Training the Congregation in Faith Sharing

Training the Congregation in Faith Sharing
Wayne Zunkel

A first grader was talking about the recent fire in his school. “I knew it was going to happen,” he said. “We had been practicing for it all year.”

A Swedish study some years ago traced war preparation across recorded history and discovered that nations that prepared for war usually got war. The half dozen exceptions were when their preparation ended in the economic collapse of the nations involved.

We usually get what we prepare for. Paul said that long ago. Plant weed seedsand you’ll surely have a bumper harvest of weeds. Plant wheat and wheat is what you will surely get (Gal. 6:7). Wise people act accordingly.

Churches that plan for growth, talk growth, dream growth, prepare for growth often grow.

Attitude Is Important

I participated in a national committee on membership trends in the Church of the Brethren. First, we wrote to all of our state districts and asked the executives to give us the names of the three congregations in their districts that were growing the most and the names of the three congregations whose membership had declined the most.

We then sent identical questionnaires to each of these congregations. We asked the members to rate various aspects of their church on a scale of one to five, one being positive and five negative. Although the results are informal, the contrast in responses between growing and declining congregations is significant.

The growing congregations showed highly positive responses. To the question, “How do you feel about your congregation’s caring and fellowship?” 34.8 percent said they felt very positive. Regarding the worship and preaching, 17.4 percent felt very good. Regarding their denomination’s beliefs and practices, 8.9 percent were highly positive. In each instance, 1 percent or less felt negative.

On the contrary, among the declining congregations, only 6.2 percent (less than one-fifth as many), felt highly positive about their congregation’s caring and fellowship. Only 4.4 percent felt positive about the worship and preaching. And only 2.9 percent felt very, very good about the denomination’s beliefs and practices. In each of the declining churches, the percentage of those who felt negative in each area increased.

Our unscientific little sampling illustrated an important factor. Growing churches generally feel good about themselves. Declining congregations generally do not.

Believing Is Seeing

I have a friend who is a very good encyclopedia salesman. He insists that the primary factor to being good in sales is not training. The primary factor is believing in the product. If the salesman is not enthusiastic and positive, no amount of training can help very much.

Therefore, training a congregation in faith sharing must begin with attitude. We cannot sell what we do not believe in. If our general attitude is critical, if our image of our church is negative, if we do not really believe in the teachings and practices of the denomination to which we belong, it is doubtful that we will win anyone.

Not All Have the Gift, But . . .

I Peter 4:10 talks about each Christian being given special gifts from God for the good of all. One of the gifts listed is the gift of evangelism. Not every Christian has that gift. Various people estimate that less than one in ten Christians has the spiritual gift of being able to win others to Christ easily, naturally. But all of us have ties to other people. All of us can draw near to friends and neighbors and share our faith with them. It may not come naturally to us, but faith sharing can be learned.

In my early years, this kind of sharing was very difficult for me to do, even as a pastor. Then some things happened that helped to break that wall of fear for me. The first church I served, in inner-city Harrisburg, had launched what for us was a very large building program. We wanted to spend $250,000 to build a three-story, air-conditioned,

Christian education building which would extend from the front sidewalks to the back alley. It would be a seven-day-a-week tool to be used by us. We were convinced of its importance. But our denomination was not quick to fund such an inner-city undertaking. Nor could we get hank loans from the hard-headed bankers who wondered about investing in such an area.

Eventually, we contracted with a company to sell bonds which were guaranteed by a local bank, financed over a 14-year period, and paid back out of the first income of our weekly offerings. It was a safe plan, one which had never defaulted. But we had to sell the bonds. And we did. We sold them, first of all, to ourselves, and then to family members and close friends, and then to neighbors and acquaintances.

Once that reservoir of prospects was used up, we were forced to go to people we knew less well. I found myself talking to my barber. As a pastor, I like to be anonymous in the barber shop. I hate the greeting of, “Good morning, Rev.” which is said loud enough so that everyone there knows that a pastor is present and that they are to watch their language. I hate the phony talk and
the trite attempts to steer conversation to topics they imagine would be acceptable to a pastor’s tender ears. But this time, I found myself telling my barber that I was a pastor, telling about the church I served and its dreams for the future, and getting around to doing my best to sell some of those bonds.

I also talked to the man at a downtown men’s store who always sold me suits, to the checkout person in the supermarket, to the nurse and receptionist in my doctor’s office.

I was not yet talking about my faith. But I had begun to talk about my church.

Like Fishing

About that time, one of the members of my congregation took me fishing out on the Chesapeake Bay. On that fishing trip, I learned some things about catching people, as Jesus put it. Somebody asked the famous bank robber, Willie Sutton, why he robbed banks. He replied, “Because that is where the money is.” If you want to catch fish, Jesus said, you have to go where the fish are (Lk. 5:4-11). If you want big fish, you may have to head out into deeper waters.

That member, Murray Nell, told me that the big fish are not along the shore. The little fish are along the shore. The huge fish chase the big fish, and the big fish chase the middle-sized fish. And so, the smallest fish end up in theshallow waters where they are safe. He told me that with tuna, 25-pound fish may be found 18 to 20 miles from shore. But 65- to 70-pound tuna are generally 35 to 55 miles out.

I thought of the apostle Paul and his almost unbelievable invitation to King Agrippa. Paul asked Agrippa outright if he believed in the prophets, and he told him that he hoped Agrippa would become a Christian (Acts 26). Paul did not shy away from big fish. They were fair game as well as small fish.

Murray also told me that good fish always give you a struggle. Tiny fish can be reeled in almost without knowing they are there. But the big hummers give you a fight. I know that for me some of the strongest people I have had a part in landing for the church had been strong the other way in their former lives.

They had deeply entrenched patterns which many people thought made them beyond reach. They did not come quickly or easily.

Another thing that my neighbor told me was that catching fish requires imagination. A lure that works for one kind of fish will not work for another.

A lure that works on one day may not work on another. Good fishermen are often terribly superstitious about what to use and when and where.

Likewise, when we go fishing, if we are intent on making a catch, then we will not limit our methods. We will approach people differently. We will take the time to know the persons to be won, to enter into their lives at their point of need, to share sensitively and creatively the life we have found which has made our own worlds joyful and good.

Murray Nell also talked about the need to lure fish to where you are. He explained chumming, a practice of dropping bait over the end of the boat as the boat is moving so that it settles down to the bottom. The trail of bait leads the fish to you. We, too, must learn how to draw people to us. We must become better fishermen.

We can find joy in learning to fish, in finding ways to break through the walls that people have built about themselves and means to bring each hungry heart the food which it so desperately needs.

Helping Christians Verbalize

It is estimated that it takes “1,000 Christians an average of 365 days to win one person to Christ.” I Many people feel totally at a loss as to how to put their faith into words. But there are things which a church can do to help people begin to do this.

Once, on a very snowy Sunday, the adult classes in a church were thrown together. None of the teachers got there. There was no one with adequate preparation or self-confidence to teach. Yet there was a good group of people.

Someone brought out a stack of magazines and requisitioned a pile of colored construction paper and scissors and paste from the children’s supply room.

After a very brief and very informal opening, the same individual announced that each person was to make a collage of pictures and phrases from those magazines, a collage which would present his or her faith to someone who had never heard of it before. It seemed easy enough, nothing threatening or fearful. The group spent the last 15 minutes asking each person to explain what he or she had produced.

At the end of that session, one man, a businessman with many contacts and much influence, said the project had been fun for him. Then he added that until that day, he had never really shared his faith with anyone. He had never known how to go about it. Those moments of activity-almost child’s play-had made it easy for him to begin to put the deepest things he felt into words to express his faith.

Church School Assignments

One of the best church-school teachers I have known was a telephone executive who taught a class of younger couples in a church I served. One thing I remember about his classes was that almost every week, as he looked over the questions for the next week’s discussion, he would choose one of them, or sometimes think up one of his own. Then he’d ask one of the class members to take a few minutes and talk about that question during the next session.

He was doing several things. He was preparing unsuspecting people for possible future assignments as teachers. He was also training shy and inarticulate people in the fine art of putting into words the longings and convictions within them. And he was training young couples-many of them new Christians-in the skills of faith sharing.

Examining Our Attitudes

In addition to providing simple means for people to actually practice putting their faith into words, it is important to also work at the attitudes we mentioned at the outset. Paul Mundey, Staff for Evangelism in the Church of the Brethren, has prepared a most helpful inventory entitled Uncovering the Possibilities.’ It includes an “Awareness Questionnaire” which asks people to rate their own congregation from one to five on such varied areas as visibility, access, and the life and worship of the congregation.

It says, for example:

1. On a scale of one to five, our church property is…

Where one means “easy to find with clear directions signs”; and five means “like trying to get into Ft. Knox.”

2. On a scale of one to five, our church building and property is Where one means “attractive, efficient, and well maintained”; and five means “unappealing and messy.”

The survey explores the adequacy of the parking lot. It assesses the worship-“alive, relevant, challenging, a celebration of God” or “services as usual.”

It seeks to gauge the climate or attitude of the congregation, the church’s public witness, and members’ person-to-person witness.

It would be well worth any congregation’s time to develop such a questionnaire for itself and to ask all active members to think seriously about how they see themselves and the excitement they are thus able to bring to faith sharing.

The Most Effective Approach

Beyond a doubt the most effective faith sharing I do is not done by selling someone on something. The most effective faith sharing begins with very sensitive and prolonged listening. For me, I get valuable practice on airplanes when passengers next to me, usually strangers, begin to tell of their lives. As I listen and draw them out, they begin to spill their hurts and their fears, and to describe the challenges and opportunities they face. I need to practice the same skills with people who are interested in the church.

Sharing can happen with a friend over lunch in a restaurant or standing beside the car as you are both ready to leave. Often it happens when you least expect it. Your hand is on the door of your car. Some other topic comes to an end, and, almost as an afterthought, some deep feelings come tumbling out.

It is in listening that windows into lives are opened. Very often, a person is won with absolutely no effort on my part. None. I will be listening and caring. I may even wish I had the right words to push the person in a certain direction. I may breathe a prayer to God, “Do in this life what You will. Make me completely open to Your leading.” And sometimes, about that moment, the person begins to suggest what I wanted so much to suggest to him or her.

In the story Jesus told about a sower going forth to sow, the evangelist is God. Soil matters. Care matters. But God is the evangelist (Lk. 8:5). Later, in the midst of a popularity struggle in the early church, the apostle Paul wrote, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow” (I Cor. 3:6). It is always that way.

Evangelism is not gritting our teeth, screwing up our courage and doing it. Evangelism is opening our hearts to other hearts, listening, caring, sometimes offering a word or phrase of love and concern, and letting God have space to enter in and do His work.

Momma Kay

I need to tell you about Momma Kay, a member of one of the churches I serve.

For five or six years she had been there and I had not known of her unique gifts. She was an excellent, veteran waitress at a very good restaurant. She kept saying it was a place I should visit and finally I did.

I liked it and went back from time to time. Eventually, I learned to know some of the people who worked with her. Momma Kay was the name other workers there gave her. They loved her.

Then the phone calls began. Momma Kay would call and say that one of her friends at work needed to talk to someone. The worker was going through struggles in her marriage, or the husband and wife were on the verge of separation. Kay had said, “Why don’t you talk to my pastor?”

“Why should I talk to him’? What can he know?”

“He knows,” she assured her friend. “And he can help you.”

So we’d talk. After a while, I began to ask some of the workers I knew the best, “What happens? How does Kay do it? How does she seem to get people with needs to talk?”

The answers were almost all the same. “She adopted us. It’s like we are family to her. Sometimes I’ll be hard at work and pause as I pass her. I’m hurting or in trouble, but there isn’t time to talk. She senses something is wrong. She’ll make sure we get a minute together. She says very little. Sometimes, she simply puts her hand on my arm or smiles questioningly- I find everything spills out in a few minutes. Sometimes she has answers and sometimes she gets me to talk with you. She’s an angel face.”

Momma Kay is a good example of evangelizing by opening our hearts to the hearts of others.

The Simplest Form

The simplest form of evangelism is that seen in the early verses of John’s Gospel. The earliest followers, new to the faith, did not have extraordinary persuasive powers. They did not have magnificent little speeches all ready to go, like switching on a tape recorder. They had not memorized answers to the 12 hardest questions. They did not even have a list of spiritual laws.

After they met Jesus, they used but three words as they approached a friend or neighbor. Those three words were their key. Something within them was bubbling over, and what they said was, “Come and see” (Jn. 1:43-46). “Come and see”.

Someone who has changed my life. “Come and see” the most exciting thing I have ever known.

One of my church’s newest adult members, a woman who had not been in any church for years, says her friends do not understand her sudden interest in our church and things Christian. They have bad images of such things. Her newfound love is real. When a hike is planned on Sunday morning, or a meeting, or a social gathering, she says, “Sorry, I can’t do that. I’d love to. But something more important in my life is scheduled at that time.” That attitude encourages her friends to think: “I’ve got to go and see.”

If indeed the Church is the body of Christ, then its members are not sidestepping their task when each says to a friend, “Come with me. Come get the feel of a group of people that seem very special to me. Come try it. Maybe you’ll like it.”

A man once said, “If 1 had not been invited, I would not have come in. No matter how good the food, no matter how good the fellowship, I would not have come in.” If we want people to come and see we must invite them to do so.

On Spilling Over

When people share quietly, confidently about what matters so very much to them, things change.

I recall when I first bought my new smaller car. It had almost as much room inside as my middlesized, family car. It had more room in the trunk. It had front-wheel drive and only four cylinders. Once it got warmed up, it had almost the zip and pull of my former, larger car. And the best news was that my new car gave me 29 miles per gallon around town and up to 39 miles per
gallon on the open highway if I did not use air conditioning. Instead of $25 twice a week at the gas pumps, I was paying about $12 usually only once a week. On a trip across country, every time I stopped for gas, I told others at the pump about my new car and how much I liked it.

Faith is that way for people who find it a deep joy. Empty cups do not spill over. But cups full to overflowing do.


Before the session:

Prepare results of Congregational Survey. Have results duplicated so that every student may have a copy.

El Prepare these overhead transparencies: “Ways of Learning to Share,” “Big Fish,” and “Chumming.”

Ask someone to come prepared to read Acts 26.

If you want to do number five in the suggested lesson plan section, bring magazines, paper, scissors, and paste.

Reproduce copies of the song “The Joy of Our Faith,” found at the end of the chapter.

Suggested Lesson Plan

1. Make copies of the results of last Sunday’s Congregational Survey available to the students. Let students compare the results with their own answers.

Discuss the findings. How does our congregation feel about itself? Is it highly positive, middle of the road, negative generally? How will this attitude affect growth?

If our attitude is negative, what steps could we take to turn this around? If our attitude is generally positive, how could our congregation build on that?

2. Have someone read aloud Acts 26.

3. Who are the “big fish” in your community: a popular coach, the owner of a large store or restaurant, a bank president, the mayor, your boss. Ask the students: Could you begin to cultivate some of them, get to know them really well, do a lot of listening? At some point down the road, could you invite them to some appropriate event in the life of our church, and share simply what your faith means to you? Many people of wealth and power are very lonely. They hunger for genuine friendship. Could you be a genuine friend? Go “fishing,” taking time, using skill.

4. Show the overheads about fishing. Describe each. Share the information on fishing from the chapter.

Merlin Olsen says of fishing: “I experiment with everything. I use small spinners and jigs, worms and salmon eggs, and an occasional fly. If the fish aren’t taking one thing, I’ll try something else.”3

How can we translate that advice into the experience of fishing for men and women, children and youth?

5. Optional: Have participants make a collage to present their faith. Take time to share the meaning with the group.

6. Look at the overhead on “Ways of Learning to Share.” Could any of these be used in your congregation? Discuss.

7. Have group members vow that during the next week they will talk to someone they know well about their faith. Come prepared next week to share results: successes and failures, confidences and fears, and discoveries.

8. Sing together “The Joy of Our Faith.” Close with a simple prayer that we might find appropriate ways to share our faith with others.