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The Sociology of Evangelism

Many years ago I worked as a sales and marketing manager for a high end internet consultant company in Edinburgh. My job was to generate leads that converted into sales and build a good rapport with new clients. This is a classic job for an evangelist. My clients included The Royal Bank of Scotland and the Church of Scotland, I remember registering the domain name www.churchofscotland.org.uk at a time when the internet was a relatively new phenomenon and most people had not yet realised how it was going to change our lives. I suppose that's what pioneer evangelists do, they see the trends coming, communicate in a way that makes sense and connect people to a new way of thinking and practice.


There is a sociological aspect to this. Sociology is the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society. It asks questions like "how do people interact with each other? Where do people receive their sense of identity or belonging? It considers things like physical environment, poverty and wealth, population change, culture shifts, and patterns of social relationships. It helps us understand why people make the choices they do, and what influences their lifestyle.


A mature evangelist tends to be a good sociologist. They are not using a one size fits all approach, they are measuring and feeling out the cultural temperature to see where there is a way to make a connection. It is cross cultural mission which could be across an ocean or across the street. Most of us are communicating within our own language and culture but as a Christian especially in the secular societies of the West we definitely have to learn to share our faith in culturally relevant ways.


When the apostle Peter was told in Acts 10 to go to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion his response was negative and resistant because it was such a culture shift. Yet God says to him "‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." (Acts 10:15) We are meant to reach out to people groups and cultures that are far removed from a christ centred culture and it is often our neighbour, our work colleagues or family member (as well as those in other nations). How do we do this? Are there sociological tools to help us? One of my favourite diagrams and tools is the Engel Scale (which I have mentioned before). There is a great three minute YouTube explanation showing how it works at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7R3Oxw5zsY.


In the book of Acts you can see the sociological struggle for the early church. They began as a Jewish sect based in Jerusalem called Followers of the Way. Jesus as their Messiah is the fulfilment of their Jewish faith and their expectation is that the Roman oppressors would be overthrown and a new government would form in Jerusalem in the style of King David and the glory days. Is it any wonder they overstayed their welcome in Jerusalem and it took persecution to scatter them to obey the Great Commission? It was a huge leap for them to see the good news as a cross cultural, global movement. When Peter went back to tell the apostles that he had shared the gospel with a gentile household, and a Roman centurion this challenged all of their sociological expectations. The Book of Acts basically records their journey from an inward looking, culturally bound sect to an outward looking, culturally fluid disciple making movement from every culture and society.


One of the dangers for the church in the West is that it too becomes an inward looking sect, a kind of remnant mindset takes hold, resisting the pressures of a godless society. A better sociological understanding would be to see the church as a catalyst, as a counter cultural force for change. Working alongside culture, finding the connections, discovering where God is already at work, building bridges, listening to people's needs and concerns, and helping them see where Jesus makes sense in a world that is uncertain. Jesus had to bring the kingdom of heaven into their midst before people were ready to follow him.


The sociology of evangelism is a skill. It means watching for trends like increased google searches for prayer or more people watching online church during coronavirus lockdown. Then it takes prayer and practice to learn how to make the connections, how do we strengthen links, meet needs, be authentic, challenge in a culturally relevant way? If we stay within our church bubbles this will never happen.


However the good news is many churches in the West see the opportunity. We realise that secular promises are empty and have failed to live up to their claims of life without meaning, without a spiritual dynamic that feeds the soul. People are hungry for something else and the church must learn how to share its life, how to communicate well. For example, during lockdown, my wife and I have been helping the local food banks with deliveries and I am in discussion with a partner mission agency to set up a new food bank in our church building. This is sadly a new sociological reality. We have a CAP debt centre knowing with lockdown that financial challenges are coming for many. I am running a resilience group supporting people with mental health challenges especially around anxiety, the pandemic has created a lot of stress for people. Food poverty, financial challenges, mental health distress, are all sociological factors that effect our communities and cultural atmosphere. In order to be good evangelists we must understand and respond to these sociological factors.


I encourage you, get involved or share stories, we all need to hear good news.

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