’s meeting, hosted by the Leavell Center, also included Gary L. McIntosh, professor of Christian ministry and leadership at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, Calif., and Eddie Gibbs, director of the Institute for the Study of the Emerging Church at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Both men have written and taught extensively on the topic of church growth.