Rev. Charles Anderson is the 2012 Distinguished Evangelist of The United Methodist Church. He recently spoke at The Foundation for Evangelism’s Annual Banquet at Lake Junaluska, N.C. We asked him a few questions about receiving this award and about his own personal faith journey. Here’s what he had to say…
What does the Distinguished Evangelist award mean to you?
First, I find it very humbling. I look on the list of previous winners, and see people who are my “evangelism heroes.” George Morris, Eddie Fox, Joe Harding, and Joe Hale were all mentors in one form or another. Adam Hamilton, Kirbyjon Caldwell, and Ed Robb are friends as well as inspirations. To share this award with them makes me feel like (to misquote scripture) “a lion in a den full of Daniels;” I am silenced in their company.
But I am also challenged and inspired by the award. It is the nature of grace to name us as God sees us and then to transform us into that vision. This award puts a claim on my life that, whatever my merits, is shaping me more into the vision behind this recognition. For that, I am most grateful.
Are there any experiences in your ministry that stand out in your mind as “pivotal” or “aha!” moments where you saw God at work?
There are three in particular. The first is studying under George Morris in seminary. George was forecasting decades ahead of time the changes in world and culture that would shape the evangelistic task. One vision that George especially impressed into me was the then-future role that planting new congregations would have for making disciples.
The second experience was being appointed to start a new congregation in 1985. I spent the entire summer knocking on doors and talking with people. I personally visited with some 1,400 households in all. Through that experience I learned how evangelism actually begins with listening: listening to the person and listening to what God is up to in and through that person. So much of the evangelistic fruitfulness of that new church plant was directly related to that listening.
The third experience was the five-year journey of that new church plant. When I finished my appointment there, I looked back and asked, “Why were some things so effective despite all our mistakes and failures…and why were some things so barren despite our best efforts and investment?” I discovered that spiritual fruitfulness tends to happen at the intersection of three factors: a God-given vision, a Spirit-driven champion, and a season-specific anointing. So I began to ask three questions of every possible ministry: What is the vision? Who is the champion? Where is the anointing?
When did you first hear God’s call to ministry?
The day my mother was told she was pregnant with me, the devotional text for that morning was Jeremiah 1:5; “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Mom was so struck by the intersection of her news and that text that she prayed that day for my life to be used in God’s service. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I heard my call before I had ears to hear.
Do you have a process in place for your own spiritual renewal and ministry planning each year? What does that look like?
I just returned from my annual retreat time inColorado. I spent one week at a Benedictine monastery in centering prayer. There is a “Quiet House” in the Texas Hill Country dedicated to such retreats. I take several prayer retreats every year, each for at least three days at a time.
I also spent 10 days inRockyMountainNational Park, planning the sermon calendar and ministry vision for the next year. This is a habit. I’ve had for 15 years now, and is modeled on Maxie Dunnam’s practice of two sermon planning retreats a year (I just combine those into one retreat). It is the spiritualhigh pointof each year.
Who has been an inspiration to you in your life and ministry?
I’ve already mentioned the foundational role George Morris played. My preaching has its roots in my friendship with Fred Craddock. Dick Wills, whom I met when he was at Christ Church in Ft. Lauderdale, inspires me with his insistence on obedience to God and tenderness toward others. The late Bishop Ben Oliphint shaped much of what I know about the “joy and delight” side of ministry. My father-in-law, Dr. Roland T. “Bill” Scales, is my living link to Methodism’s great minds, such as Albert Outler and Walter Wink. Finally, Tim Bias (pastor of Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church in Cincinnati) has defined for me the best of the Wesleyan spirit and its evangelistic imperative since we first met 35 years ago.
What have been some “standout” moments in your time at University United Methodist Church?
At University, the pivot was when we got clarity on two things:
The first was discovering our congregation’s primary spiritual gift. For us, it became clear that our primary spiritual gift is mercy—that is, meeting the needs of others with the tenderness of Christ. We think that we most look like Jesus when we practice our gift of mercy. So, if we want people to see Jesus, then our best way to show Jesus will be through our most evident spiritual gift.
The second was when we asked, “What are the populations around our location in which mercy has been in short supply?” Two became evident: the outlier skateboard population in the local high school and the large number of persons with developmental disabilities. So we began evangelizing at the intersection of our spiritual gift and those at-risk populations.
The results? Our “U|Sk8” skate church has seen 97 conversions for Jesus Christ, with a number of these considering ordained ministry. Our “Believer’s Garden” for the developmentally disabled has now held two confirmation classes with over 100 professions of faith.
Does that mean every congregation needs a skate church and special needs confirmation class? Absolutely not. It does mean, however, that your church is more likely to be evangelistically effective if you concentrate your energies and efforts at the intersection of your primary spiritual gift and an underserved or at-risk segment of your local population.
Where do you see The United Methodist Church in 5 years? 10 years?
There are bishops, general secretaries, General Conference delegates, seminary presidents, and blogging pundits seeking to answer that question. I am none of those, so I leave that to those more qualified than I am.
However, I am deeply invested in the evangelistic task. From that point of view, I see a good news trend and a bad news trend.
The good news is that there is lots of experimentation. This is an intense time of creativity within both American Christianity and the United Methodist Church. The missional church movement is redefining the “what” and “how” of evangelism. Multi-site congregations, satellite congregations, and church plant programs are opening avenues of outreach for congregations of all sizes and demographics. House churches are breaking new ground. The internet and social networking are getting the gospel into the hands of persons who would never enter a traditional sanctuary. There is a lot of permission giving by bishops and annual conferences to take risks and to even fail for the purpose of discovering what will succeed.
The bad news is that there continues to be lots of confusion. We continue to see confusion over the definition of evangelism, wherein we make it totally synonymous with membership recruitment on one hand and acts of random kindness on the other. We also see confusion over the motive for evangelism, which tends to be driven by institutional survival. When a confused definition and a confused motive come together, the result is a message that says, “Please become a member of our Christian club, so that our boat won’t sink.” That hasn’t worked for forty or more years now, and there is no indication it will in the future.
How does the practice of Wesleyan evangelism translate to today’s culture? How might this understanding of evangelism be used to help bring people into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
If I could pull only one aspect of John Wesley’s evangelism into my life and context, it would be the role of prayer. Wesley was a fine theologian, a gifted innovator, a skilled leader, and an organizational genius. I believe, however, that the Wesleyan Revival might have taken place in the absence of any one of those factors, except for the role of prayer. Wesley’s greatest challenge to me is how much and how deeply the man prayed.
My greatest disappointment in my own journey with evangelism is the extent to which I practice—or don’t practice—prayer. I have more financial resources, more technological tools, more accessible data, more measurable metrics, and more support systems than Wesley could ever imagine. But Wesley prayed as if it was the breath of life itself, because it was for him.
I am convinced that the best evangelism is primarily a “submerged and subversive act”; that is, most of it is prayer. Someone can reject my witness, skip my program, ignore my words, and avoid my church. They cannot stop me praying for them. Prayer is “divine sabotage”—you can’t stop it. It happens underground. I would go so far as to say the great unexplored territory in contemporary evangelism is the role of prayer prior to any overt action or conversation. I truly believe that prayer may make up as much as 90% of any evangelistic effectiveness.
What advice would you give to a pastor at a new church start?
I would frame my advice in three questions.
First question: ”What did you hear?” A church launch is an act of listening—listening to the community and listening to God speaking through community. No amount of creativity on my part could have substituted listening to 1,400 stories of “hopes, hurts, and hungers.” No demographic study could have given me the “street cred” that receptive listening did. Church planting, like gospel communication, begins at the ear.
Second question: ”What do you see?” A church launch is an act of vision. It’s a God-given vision seen by a Spirit-driven visionary. I can recall standing in a rice field years before any building, and literally seeing what would arise there and who would come. It’s that God’s-eye-view on reality that will drive the founding pastor through seasons of drought and challenge.
Final question: ”What will you risk?” Like Jesus’ parable of the talents, a church launch is a holy dare. It’s a continuous experiment in risk, where the biggest risk is actually playing it safe. The sure news is that you will probably have more than your share of failures and disasters. But the good news is that life in a church plant is moving so fast that there is simply no time or energy available to fixate on the failures. You are too busy moving on to the next risk, and that does not allow opportunity to mourn or analyze to excess. Put it behind you, and move on!
What are three vital pieces of information/advice you would share with local church leaders that could transform the church?
First, train church people to look for Jesus. Begin by regularly asking, “Where have you seen Jesus?” Intense, long-term repetition of that question sets two expectations: first, that Jesus is making Himself visible in the world and in our lives…and second, that it should be something that we can talk about and will want to talk about.
Second, talk in each and every venue about looking for Jesus—Sunday school, in committee meetings, in small groups, in women’s and men’s ministries, etc. Once you’ve trained the eyes to look, train the voice to speak by giving very safe and very frequent venues in which to share a Jesus meeting. Not only will this train the voice, but it also begins to excite the heart—everyone loves to tell a story, especially if it involves them.
One thing that I had our church leaders do two summers ago was spend an hour each week in a local Wal-Mart with the specific intent of having them look for Jesus. They were to look for signs of the Savior in the people and events they encountered there. This sensitized them to the incredible number of ways—heretofore unseen—that Jesus was operating in the world.
Then I had them write down and send me their most profound moments each week. This taught them to think in terms of story or narrative and then to put it into a form that would communicate to someone else. They put their Jesus encounter into an interesting story that others could identify with…which kind of sounds like evangelism to me.
Third, remember and reaffirm the organic tie between evangelism and discipleship. Evangelism is the first phase in the journey of Christian discipleship. Evangelism is not “pre-discipleship,” any more than birth is “pre-life.” Evangelism, like birth, is that necessary first step in an organic growth into the person you are designed to be. Evangelism no longer “brings people in” (that’s membership recruitment); evangelism rather “starts people off” on a journey whose destination is growing into the fullness of Jesus Christ.
A church that takes evangelism seriously will, therefore, find itself more and more engaged in helping people learn the message of Jesus and discover their mission for Jesus. This is what Jesus did with his first disciples after meeting them—He taught them His message and He assigned their mission. It’s a biblical progression: once you have a person asking, “What’s my need for Jesus, and what do I do about it,” they will eventually want to know, “What is the news about Jesus, and what do I do about it,” and “What is my call from Jesus, and what do I do about it?”
What is the relationship between clergy and lay leadership in establishing and maintaining a vibrant ministry/church?
For me, I would go with this: effective evangelism in churches today looks like the character and culture of that particular congregation. I don’t understand evangelism so much any longer as a program or a priority—I understand evangelism as the outreaching extension of what is present or absent in the heart of the local congregation. If evangelism is telling others where I’ve seen Jesus, then the local Body of Christ profoundly shapes what I’ve seen of the Christ and how I’ve seen Him.
In that sense, evangelism is sacramental: it is the outward and visible sign of the congregation’s inward and spiritual grace. And evangelism is individual: evangelism will look unique, particular, and “one-of-a-kind” to its local congregational origin. It won’t look like any other congregation’s plan or program.
The implication? Clergy and lay leadership are the primary “shapers and shifters” of a congregation’s character and culture. Spiritual health in these two constituencies and between these two constituencies will convey what is present—or absent—in the heart of the congregation.
I remember Dick Wills saying, “The primary job of a pastor is to grow his or her soul more toward Jesus Christ…and the next job of a pastor is to grow the souls of his or her church leaders more toward Jesus Christ.” Bishop Wills is correct. While church growth doesn’t always lead to church health, church health eventually and ultimately leads to church growth.