BREAKING THE SILENCE - Speaking of Faith

May 22, 2009

When it comes to the sharing of the Christian faith outside of the church we observe a common silence among many of the people of God, their pastors and congregational programs. There are many reasons for the silence and many hopeful remedies.

E. Stanley Ott - PCUSA Evangelism Consultation at Stony Point, NY

 For more information on the Consultation see 


 This Consultation on Evangelism comes at a strategic time in the life of the church. I am witnessing a greater interest among pastors and people across the denomination for genuine congregational vitality and missional endeavor to a level and to a depth I have never seen before with a great desire to see as it happened in the Book of Acts, the church grew in faith and numbers (Acts 16:5). The church by nature has three priorities, doxological, communal and missional. Doxological as we worship God, communal [koinonia – our fellowship] and missional [missio dei – the mission of God]. Our missional calling and one of its primary dimensions, evangelism, is one of the dimensions of our missional calling is among the six great ends of the church.

Luke 4:18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. It is the word of Jesus Christ preached in public or shared in private in ways that calls people to faith in and followership of Jesus. Therefore we are all to be ready always to give an answer to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and reverence” wrote the apostle Peter. As Jesus said, "Follow me and I will make you fishers of people." Mt 4:19 (NRSV) It is time for us to bless the nets that have worked in the past and take up the new nets the Holy Spirit is providing for today. This will mean a new vitality for the church, the redeployment of God’s people and pastors as witnesses and our reengagement with the culture. Getting a handle on what evangelism is

Within contemporary Presbyterianism there are some fairly diverse views of evangelism. Some view it as speaking about Jesus Christ and calling people to faith. Some believe evangelism is how we live rather that what we say. I understand evangelism to happen in four movements: sharing the good news of Jesus Christ in sensitive and effective ways, calling for faith in and followership of Jesus Christ and participation in the community of believes, relying on the power and the timing of the Holy Spirit and leaving the results to God (because only God can soften the human heart). At its heart evangelism, euaggelion, is proclamation, to announce good news. It is to bear witness to the reality of God and the person of Jesus and to call people to faith and followership. The Silence of the Church

So how is our church doing with its practice of evangelism today? The research by Martha Grace Reese reported in her Unbinding the Gospel series discovered only 150 mainline congregations (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Lutheran and so on) out of a pool of 30,000 congregations that baptized five or more adults a year. With only one half of one percent of the congregations studied showing demonstrable evangelistic fruitfulness it led her to ask the question, “How well are mainline churches helping new people become Christians? Her answer, “Very badly.”

Five times in the New Testament we discover the phrase, “seen and heard.” For we cannot keep from speaking (it has to come out) about what we have seen and heard. Acts 4:20 NRSV Those in the early church were vividly aware of the reality of God and the person of Jesus and they just overflowed with their speaking about it. By contrast the church of which we are a part today majors in silence and not in speaking. What is it about your experience of God in Jesus that would make you want to share it with other people? For you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. Acts 22:15 NRSV

The Silence of the People of God

Let’s talk about this silence as it relates to the people of God, to the pastors of the people of God, and to the church programs of the people of God By silence I do not mean our preaching is silent or our stands for compassion and justice are silent because in word and deed we often speak volumes but I mean the silence of those who could speak of the reality of God and the person of Jesus and invite people to faith and followership – and don’t. In the vast majority of cases, mainline Christians today do not speak about their faith in a personal conversational way, even when given an obvious opportunity to do it. Although Francis of Assisi is famously reported to have said, “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary use words,” I can only imagine that today he would have eliminated the words “when necessary.”

Ben Johnson, when he was Professor of Evangelism at Columbia Seminary, in his book Speaking of God wrote, "The lack of art and passion in God-speech [candid, spontaneous, natural conversation about the presence and activity of the Creator] has reached a crisis of major proportions in many mainline congregations." In other words, we rarely us words like, “Jesus, Lord, God grace, faith and so on,” in normal conversation with other Christ followers much less those outside the faith. I often ask parents of children of all ages, “Have you talked of your faith and experience of Jesus with your children and grandchildren? Have you encouraged their faith and followership of Jesus by speaking to them?” – and the vast majority have not done so assuming it to be the job of “the church.”

Bearing witness is one of Christ’s clearest desires for his people yet in our day there are many reasons for their silence. In no particular order:

1. They are ignorant of the great truths about their faith. Stephen Protheros’ recent book “Religious literacy” is one of a variety of assessments that all conclude our people have little understanding of the faith they profess.

2. Add to that the ignorance of the culture of the basics of Christian faith. Familiarity with the teachings of the Bible used to be part of the background for everyone even the non-believer which meant evangelism didn’t require an explanation of terms. One reason for our silence is that it talking to people about faith issues is a challenge in our post-modern world because they may have little clue as to what we are talking about and “spirituality” has come to mean different things to different people.

3. Most congregational programming is centered in an audience orientation in which one person does the speaking and the members of the audience are consumer listeners. As a result they have little experience of speaking of spiritual matters. You don’t learn to talk if all you do is listening. You learn to talk by talking.

4. Religious speech is increasingly unwelcome in the public square and people carry that feeling into the private square with a commensurate silence. In Star Trek series that has spanned three generations of viewers, the most prominent principle was called The Prime Directive. It was a policy of non-interference – and generations took it to heart. As though Jesus said, “Go into all the world and do not interfere!” He said the exact opposite: Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.

The silence has some generational overtones. Our seniors learned to think of religion as private while the under 30 year olds today talk, text and twitter about anything and everything. Yet, given the religious illiteracy of the day they often don’t have the knowledge or heart to draw their friends into specific acts of faith and followership. There are other dimensions of silence about God for the majority of the people of God in mainline congregations, but those will suffice for now.

On the other hand, we know not everyone is silent about their faith. There are many Christ followers of all ages who have found ways to speak of the reality of God and the person of Jesus in sensitive, winsome and fruitful ways.

The Silence of Pastors

What about the silence of our pastors, silence in personal conversation and even in preaching about the specific call to faith in and followership of Jesus? Most of our pastors are much like the people they pastor. Their experiences of learning to speak openly, winsomely and clearly about their Lord in one-on-one conversations is that of the congregations they came out of, which typically means not much. Although educated in biblical and theological foundations in our seminaries with an emphasis on public speaking, little emphasis is place on faith sharing in either public or private venues – and by faith sharing I mean both bearing witness to the reality of God and to the person of Jesus and calling people to faith and followership. Steve Hayner, Associate Professor of Evangelism at Columbia, teaches a number of courses on evangelism. He tells me that 20% of the students at Columbia take his courses but they are not a part of the M.Div. curriculum and that none of our seminaries require even a single course predominately focused on evangelism.

Certainly we have many pastors with a heart to call people to faith both in interpersonal conversation and in their preaching. Recently I attended a meeting of pastors interested in encouraging the upcoming 2010 Lausanne World Congress on Evangelism in Cape Town. Present were pastors from the left and right and inside and outside of the mainline whose common heart is a warmhearted, fruitful evangelism leading to both spiritual and societal vitality.

The Silence of Program

A final dimension of the silence to mention is that of the typical programming in the local church. Most church programs assume their participants are Christ followers. Whether luncheons with guest speakers or Bible studies or service mission efforts very little formal call to faith and followership is offered to participant with the express intent of introducing them to a followership of Jesus. It is easy for a person whose faith and followership is unclear to sit in any number of typical church programs today and never hear anything that would move them a specific embrace of Jesus Christ. Darrel Guder has written, “Congregations still tend to view missions as one of several programs of the church. Evangelism when present, is usually defined as member recruitment at the local level and as church planting at the regional level.”

I recently spoke with pastors in Warren, Ohio, Tucson, Arizona, and San Antonio. Each of their congregations had almost completely committed church facilities during the week to various programs of compassion and justice from food for the hungry, to child care for the lower income, to care for the homeless and on and on. Each of them realized that while their missional justice was bearing fruit in their communities, at the same time their congregations were losing numerical momentum and that they were neither introducing people to faith nor drawing them into the fellowship of the church.

Remedies for Breaking the Silence

What are some ways in which we may break the silence? Many years ago W. Edwards Deming said of human organizations, “The present system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” While there are clearly pastors and people of God who speak winsomely and persuasively in calling people to faith and followership, given Martha Grace Reese’s assessment that we are doing evangelism very badly, clearly the results we are getting are less than the fruitful results we’d like to see. So what are some possible remedies to enable us to break the silence?

Two essential issues are front in center – first giving people a “heart to impart,” a desire to impart their faith to others. While issues of heaven and hell have moved many people over the millennia to share their faith and still move some, many more people today are moved or can be moved to speak of the reality of their God-experience because of the wonder of the God-experience in their own life journey. Second equipping the people of God with the capacity clearly to articulate their faith and call others to faith.

This would suggest that to break the silence first we need the transformational church and by transformational I mean a congregation that so engages its people in the experience of God that their lives are changed and the people know it and want to talk about it. This is what great Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood called “the incendiary fellowship.” And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Everyone was filled with awe. What an exciting congregation in Acts 2. They knew God was doing something among them and they were excited about it. And God was growing their church in both faith and numbers daily – growing deep and growing wide.

Second, to break the silence requires an outward missional mindset of God’s people that they are sent to serve those outside the faith. On a visit to Japan I saw two kinds of congregations – the “enclave” church whose people huddled together as “the few” believers among a 98% non-Christian nation and the missional church whose members were totally motivated to speak of their faith to that same 98%. We break the silence as we take to heart the words of the Halverson Benediction, “Wherever you go God is sending you, wherever you are God has a purpose in your being there. Christ who indwells you has something he wants to say and do through you where you are – believe this and go in his strength and power.”

Third, the only way to break the silence is to learn to talk and we learn to talk by talking. We learn to speak is by speaking. In fact when our three children were infants you never found them with a binkie pacifier stuck in their mouths. We wanted them to express themselves. The result is three very verbal adults and two crazed parents! You cannot learn to speak about your faith only by listening even if you are listening to some really great preaching and teaching. The architecture of most church programming centers on an audience orientation in which people listen to one person speaking.

One remedy for the silence is to move to large group – small group balance. That is to affirm the teaching preaching dimension of the church but add the face-to-face dimension. When people are in small groups for Bible study and spend time engaged in Bible study, sharing and prayer for one another, they learn to speak words of faith, what Ben Johnson called “God-speech” to one another (See Word-Share-Prayer under the Resources tab of And once they are comfortable speaking to fellow believers about their experience of faith it is much each to speak to those outside the faith or communicate with them online bearing witness to God’s reality and the person of Jesus and calling them to faith and followership.

Other remedies for the silence include training in the difference between friendliness and hospitality, taking courage, structuring church programming with entry points for new persons, teaching ministries how to “call-equip-send” people into faith and out to serve. And always remember, the master key to evangelism is the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit with whom we cooperate.

We pray that the Spirit will give us opportunity for faith sharing just as the apostle said, “Pray for us, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ.” Colossians 4:3 The Greek word katartismos is typically translated “to equip” but also has the meaning of repairing the nets. Its time for us to show honor to the nets we have used in the past, to repair some of the nets of today, to take up some new nets and go fishing!

 © 2009 E. Stanley Ott