To many Christians evangelism is a terrifying concept, but it's a vital part of Jesus' call. Bonnie Yule-Kuehne, Vice-President of Alpha International, spoke to Christian Today about what that looks like in a digitally-obsessed society, and ever-changing cultural landscape.
Why is evangelism so important?
If I was going to look at an overarching theme, I'd want to look at that tragic verse in Judges [2.10], which talks about the generation after Joshua's generation. They've journeyed across the desert, then the new generation came through and forgot the story. Every new generation needs a fresh expression of the gospel, and there's an urgent need in this generation now. That's the overarching theme, or foundational platform: the need for each generation to know the story afresh, and the urgency of that.
I would say it's a challenge for every one of us, but our mission for Alpha is that we want to equip and help the Church in its mission to reach people with the good news of Jesus. We're not a parachurch, the organisation is here to serve the Church in the great calling that's given to the Church. We're equippers; to support and be servants to the Church. As they say, God only has one plan for how he wants things to happen, and it's the Church.
Does evangelism have to adapt to cultural or social changes?
Understanding our times, what that means and how important it is to evangelism...is incredibly important. There are five principles I would hang the conversation on.
Starting with the why – we often focus on what and how we're doing evangelism, rather than the why...it's so important for us who are passionate about evangelism, though everyone should be evangelists in the Church. It's about one life being changed; Jesus came for the one.
The second principle is understanding our times, the cultural scene, where are we now? It's especially important in that example we've talked about with the verse in Judges. With the digital landscape that we exist in, what are the feelings around authority? Those are big points in our times today, and I think especially when we're looking at the next generation...we're seeing greater continuity in the younger generations globally than we've ever seen before. They have such access to each other, as long as they speak the same language; it's massive. The digital world makes the world very big, and yet the response to the world being so big from us is very small...We live in times of incredible access, and yet incredible loneliness.
The next principle is a term that Al Gordon loves, which is 'make useful stuff.' You can make great stuff, stuff that looks beautiful, but underlying that – is it really useful, does it fit the purpose, does it do what you want? Make useful stuff.
The next is breaking the mould. How often do we consciously start completely afresh with a blank piece of paper, completely getting your head out of the game that you're already in?
The last one is that you can't do anything with evangelism unless you've got prayer. And we've seen that when we look at countries growing with Alpha, and we've looked around, the number one difference is prayer. And it doesn't mean as long as you've got a huge group of people praying then it's an instant success, but it's ongoing, year on year. We know that if we want to reach people with the good news of Jesus, then we're going to reach them on our knees. That's the foundation; the starting point. We start with why (reaching the one), which drives us to understand our times, which drives us to make useful stuff and break the mould.
Is evangelism more difficult now we're less focused on community than we perhaps once were?
It's interesting, we are focused on community differently, but I wouldn't say less. It's inherent in the human heart; God created us for community, and...there's a need in the human heart that is not being fulfilled. It's led to massive loneliness, and it means that the Church, and we are the Church, have an opportunity that we're not stepping into. We are the community of God, we have something to offer.
How does Alpha deal with evangelism in a global context?
Alpha anywhere in the world consists of sharing hospitality (which could be a glass of water under a tree in Africa or a corporate lunch in Hong Kong), a talk (which could be given live, online or by DVD) and a small group discussion. What happens in the small group is what is continuous all around the world - the small group is the heart of Alpha. It's 100 per cent consistent in the 169 countries that we work in, because it is the coming together, not with a leader but a host who facilities a discussion. It is experiencing a glimpse of the community of Christ in the small group.
I was talking to one of our board members this morning, and last night he went out to dinner with a helper from the small group that he came to faith in 15 or so years ago. That's what happens in Alpha. There's something about meeting in a small group, it's like breathing in the air of faith, taking in what does coming to faith mean just as much through experiencing as hearing. Experience is so incredibly important to the next generation...and to where we are today.
What about evangelism for the next generation?
If you look at the Judges verse, we have a generation in the UK (and it's the same in many countries, though not all) where the older generation knew God, but there's an urgency because the next generation has not been handed the baton. That handing over of the baton, if you think about running a race and the older generation has been running with a baton of faith, there is a moment of passing on, but if the baton gets dropped, then we're in deep trouble. Picking it up again has a significant impact on the momentum going forward, and where are we in that process? I don't think you can say globally, you have to take it country by country, but each and every one of us needs to be looking at that as the mission of the Church, to give people the opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus and develop a relationship with him.
Each person has a role – when I hand over the baton, it doesn't mean I'm done. But if I don't let go of the baton, if I continue holding it, what does that mean as well?
So how important to all this is raising up young leaders?
It's incredibly important, and it isn't just the young leaders who are incredibly important, but the people doing the raising up [as well]...It doesn't matter what the context, when the leader is really clear on raising up and leading the next generation, it has an impact in the community and those around them in the way that they engage with faith.
Bonnie Yule-Kuehne is speaking on 'The Future of evangelism' at the Future Conference on June 22. Hosted by the London School of Theology, it will look at the future of faith in the UK and include a number of short talks by speakers including Professor of Evangelism at Drew University, Leonard Sweet, and Aaqil Ahmed, head of Religion & Ethics at the BBC. More information and tickets here.