The Last Piece of the Puzzle, Or, Why Evangelism Doesn't Work Anymore

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La Joconde

Have you ever done a puzzle? Imagine you’re sitting at your kitchen table, in front of a beautiful image that’s almost done – to be a bit artsy, let’s say it’s the Mona Lisa. There are just two or three pieces left to go, right in the middle of her face. As you place them – the pieces that form her smile – you feel the joy of seeing one of history’s greatest works of art, finally complete, before your eyes.

When I say “evangelism” here, I’m mostly talking about conversations (with friends or strangers) that are mainly looking to share the plan of salvation. Believe me, I know this approach. I have years of experience and many hundreds of conversations under my belt. With time it’s gotten less and less effective.

We’ve also tried changing tactics. Instead of aiming for a decision , we started to aim for a relationship – or to get to a second conversation. But even that didn’t work. People just weren’t buying what we were selling.

But in the past, it worked. The ministry I work for was born decades ago in the States, and imported its strategies into Canada in the 60s. During the 70s and 80s in Quebec, the big challenge for the student ministry was to find enough mature Christians to connect with and mentor all the new converts, there were so many people were responding to these simple presentations.

The method was so successful that sharing the plan of salvation became synonymous with evangelism itself, and what’s more, “saved by grace, through faith” became the very definition of the gospel.

The world has changed a lot since then, in thousands of ways. But the USA in the 50s and Quebec in the 70s had one thing in common : both were saturated with background Christianity. It was in the air. Churches, missions, service ministries, and people who served the world in the name of God were making the Kingdom of God visible – and that doesn’t even touch on all of the traditions and cultural beliefs of a society where the great majority practise Christian faith (in one way or another).

For people who already had all of these points of reference, people who had seen, again and again, what the Kingdom of God is, all that was needed was the last piece of the puzzle to see the whole picture.

But let’s come back to the kitchen table, but this time, it’s empty. Before you are just two or three puzzle pieces, all mottled shades of yellow. You look at them, confused, trying to imagine the image they came from. Beside you, a friend is excitedly trying to explain that these pieces, this smile, is the most beautiful work of art ever made. The artist spent years creating it.

We look a lot like this confusing friend when we try to boil the gospel to sola fide and sola gratia. Yes, without them, the great work of God is incomplete. But without having seen the rest of the picture, nobody will understand the allure of the smile.

So why doesn’t evangelism work any more? Because it never did work, alone. If certain ministries could dedicate themselves exclusively to this task, they were building on the work of other organisations, churches, and individuals that were putting the rest of the image together.

Next post : Rebuilding the parish

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