Last week I reviewed 8 to 15, The World Is Smaller Than You Think by Tom Mercer. I mentioned in that review that his philosophy has much in common with W. Oscar Thompson’s Concentric Circles of Concern: Seven Stages for Making Disciples. Today I want to compare some aspects of the philosophy of these two men to a very popular book on evangelism and discipleship titled T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution: The Story Behind the World’s Fastest Growing Church Planting Movement and How it Can Happen in Your Community! by Steve Smith and Ying Kai. I highly recommend T4T for believers everywhere even though I don’t think some aspects of their methodology is applicable to the Western context. However, the success of T4T is so amazing (book of Acts all over again) that anyone in ministry has to pay attention to it. There are important lessons that can be learned even if there are also aspects that are not transferable.
If you have read both books you will immediately notice a stark difference in philosophy. Although Tom Mercer does not limit evangelism to our Oikos, he focuses our evangelistic attention on the Oikos. Thompson does the same CC of C. There is Biblical support (in the form of examples) for the idea that our greatest impact is on those closest to us, our nearest concentric circles or as Mercer calls it our Oikos. There are other excellent books being written these days on what is sometimes called relationship evangelism or lifestyle evangelism. The church in the USA has discovered that traditional “telling” evangelism strategies are no longer working, and “influencing” through relationship is a more effective approach.
T4T on the other hand fits into the category of the confrontational or “telling” evangelism style. Ying Kai uses the parable of the soils to support their approach to “sow widely”. Ying Kai says that the farmer seems unconcerned in the parable about where he scatters seed. It is as if the farmer doesn’t know which soil will produce a crop so he scatters the seed everywhere. I find it hard to believe that the farmer actually thought rocky soil or hard packed soil on the path would be a good place to sow seed, and I don’t think Jesus listeners would have believed that either. For that reason, I don’t think that is what Jesus is trying to communicate in this parable. But Ying uses this parable to teach that we should just sow the seed everywhere, as often as we can and the only way we will know what is receptive soil is by the response. In fact, when I read T4T, I almost get the impression that it is a numbers game. Almost like the salesman who knows that only 10% of his sales presentations will result in a sale, so he must just put in his time and effort to knock out 10 sales presentations to get one sale. He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully, will reap bountifully. The only problem is that the context of this passage is teaching on giving, not evangelism.
Tom Mercer looks at the parable of the soils differently. He says that since different soils have different response rates to the gospel, the lesson is that we should concentrate on the good soil. The good soil is statistically our Oikos, or the inner concentric circles of concern. Evangelism among strangers in the USA (and the Western context in general) is statistically not very successful. Western people are skeptical of organized religion, have had bad experiences with religious zealots be they Christian evangelists or cultists, and don’t want to be sold a bill of goods. On the other hand, Americans are not unspiritual. They consider themselves very spiritual and will often describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. They are not opposed to spirituality when discussed in the context of a true friendship where such discussion is safe from coercion or pressure to join a group.
T4T was developed in and for the Chinese context. I have traveled in China and currently live in a neighboring Asian country, but certainly cannot claim to be any expert on the Chinese mentality. However, a few things about the Chinese outlook are clear to me. For one thing, the Chinese culture is a shame based culture. If you do not comply with the social mores of that society, you bring shame upon yourself and possibly even on your family. The idea of “saving face” is common to the Chinese culture. It is important to remain within your group’s accepted norms, and when a higher authority figure tells you to do something, you must do it or you will lose face. T4T has a very strong accountability orientation. Each person is trained in a simple way to share the gospel, and is expected to share with 5 people each week. Each week they are asked who they shared the gospel with and how it went. That simply would not happen in the American context, but it works in China.
In addition, it is obvious that there is a very high response ratio in China to these multiple scripted gospel presentations. If you were to present a “canned” gospel presentation in the USA it would seem like a sales script to the average American, and it would most likely be rejected. There was a day when Evangelism Explosion was popular in the USA, but few people are seeing significant success using EE these days (with the exception of some who occasionally borrow some aspects, not the whole scripted package). So why do “canned” or scripted gospel presentations work in China when they don’t work in the USA? What is the difference? What follows is only my best guess at what is going on, and others who know the Chinese culture may have a better explanation. The average Chinese grows up an Atheist. They are taught in school from a young age that there is no God, and they have no knowledge of Church or organized religion. However, every atheist has doubts. They have doubts about the “this is all there is” philosophy when a baby is born or a friend or family member dies. They have moments when they may even pray to the god that they’ve been taught doesn’t exist. And when such significant events happen in the life of a Chinese person, I suspect they may lay awake at night and wonder who this god is that they just prayed to. And then someone comes along and shares with them about who God is. Suddenly questions they’ve had for months or years have answers, and they are ready to believe. That is my theory, and if some reader can shed more light the Chinese mindset I’d be interested to hear it.
The American on the other hand has seen so many religions and been exposed to so much proselytizing by so many different groups that they are about as skeptical of any religious presentation as they can be. The only discussion they will be open to is conversation with a close friend or family member, and even then they won’t be ready to commit without getting lots of questions answered. And when they come to Christ through a close friend or family member, “follow up” is unnecessary. Not that they won’t need to be discipleship relationship, but rather that an intentional system of “follow up” such as the Billy Graham crusade used to do is not necessary when there is already a close relationship with the believer who led them to Christ. They will naturally continue their conversations about spiritual things now that their hearts have changed and they desire to be more like Christ.
For instance, in his introduction to the second edition of Concentric Circles of Concern, Claude King tells the following story that illustrates the success of relationship based evangelism versus traditional methods.
Prior to attending seminary in New Orleans, I served on the staff of a dynamic and evangelistic church in Nashville, Tennessee. I was trained in an evangelistic method that normally took teams to share the gospel with total strangers. We, however, were prepared to break the ice and establish some sort of relationship prior to talking about the person’s spiritual needs. I am very grateful for that training experience because I studied the Scriptures and came to better understand what faith in Christ means. I learned how to use God’s Word to tell others about his conditions
After going through the training course several times, I wound up leading the course for a while. From that perspective I made some new discoveries. Though we did see a number of people pray to receive Christ in their homes, very few ever followed through with a public commitment to Christ. We were not very effective at helping these people get established in a local body of Christ where they could grow.
We did see many adults make public professions of their faith in Christ. However, most of these did not come directly from our evangelistic visitation program. I noticed that most of these people were family, relatives, neighbors, or friends of our members. People who had learned to share the gospel with others were being used by God to lead people in their circles of influence to Christ. These were the people we were able to effectively assimilate into the church.
We didn’t really plan for this type of outreach. It happened only as God’s people were led to share the gospel with the people they were closest to. Our planned evangelism strategy served primarily to prepare and equip people for sharing Christ. God took them from that point and used them in sharing through their relationships. When I realized the reality of what was happening, I felt uneasy about the fact that our greatest evangelist fruit came not from our evangelistic program but through unplanned experiences of our members.
The problem with the lifestyle approach to evangelism for most churches in the USA is that most Christians are so involved in their local church that all their significant relationships are with Christians. The fact that churches have so many programs to be involved with that demand more of their time spent with other believers (Awana, Board member, Missions Committee, Food Pantry, etc.) that they have neither the time nor the desire to intentionally build relationships with the lost. Add to that the optional church softball team and family camp and you have a Christian who is taken out of the battle entirely.
There are some people using T4T in the USA, and they are having considerable success with it. They are not having anywhere near the success of a Ying Kai, but they are seeing people come to Christ in far greater numbers than the average evangelical church and multi-generational groups are being started. I’ll write other posts about those at a later time. However, I sincerely question whether that approach will have long term “grass roots movement” type of growth like it had in China, because it goes against the American cultural mindset. However, as I mentioned earlier, there are things we can learn from T4T for the Western context. I will explore those in a future article.