17 years ago, Tim Keller wrote about a form of evangelism that effectively engaged “an increasingly privatized, secular society.” Those of you who know the recent discussion about door-to-door evangelism and disagree with its use will agree with Keller’s assessment and method. Keller intends to explain how evangelism through networking is intended to create “a whole philosophy of ministry based on friendship evangelism.”
Predominant evangelistic methods have changed over the last century, as Keller observes how the 1930’s-1960’s = crusade evangelism, 1960’s-1990’s = visitation evangelism, and 1990’s-present = network evangelism. Visitation evangelism, as I explained in my last article, focuses on first places and practiced by the older, more traditional evangelicals while network evangelism focuses on third places and is practiced by many in the younger, more missional generation. Keller argues that “the more modern, the more secular, the more urbanized, and the newer cities and communities, the more these traditional programs do not seem to bear fruit.”
Let me make an observation here about the SBC–the context in which I serve. Most Southern Baptist churches are in the South and in rural/suburban areas where visitation evangelism is still the leading method. Visitation programs and outreach strategies such as F.A.I.T.H. appeal to a graying denomination in rural America where the front porch is about as “third place” as it gets. On the other hand, the new urban church planting movement in more secular cities recognize the unlikely profitability of methods of the 1960’s and instead are networking through relationships in third places. The former is crisis-driven, and the latter is process-driven; the former calls for decision; the latter calls for investment. Therefore, the difference in methodology is generational (1960’s vs. 2000’s), geographical (first vs. third), philosophical (visitation vs. network), and practical (crisis vs. process).
The four basic networks Keller brings out are (1) familial, (2) geographical (neighborhoods), (3) vocational (career/school associates), and (4) relational (friends not necessarily in the other networks). I find these categories helpful because it coincides with developing an evangelistic plan or strategy in the same way of using all there places. For instance, first place evangelism would include the familial and geographical networks (you could host neighborhood evangelistic studies or community groups in your home), second place evangelism coincides with vocational (work or school), and third place evangelism would be relational.
In a network-focused church, Keller says that “you will either be a seeker, a bringer, or a cell leader (follow-up) . . . or you are dead weight!” Unbelievers (seekers) are welcomed because every believer is expected to not only befriend them but bring them. Cell leaders are more mature believers who can assist the bringers in answering questions and assimilating them as they come to faith in Jesus. According to his network philosophy, Keller points out that there is an expectation “that the non-Christian will be exposed to the gospel at least several times on the way to commitment” and that “there are lots of opportunities for the seeker to list his/her questions and concerns, and for those issues to be addressed honestly.”
When I examine my evangelistic methods, I have to say that network evangelism and third places have been the majority practice, although I still do (unprogrammed) visitation evangelism on occasion. In network evangelism, not one relationship is to go untouched by the gospel, and therefore there is never a moment where we are not conscious of both our need for the gospel ourselves and the urgency to share it with others. This morning when I picked up my breakfast at Chick-fil-a with Camille and now talk with Audrey, Tom, and Alyssa at Panera, I am working to show the love of Christ, replace my agenda with seeking first the kingdom of God, and open my far-too-silent mouth to tell of the infinite value of knowing Jesus. Life is too short and Jesus is too glorious to leverage each moment with each person I meet for the advancement of the gospel in their heart and mine. God knows we need it. I just hope I show it.