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Missional Congregations for a New Moral Landscape

The revivalistic style of evangelism originally popularized in the United States during the Second Great Awakening is no longer effective in much of North America. Reliant on propositional arguments about the nature of God, humanity, and sin, and led by professional evangelists, this sort of evangelism was producing diminishing returns by the end of the twentieth century.

This was not just a matter of fewer unchurched people responding to evangelistic efforts, but fewer Christians practicing evangelism. A church member might be asked to invite a friend to come to a church event, but the professionals, clergy and evangelists, would do the heavy lifting of bringing someone to faith.

Today, Christians are reticent even to extend this invitation. A major reason for this has been a change in the North American culture. Where the culture broadly accepted a Christian cosmology in the past and granted prima facie credibility to the institutional church, it now looks elsewhere for inspiration and ethical guidance. The moral landscape had changed, and the church is no longer the presumptive exemplar of it.

By the early 2000s, it had become clear that not only evangelism, but how congregations operate in North America needed to be reconceptualized.[1] [1] To do this, congregations with a renewed understanding of God’s mission need to develop strategies for offering a Christian witness to people who are being formed in the new moral landscape.

A New Moral Landscape

The shift in North American culture is not a simplistic rejection of religion. Rather, it is a realignment of the commitments of Modernity. Modernity taught that the individual is the seat of reason, and that through the use of that reason anyone can discover absolute truths about the nature of the universe. This is the foundation for scientific enquiry: we pose a question about how the natural world works and then use our reason to apply the appropriate tools and measurements to answer that question in a verifiable way.

As the scramble to place our faith in “science” to address the COVID-19 pandemic proves, we have not let go of this core belief of Modernity. We still hold onto a belief in universals. However, these universals are not restricted to what we can determine through reason and empirical experiments. We also want universal touchstones that provide us with common points of social interaction and purpose.

Social causes offer this common sense of purpose. These causes are universally acknowledged as essential to be addressed, such as climate change, ending the COVID-19 pandemic, or providing the poor with the resources to have a decent standard of living. Backed by some level of scientific enquiry, they provide a presumptive point of universal agreement for people to support.

While we desire universals, we do not want to become ensnared in a web of meaning generated by these universals. To defend against this, we modify the individualism of Modernity. Individuals are not just seats of reason but are identity creators. Identities are a bricolage of whatever individuals find meaningful. This meaning is free from the constraints of reason and the demands of the universals. It is also unassailable. To disagree with someone, even on reasonable grounds, is only allowable if what is being disagreed with is not something the person claims as part of their identity. If the disputed issue is part of what person claims as their identity, to question it is the height of hubris and offensiveness.

The need to express one’s identity is visible in the cultural insistence on everyone having a voice that should be welcomed and affirmed in every conversation. Regardless of whether the issue being considered is a new discovery confirmed through rigorous scientific testing, the latest popular video, politics, or anything else, everyone is encouraged to share their opinion about it. Consider the proliferation of “like” and “dislike” buttons, comment sections, and reviews across the internet. We may be required to acknowledge that something is a universal touchpoint in our culture, but we are not required to fall into lockstep in how we view it provided we do not fall too far outside the accepted beliefs about social causes. Our identity is too important. The universals must bow to our identity, not our identities to them.

The difficulty of cultivating this identity is that it is not grounded in anything beyond our individual experiences. And, since we must constantly defend it, it leads us to exhaustion. There is no way we can keep up with everything that clamors for our attention, so we end up offering merely performative claims about much of what we encounter, or we shrug our shoulders and absent ourselves from social discourse, such as by “deleting Facebook.”[2] [2]

This leaves us in a bind. The new moral landscape is one that simultaneously demands that we accept universal claims, honor everyone’s identity as valid, yet assert our identity constantly lest we are swallowed up by what is not meaningful to us. This dilemma leaves room for new missional strategies for offering the gospel to those who inhabit this landscape.

Strategies for Missional Leaders

Congregations have long operated with a stepped process for people to join them. First people attend a congregational event, such as worship. If they return enough times, they might go to a new member class. If they complete the class, they might take membership vows. Once they take vows, they may be asked to serve in various volunteer roles. After volunteering for some time, they might take on leadership positions. From these positions, they may get involved with missions that operate beyond the church.

This sort of structure fails in the new moral landscape because it closes off the missional identity of the church. It also passes a tacit judgment at the outset: people are not good enough to participate in the church’s missional work until they are deemed faithful to the institution. This, coupled with the publicized hypocrisy of church leaders, leaves most people in North America cold.

However, there are strategies for leading congregations differently that allow for the church to enhance its missional activity while evangelizing those formed in the new moral landscape.

The idea of church membership fuels individualism. It makes congregations little more than collections of like-minded individual people. The missional strategy to overcome this is to see congregations as communities forged from genuine relationships.

To move a congregation into this missional stance requires breaking the notion that evangelism is an activity reserved to specific events carried out by professionals. Instead, it is naturally integrated into relationships that everyone in the congregation already has.

Each Christian in the congregation should build into their relationships the capacity to be comfortable conversing about faith or spiritual matters.[3] [3] This is not a matter of entering into phony relationships just to talk about these things or shoehorning these topics into conversations, but of intentionally relating to others in a way that allows such topics to arise out of the natural give-and-take.

Based on the credibility the Christian earns in these relationships, the Christian can invite their unchurched friends to activities where other Christians will be present. These do not need to be church-related activities. They could simply be watching a movie together or getting something to eat. The point of these invitations is not to present a propositional faith, but to encourage the unchurched person to enter relationships with more Christians. This broader exposure to Christians through genuine relationships will give the unchurched person a reason to consider the legitimacy of the Christian faith in a new way.[4] [4]

Finally, when appropriate, the Christians can invite their unchurched friend to a congregational activity. If this goes well, there should be intentional structures and practices within the congregation to facilitate more relationships, such as small groups or classes. In this way, the person becomes part of a Christian community.

The central point here is to move both Christians and those outside the church beyond thinking of themselves as individuals only. They are invited to identify with a larger community and with the God that community worships. This gives them a grounding in something deeper than just themselves and their personal experiences.

By providing a community of relationships that are undergirded by faith as a broader source of identity, the church would offer something more to the new person than just the ability to see beyond personal experience. It would offer the person an opportunity to rest.

A central tenet of the Christian faith is God’s love for all creation. In contrast to the cultural demand that the person performs in certain ways to defend the value of their identity, the church would provide the person a set of relationships that would accept the person as intrinsically valuable.

This is not to suggest that the congregation cannot maintain its moral standards and expect those who choose to participate in it to adhere to these.[5] [5] However, doing this would be guided by the core belief that all people are valuable regardless of their beliefs. Relationships within the congregation would be genuine and maintained regardless of whether people in the congregation were Christian.

This would also allow many congregational leaders an opportunity to rest. Rather than frantically trying to develop the latest and best outreach events to attract new members, they could emphasize the relational development generating naturally among the people in their congregation.

The new moral landscape demands at least performative action based on universally acknowledged social causes. The church should greet this as a logos spermatikos. It is good that people want to make the world a better place, especially among the most marginalized groups. The church can guide this from cultural performance to participating in God’s salvific mission.

Revivalistic evangelism is consumeristic, calling people to receive the gospel to consume the blessings God has for them. However, evangelism should also instill people with a sense of purpose, calling them to participate in God’s redemptive work. This is best done when a congregation has avenues through which new people can learn about and participate in congregational activities meant to carry God’s goodness into the world. These opportunities should be accompanied by leadership development to equip participants for this work. This should all be available to everyone, even those who have not yet made a commitment to Christ.[6] [6]

By placing its activities that are meant to bless the world at the front end of its relationship with others, the church demonstrates that Christians also care about culturally identified social causes. For example, Christians care about the physical, social, psychological, and economic impacts of COVID-19 and do not reject guidance provided by scientists or other experts in seeking to improve people’s standard of living and quality of life during the pandemic. Christians are concerned about this precisely because they are guided by God’s mission. This mission makes the church so committed to dealing with these issues that they will even trust and train those who are not committed to the church.

By emphasizing relationships to overcome the isolation and exhaustion of constantly defending one’s identity as well as equipping and sending new people into missional activities that address culturally recognizable social causes, the church lays the groundwork for introducing people to God in a new way. It is not introducing people to propositional beliefs about God, but to God as a dynamic Person who is active and engaged with the world, compassionate and relational, with a mission to redeem all creation. God’s people in the church are the visible manifestation of this.

The evangelistic invitation of a missional congregation to those who inhabit the new moral landscape is not to have them say yes to specific doctrines or undergo a specific ritual (though these both may occur when someone decides to identify with a specific Christian community). It is to “taste and see” what it means to be in relationship with the God who stands above the universals of the world and whose way of operating is to call people into dynamic relationships with each other and with the rest of creation. The goal of these relationships is to bless and grant rest.

A Missional Way of Being for the New Moral Landscape

The new moral landscape is littered with landmines for congregations that insist on pushing propositional truth as the primary means of evangelism today. It is a welcoming field for congregations that are ready to see the good in the cultural desire to engage with universals and that are open to building relationships with people in a way that lets them rest from the cultural demand for identity formation. To do this requires more than new practices of evangelism; it requires new ways of being a church. If a congregation undertakes this challenge, evangelism will naturally emerge through its relationships and activities. It will no longer be a discrete practice, but simply how the congregation is.

Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, at 11 a.m., Rev. Dr. Mark R. Teasdale, E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, will be installed as a full professor. This service will be available via Zoom and all are welcome to join. For details: Installation of Rev. Dr. Mark R. Teasdale to Full Professor of Evangelism | Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary [7]


[1] [8] The specific ethical nature of the need to reconceptualize evangelism was attested to by both evangelical and mainline Protestants. In 2011, InterVarsity Press published The Ethics of Evangelism, a book by Elmer Thiessen that addressed ethical concerns with the practice of evangelism. In 2015, during the World Council of Church’s North American Conference on Evangelism entitled “Reclaiming Evangelism,” much of the conversation revolved around the need to articulate a new ethics for evangelism.

[2] [9] Alan O. Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 23, 60.

[3] [10] Rick Richardson determined that 96% of congregations that grow evangelistically have people in the church that regularly engage in faith conversations with the unchurched. Rick Richardson, You Found Me (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 136.

[4] [11] Sam Chan, Evangelism in a Skeptical World: How to Make the Unbelievable News More Believable (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 44-45.

[5] [12] Beth Seversen found that churches that attract especially unchurched Millennials and Gen Z help the young people live into their moral aspirations. Beth Seversen, Not Done Yet (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020) 87-88.

[6] [13] This is a mainstay of Seversen’s argument. Augmenting the long-held notion that people must belong before they believe, she adds they must be allowed to “contribute before they commit.” Seversen, Not Done Yet, 94-96.