Counties UK has released a new book about how the Gospel can be shared effectively in the challenging climate of 21st century Britain, when many churches are closing their doors and struggling to attract young people.
Counties CEO, Martin Erwin, speaks to Christian Today about Making Jesus Known Today and Tomorrow and how Christians and churches can be confident in sharing the Gospel.
What was the inspiration behind the book?
Martin: There has been a loss of confidence in the Gospel. The evangelical church in the UK is struggling and shrinking back, so we wanted to offer something that would encourage Christians to share the Good News because it is still "the power of salvation for all who believe" (Romans 1:16). Our hope is that Christians and church leaders will not only read the book themselves but also consider giving a copy away to bless others.
Have the post-Covid environment and secularism presented additional challenges for evangelism?
Martin: Secularism does present some challenges but I think that rather than spending our energy fighting secularism, we might be better off embracing the opportunities that we do still have to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's about having confidence in the Gospel again because the Gospel can stand on its own feet and the Spirit of God can use what we say. The rise of secularism can certainly make us feel like we've lost ground but I think we need to think differently about it.
In terms of Covid, some interesting data emerged in the first few months that showed that around a quarter of Brits were searching for spiritual material online and much of that was Christian content. We also know that courses like Alpha and Christianity Explored saw an explosion in online engagement.
What this revealed is that, not very far below the surface, there is a deep yearning in people's hearts for meaning and purpose, so I am encouraged that Covid opened up a willingness in people's hearts to explore the faith.
Since the pandemic, churches may have seen a reduction in Sunday service attendance but there is no doubt that it has opened people's hearts to explore the Gospel in ways we didn't see before Covid. That should give us fresh hope.
What advice would you give to Christians struggling with a lack of confidence in sharing their faith?
Martin: The example of a golfer at my church comes to mind. After coming to a Counties conference, he felt inspired to be a witness in the place where he is, so he took the step of inviting his golfing friends along to our Carols by Candlelight service and about six of them came along with their partners. He wasn't a professional evangelist and he didn't go in all guns blazing! He just thought 'what can I do?' and took the simple step of inviting them to our carol service where the Gospel was shared and an invitation was extended to the next Alpha course.
So, I would say: look for those soft first steps and work with your local church to provide opportunities and events that you can invite people to where the Gospel will be shared - and then simply invite your friends along!
It sounds like partnership between churches and individuals is really important for evangelism?
Martin: That is key for church leaders. An evangelist friend of mine once said that one of the challenges in the UK is that we have a lot of evangelical churches, but they are not evangelising churches!
We need to create spaces and stepping stones for evangelism. Parent and toddler groups are hugely successful in terms of numerical attendance but many churches don't do a great job in creating next steps for these families.
Something churches can think about is whether there are any events they can run that are low-key but bring people one step closer to investigating Jesus.
I would really encourage church leaders to explore both disciple-making and what we call 'discipleship pathways'. How can churches make it as straightforward as possible for ordinary Christians to bring their friends to church?
I would really encourage Christians to pray the prayer of the New Testament church in Acts, which was: God give us boldness and courage. Faith is believing that the opportunities will come and the Holy Spirit will give us boldness in those moments to say the right thing and be a witness where we are.
What about the workplace?
Martin: I think the same principle applies. Previously I was the governor of a local school which was quite a secular environment but there were still some opportunities, even in this place, because people would open up to me knowing that I was a Christian, and that gave me the opportunity to offer to pray for them.
Some people may fear being turned down but that was never my experience. It just takes a little bit of boldness to introduce God into that space in the belief that He's already there and has gone ahead of us.
We must also remember that there are people who are searching and seeking. Just ask God for the boldness to have those conversations and gently take the opportunity where God gives them, trusting in what God is already doing and that He is simply asking us to join Him.
What approach should we take with young people?
Martin: The one thing about young people in general, and particularly teenagers, is that they really care about honesty and compassion. We might not share all their views but we do have to understand that it often comes from a heart of compassion and wanting the best for others. That means we have to be authentic; don't try to be something you're not. We don't need to hide who we are but we do need to be compassionate in how we share the Good News.
Are any digital pathways proving fruitful?
Martin: I would encourage churches not to drop online services altogether even though the pandemic is over. Don't just go back to where you were before but embrace digital opportunities to engage with people and create community and curiosity with regards to the Gospel.
One resource doing that really effectively is ChatNow.org, which is an online platform for people who need someone to talk to or who want to know more about Jesus. It connects visitors to a Christian volunteer to chat with online and they are having many thousands of conversations every month.
Even if digital doesn't feel like your area, try to connect with specialists and make links with ministries or organisations that already have the skills your congregation may not have.
What would you say to a smaller church that feels like it has limited budget or human resources for evangelism?
Martin: There can be a very big difference in mindset between churches that have been big in the past and are now small and struggling on the one hand, and churches that are small because they have just been planted.
With small churches that used to be big, they often struggle with a sense of loss and a feeling of crisis, and that mindset is probably the biggest obstacle to effective evangelism.
We work a lot with church planters and most of our church planting teams start with only a handful of people and either no congregation at all or a very small congregation of around a dozen people. Yet the mindset's completely different.
The difference between the two is their view of what is possible in God's hands. But my encouragement to all small churches, whatever their circumstances, is that smaller churches are statistically more effective at reaching people than larger churches. They may be the only live Christian presence in the town or neighbourhood.
The important thing is to ask God for clarity and boldness, and faithfully get on with what God has put in their hand. Just like Moses, when God told him to use the staff in his hand. It seemed like it was just an insignificant shepherd's staff but when given to God it became the source of miracle and wonder and transformation for the children of Israel. In that way, the seemingly small church, that could easily view itself in a negative light due to decline and loss, could actually be much more significant than it realises.
A wonderful example of that is a little church on the Somerset Levels that I visited recently. A few years ago, when they turned to Counties for support, they were on the verge of closing down and had only six people. Now they are starting a second house group. They've got a completely different mentality and they're not thinking about how small they are or that they can't do anything. Instead, they're moving forward with a different outlook and are thinking strategically about the impact they can make in their community. So don't lose heart; God begins great things through small things and that's always been true in the Kingdom.
Can anyone do evangelism and where's the best place to start?
Martin: I think it's clear that some people have a special calling to be an evangelist and in Ephesians 4 it tells us that God gives evangelists to the church to equip God's people for works of service.
But certainly, as Jesus tells us in Acts 1:8, all of his followers are called to be a witness. The question is: are we a good witness? Are we an impactful witness? What kind of witness are we making?
We can all be better equipped to do the work of evangelism and there are some simple things we can do, like reading books about evangelism that will challenge and inspire us. That's a Good Question by Canon J John is a good one and 10ofThose.com has some good books on this topic. Read some books that encourage you, learn something, and then give it a go.
It can be as simple as asking a question to a colleague at work. If you know someone is struggling, why not pass them on some Christian literature or a card and say 'I've been praying for you, and I came across this and thought it might help'.
Learn some small, simple first steps, then do them, and see what God will do - just like the little boy with the five fish and two loaves of bread. Give God the small thing in your hand and see what he can do.
So, to answer the question, not everyone is an evangelist but everyone can do evangelism and we are all called to be a witness where we are.
Surveying the UK Church at the moment, do you feel more optimistic or pessimistic about our current witness to the Gospel?
Martin: The Gospel has not lost its power and there are Christians in our nation who know and love Jesus and desperately want to know how to share that Good News with their friends. The more the Church has declined and shrunk, the greater that challenge becomes and the greater our dependence on God.
If you believe the predictions, the Church apparently won't exist by the year 2050 or something like that, but we know that's not true because that ignores the power and work of God. We're desperate and we certainly need to be on our knees for the state of the Church and the state of our nation, and we need to be praying for those who are lost and don't know Jesus.
But on that basis, I'm much more optimistic than pessimistic because we're either coming to the day when Jesus comes back and takes us home - and that can't be very far away - or we're coming to an opportunity for another outpouring of God's Holy Spirit on our nation.
God stores up the prayers of the faithful and I believe in these challenging times that the opportunities for the Gospel are greater than they have ever been. And the call on the Church to stand up and be bold in declaring the Good News of Jesus is greater than it has ever been and when we do that we will discover that the fields are ripe for harvest.
God has a harvest ready for us; we just need to be bold and step out. The heart behind our book is to say to people: the Gospel has not lost its power; Jesus is still Lord and the hope of all nations. So I am optimistic. It's on that basis that we're still here and still encouraging people to share the Gospel.