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Moving from rally to relationship

Artwork by Journey
You may not be a member of any church. You may be Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. Whatever your race, whatever your religion, I’m going to ask you to come. Get up from your seats, hundreds of you, just get up out of your seats and come and stand quietly, right here, quietly and reverently.

THESE WERE familiar words to those who attended one of the rallies during the historic fifteen week Billy Graham crusade held in Australia in 1959.

The largest of the crowds gathered on a Sunday afternoon at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Every seat was taken, including the standing room and the royal boxes.

Official attendance was given as 143 000, the governor of Victoria read the Bible, President Eisenhower sent greetings, and someone in authority ordered noisy trains alongside the Cricket Ground be slowed to a crawl.

The nation was touched and transformed in a way that had never happened before or since, but the acknowledged reality is that evangelism in Australia is unlikely to ever be quite that dramatic again.

Evangelism in 2007 is different, relational and more personalised. Churches can no longer rely on the gifted preacher from the other side of the world to come and bring their community to faith.

One contemporary approach has been educational evangelism through programs such as Alpha and Christianity Explained courses.

The Alpha Course is a series of talks, usually delivered on video, addressing key issues relating to the Christian faith and generally packaged together with supper and small group time.

Over eight million people have attended Alpha courses world wide but Proserpine Uniting Church Minister Rev Wayne McHugh feels it runs for too many weeks and prefers the local Christianity Explained program.

“I have had experience in the last decade in somewhere near ten Christianity Explained courses, in which almost all participants have knelt with me and prayed to accept Jesus.

“Most participants are at least interested when they begin or they wouldn’t be there, but a small number of participants have been there for other reasons yet have still come to faith – to their own surprise.

“It has convinced me that the gospel message is still effective to attract people to faith in Jesus.”

National Consultant for Theology and Discipleship in the Uniting Church in Australia Rev Dr Robert Bos promotes the Becoming Disciples process as a flexible way to introduce people to Jesus and the life of faith.

He describes it as the front verandah of faith; an hospitable place providing a shady spot where family members can gather, enjoying cooling breezes and sharing the news of the day.

“Churches need such half-way spaces where people can be free to explore, to talk, to make tentative explorations, to form relationships.

“For strangers to be thrust straight into the formalities of worship can be as frightening as suddenly being dropped into a foreign country where the language and customs make little sense.

“People need time to ask questions, to grow into relationships, to have time to reflect and discuss with others in the security of a group.”

Redcliffe Uniting Church minister Rev Peter Armstrong looks to the “Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel and marvels at the mystery of God choosing to work in partnership with humankind.

He also identifies what he terms the “cringe factor”

“Not all of us are gifted to be able to lead every second person we meet through the ‘sinner’s prayer’, and when we have tried we have felt horribly uncomfortable, as have the people we have cornered.”

Synod Mission Consultant Rev Dr Graham Beattie has been developing a program called ‘Faith Story’ – a small group program to equip people to share faith.

“Personally, I’m motivated to find ways to share my faith that are true to who God is, true to my own experience.

“I know from experience that it’s helpful to have someone to help think through my faith.

“Having friends alongside me has helped me work my next steps in responding to God.”

Mr Armstrong said we tend to see and try to make the process of embracing faith very one dimensional, where it is actually very relational and can take a long time.

“A good question to ask ourselves is, ‘What is God is doing in the world, in our community, in our friends,’ and to ask him how we can co-operate with him in what he’s doing.”

Mr Beattie believes the goal of evangelism is not to get decisions but to make disciples.

“It’s vital that new believers are resourced for their own spiritual growth, helped to discover their own mission in the world and become thriving, proactive members of the Christian community."

Photo : Artwork by Journey