A recent survey of over 2,700 Christian leaders in Canada found that 66% of them say that evangelism is not a priority in their faith communities.
Shaila Visser, the executive director of Alpha Canada, says the study's findings could be concerning. Alpha conducted the survey in partnership with the Flourishing Congregations Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary, Alta.
"We wanted to hear from pastors across the country and in all the different church traditions to see what was their thinking on evangelism, particularly as we as we looked out at the culture," Visser says about the reason to conduct the study. "We know loneliness has been increasing over the last decade, social isolation, increasing and then when the pandemic hit, we've seen an increase in mental illness, people are very dissatisfied with their lives right now."
Listen to the full conversation:
Visser says that this has become known as the year of "the great resignation" as people become dissatisfied with jobs and decide to try new things. "If we look out at the culture around us in Canada or even in the Western countries," Visser says, "we realize there's an opportunity for the church to really say to the world, 'you know Jesus is the hope and the peace that you're looking for.'"
However, churches across the country do not even share the same language on what evangelism is, let alone a plan to evangelize. The survey notes state that "At the outset of the survey, we defined evangelism as 'sharing the good news of Jesus with lapsed/non-Christians in such a way that people want to know and follow Him as Saviour and Lord.'
"The research, however, showed that we don’t actually all agree on the definition of evangelism. But rather, definitions and aims surrounding evangelism are complex and diverse. This is evidenced by the varied language and terms used by both paid and voluntary church leaders when speaking about evangelism as well as the often conflicting views on the central goals and aims of evangelization."
Visser says Canadian churches could be missing out on an important time in history. "If church leaders aren't thinking about making evangelism and making Jesus known in their community, or a priority, then we're going to miss this moment where culture is hurting and asking for help."
The Connections podcast: real life, real faith
For many Christians evangelism now means showing rather than saying. Forty-five percent of respondents say that showing one's faith through their actions is now the most common method of evangelism encouraged among those in their congregation. Verbally sharing the gospel is fourth on the list at 33 per cent.
Perhaps most surprising in the survey, Visser says, is that 46 per cent and 48 per cent of pastors who work with children and youth respectively feel that it is wrong to share one's faith with the hopes that person will leave their faith to become a Christian.
"That was really surprising to us," she says. "We anticipated that different generations would have different perspectives, but we were surprised at how many of the children and youth pastors just didn't think that was a priority, or that it was even right to do so."
An opportunity to equip and mobilize
Visser says the research provides an opportunity for pastors and church leadership to start discussions around evangelism in their communities and start to nail down some definitions and decide what's important to them. She says that if faith communities decide evangelism is important to them then they can start to figure out how they'll do evangelism.
"I think it's first starting off asking does the leadership of the church have a heart for people to come to know Jesus? If so, what's the prioritization? How are we going to do that? Where are we at as a church? Do we need to train for it? Because we also found out in the research 55 per cent of Canadian congregations don't equip for evangelism, so there's a number of conversations about conviction and then about equipping the congregation.
"So if the conviction is there amongst the staff and the leadership, then you move to the practical sense of what does it mean to envision the congregation, tell stories, invite them into a bigger story. And then, hopefully, get some real equipping and training into the life of the church so that they know how to do it."
The survey was conducted online between May and July of 2021. Respondents were anyone involved in paid or voluntary congregational/parish leadership in Canada. While it sought out a diverse sample of leaders based on gender, age, geographical area, theological tradition and size of the congregation, researchers say they realize that some groups may be underrepresented.