How to do it right
I was watching the news this morning and saw the depressing report that U.S. students are falling further down the global ranks in math, science and reading. You can read some of this story here or in many other places. What was interesting, and again depressing, about the report was that the repeated attempts to turn this slide around, whatever those attempts may be, are largely ineffective.
Higher per-student expenditures don’t uniformly work. Standardized testing has similar spotty effect. The same goes for smaller class sizes, paying teachers more, eliminating tenure structures, charter schools, massive private investment, giving more homework, and a host of other things. Right-wing solutions are not the answer; left wing solutions are no better.
It is not that there aren’t any success stories. Pilot programs are set up; focus is given to a school or a district; good results encourage us. But the evidence shows that, whether those efforts are seen as conservative solutions, liberal solutions, free-market solutions, or government solutions, they are extraordinarily hard to duplicate.
The reaction to this report is predictable. Vested interests, whatever they may be, point fingers at the other guys, absolve themselves of blame, and call for doubling down on the things they want us to do – all in spite of the record of failures. Neither the left nor the right is immune to the call to double down on their selected answer.
Staring us in the face is the unpleasant fact that the problem is harder than we think. The causes are complex, inter-related, and not easily solved. Pat answers, pet solutions and easy fixes are not going to work. Yet we go right on offering them. The fact that the true answer is complex; that is has multiple components that are not under any one central control; that they certainly vary from state to state and possibly from community to community, makes solutions hard and dirty work.
It is an American distinctive that we want easy, quick and painless solutions. Just look at diet plans. Or investment strategies. We long for easy step-by-step plans we can follow to accomplish our goals. If somebody, be it a business, a school, a government, a church, comes up with a plan to accomplish something there is an immediate rush to duplicate it. This in turns triggers a virtual industry in “how to” books and courses.
In evangelical churches it is evangelism, of course, that sends so many of us searching for the quick and easy instruction on how to reach people for Christ. This has not gone unnoticed in the publishing world. A check of Amazon this morning turned up 17,669 responses to a search on how-to evangelize. There are clearly hundreds, if not thousands, of sure-fire evangelistic techniques and strategies. Or so it would seem.
The books and courses are exciting, well-written, and draw, like the education methods, from real-life success stories. They have catchy titles. My favorite title said their method was “Biblical, Spiritual, Intentional, Missional”. I’m impressed with how they managed to squeeze all the trendy catch-words into the same title. But all these methods and plans suffer from the same “how do we duplicate this” problem the educational plans have. Churches, using the good old American strategy of learning the “how to” steps for guaranteed success, often get discouraging results and feel like failures.
Perhaps evangelism is just like education. It needs to be personal; needs to respond the actual situations, not just community-by-community but person-by-person. Maybe it is longer, harder, dirtier and more complex than we ever imagined. Maybe there are no books that can teach us sure-fire methods. Maybe I have to get to understand the person I am talking to and speak to him in his actual, personal situation and not from a script.
Perhaps this is why Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers, never got around to actually writing down step-by-step rules for evangelism. Yes, I know there are a lot of people who claim they have figured out those right steps, and how to apply them to our culture 2,000 years later, that they say are in the Biblical passages. But perhaps they are wrong. Perhaps there are no methods embedded there. Perhaps as we rummage through the texts to seek out the embedded method we are sailing right past what God wants us to – just go out into the world and be followers of Christ, always willing to speak, and wait for Him to open the door.