Episode 90: “Doing Evangelism with Integrity” featuring Priscilla Pope-Levison

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 90: “Doing Evangelism with Integrity” featuring Priscilla Pope-Levison

Is your congregation squeamish when it comes to evangelism? In this episode, Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe Jr. speaks with Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison on how congregations can more authentically engage a variety of evangelistic practices with confidence and integrity.

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Is your congregation squeamish when it comes to evangelism? In this episode, Lewis Center Director F. Douglas Powe Jr. speaks with Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison on how congregations can more authentically engage a variety of evangelistic practices with confidence and integrity.

Douglas Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison, the associate dean for external programs and professor of ministerial studies at Perkins School of Theology. Her latest book is Models of Evangelism, and our focus for this podcast, of course, is evangelism. Priscilla, welcome. I’m so excited you’re joining us today.

Priscilla Pope-Levison: Thank you Doug. I am delighted to be here and thank you for the invitation.

Douglas Powe: Before we jump directly into the book, I’d like to begin by having you share why you believe it’s important for those in the church to understand that there are various models of evangelism. I think when people hear the word evangelism they think it’s about just getting people into the church, so this idea that there are models of evangelism would seem strange to many church people.

Priscilla Pope-Levison: I agree that it is strange. But I have been teaching evangelism for 25 years. And I started integrating models into the course so that students had a practical way to anchor the actual practice of evangelism, particularly as they went into churches. And I think it’s also my effort to dismantle fear or embarrassment or just all of the confusion over the word evangelism — to let people know that there’s not just one way to do most any kind of ministry, and this applies to evangelism, as well. So, if you had the impression that evangelism is being a revival preacher, well you’re off the hook because that’s only one way to do evangelism.

My hope, by covering eight models — and certainly this book is not exhaustive, is that each person can see themselves perhaps implementing one of the models or maybe, as I suggested in the book, a combination of models that might fit their personality better. If they tend to be an introvert or don’t want to do this alone, then they are small group evangelists, and that you do with a partner in crime, so to speak. Liturgical evangelism would also be another one that, if you don’t feel comfortable talking directly to people, there are ways to integrate evangelism into the very worship life of the church. So, that’s my effort to try to eliminate some of these barriers that people feel about evangelism by saying there’s not just one way to do this.

Douglas Powe: I appreciate that and I think you’re right on track. We’re going to talk about some of those different models you named a little bit later. But I think it’s critically important for people in the church to understand that there are ways to do evangelism organically that they may already be doing but they haven’t named it. And the way you talk about models really helps to express that. So, thank you for sharing that in the book and sharing that now.

But I want to take a step into the book now. You get into a conversation that those of us who teach evangelism have had and continue to have because we have students who come thinking that evangelism is this contested word that people don’t like. They hear it and almost immediately they just start frowning. You can see their facial expressions change. But at its root evangelism means good news, good message. Why is it that folks shy away from something that literally means good news?

Priscilla Pope-Levison: I think part of it, particularly in the American context, is the number of prominent evangelists that have fallen, so to speak. We’re not just talking about the 80s and 90s, but you think about Sinclair Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry in the 20s and then Aimee Semple McPherson and the kidnapping saga. Did that really happen or not? And so particularly for prominent revival evangelists, there’s that fine line of when they, in a sense, step into not having 100 percent integrity for whatever reason — financial or sexual or political or whatever it is. I will say that oftentimes when you drill down into those fears, most individuals have not had a negative encounter with evangelism. But it’s kind of in the air because we don’t like sleazy preacher types or salespeople types.

At the end of the book, as I went back through each model and looked at the characteristics that are inclusive of all the models, I came up with five: hospitality, integrity, relationship, message-bearing, and church-rootedness. I think the integrity piece is so important because many people, including our twentysomething kids, find Christians to be hypocritical because they say one thing and do another.

I think we could go a long way to clear up some of the misconceptions over the word evangelism — that it really is good news — if we are people who, to use the phrase, “walk the talk” or “talk the walk.” There needs to be a sense of integrity between the Gospel message that we present and who we are as Gospel bearers. It sounds simplistic. But I really think that would go a long way to recapturing evangelism as something that is positive and winsome and hospitable.

Douglas Powe: Let me ask a follow-up. I know you also have experienced this. You have students who then go to the other extreme, so that evangelism basically becomes this thing where they quote the quote that is attributed to Saint Francis but that he really didn’t say: “Preach the gospel at all times and, when necessary, use words.” They say, all I’ve got to do is be a good person and that, somehow, it’s going to rub off on everybody, that it means you can be a great Christian. That sounds great. But you could be a great person and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to help people to understand that you’re a great Christian or help with Christian formation. So how do you avoid that extreme while still trying to help people understand the importance of integrity?

Priscilla Pope-Levison: Yeah, that’s a great question. As you know, that’s how many people feel. And I was laughing because Jonathan Merritt’s most recent book on God talk, Learning to Speak God from Scratch, takes on that quote that supposedly is Saint Francis. He said what that quote really misses is that Saint Francis preached all the time. He preached verbally all the time.

In my book, I reference something in relation to this question. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey that really hit Houston hard a number of years ago, in a class full of just wonderful, smart students, one of my students asked if it was evangelism when she wore her church’s T-shirt with the church’s name on it as she helped hurricane victims and people who had become homeless because of the hurricane. She asked the question in full integrity in the sense that she really didn’t know. And we talked about that for a long while. Because as you say, people think others will just know that they’re a good person and they go to church, so somehow, they will intuit the Gospel if we wear our T-shirt with “First United Methodist Church Dallas” or whatever. And I really pushed back on that. Because I think that’s a cop-out. You know that there is a time when a verbal presentation or a verbal something, even if that’s your own testimony of how God is active in your life or something, that’s part of it. Euangelion, the Greek word, is a message and it was written up, as you know, in classical Greek. It’s about a messenger who’s coming into town with good news to tell us about an important battle or the birth of a ruler or something. And it has a verbal component to it. We may want to shy away from it, but I don’t think wearing a T-shirt with your church’s name is sufficient.

Douglas Powe: Thank you. I expect many will be disappointed by that response, but I agree with you, and I think it’s important for people to hear that response.

Priscilla Pope-Levison: It’s a start. It can be a conduit to a conversation, certainly. But it’s not enough on its own. How would people know? Especially now, when we all know that we can’t assume knowledge of Christianity anymore. How would they know? It reminds me of Paul, “How would they know unless there’s someone to tell them?”

Douglas Powe: Right. And going back to your earlier point, how do they know I have integrity if I am not also demonstrating that in the way I’m sharing the message not only with my T-shirt but in the message. Because they could assume I don’t have integrity. Just wearing a T-shirt leaves it open to too many assumptions.

I want to dive into some of the models. You highlight the importance of small groups in our lives in general and in the church. I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit about how we can create evangelistic small groups that are not just a copy of existing church groups. You hear congregations saying all the time, “Hey, we need small groups.” And oftentimes they just become fellowship groups. But that’s not what you’re after. You’re wanting people to actually create evangelistic small groups. So, what are your practical thoughts of how this can take place?

Priscilla Pope-Levison: You’re absolutely right that the church has many fellowship groups. Moving to Texas, one of the things that I found out quite quickly is that people have been part of the Sunday schools, many of them, since they were in their 20s, maybe newly married, maybe young kids. And then they stay with that group. So, they know each other intimately and they’ve been together for 20, 30, 40 years. And many people will say they came into the church because of that Sunday school class. So, in a way, they belong to the church, yes. But they belong to “Epiphany” or whatever the name of the Sunday school is. And I think church growth has a really good point about new ports of entry because how many people are going to feel comfortable coming into a group that knows each other so well? Most of us would not. Because we don’t know, when you refer to your daughter by such and such a name, we don’t know that maybe she’s had a history that everybody else shares.

So, I think there are a couple of reasons to start a new small group for evangelism. First, it’s a new port of entry and so everybody is on the same page in a sense. Secondly, the purpose of these small groups is evangelism. They’re not intended to be long term. They’re not intended to be a fellowship group that you stay with for the rest of your life. The whole point is — and I got this from Dick Peace and others who’ve written on small group evangelism — that they’re intended to be four to eight weeks long and really targeted on helping this group of people come to know Jesus. To be honest, that’s what it is. And for those who do respond, like Salvation Army and others used to do, they take those recent converts who are enthusiastic about their new faith and pair them with an old timer, so to speak, and then they lead a group. So, there’s this multiplication of these evangelistic small groups. They are a very different kind of beast, so to speak, from the fellowship groups or the ongoing groups. Both are important, I think, in the life of a church or in the life of a parachurch organization. Both have their value.

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Douglas Powe: Once again we’re talking with Priscilla Pope-Levison about her new book Models of Evangelism. And she was just sharing about small groups. I want to move on to another model. And I have to admit I was laughing out loud a little bit and I’m sure many will also laugh because we’ve also experienced this in our lives. You wrote that when you saw individuals out in your neighborhood going door-to-door you quickly moved to another part of the house where they couldn’t see you. So, it was somewhat surprising to read that you really believe in visitation evangelism as you call it. Can you share why you lift this up even though your personal reaction is the exact same of a majority of the people in the United States when they see folks going door-to-door?

Priscilla Pope-Levison: So, first off, let me just say that I’m lifting up models that I think have biblical roots. That’s why I have a section in each chapter on biblical and theological roots. Visitation has been around since the beginning of the Jewish-Christian tradition and certainly we see it in John Wesley and early Methodism. I try not to advocate for a model. I do more than report, so to speak. But I didn’t feel I could publish a book on evangelism without including visitation.

However, having said that, I was really influenced by a very small book written by Dick Armstrong in the 60s or 70s, when he was serving an inner-city church in Philadelphia. It’s called The Oak Lane Story. It’s about Oak Lane Presbyterian, and he recounts how the church was dying. The racial and economic demographics were changing, and the church could either turn inward and die or they could embrace their neighborhood. And it’s a fascinating story. The church decided to adopt a visitation campaign, and the changes that came to the church — not just to the neighborhood — are just fascinating. The church did become a different kind of church in terms of their demographic, in terms of their giving.

So, I was struck by that because the Greek word for visitation — I think it’s epískepsi — talks about God’s care for the sheep or God watching over. Visitation has the sense of care, of service, of coming alongside. I’m really convinced that churches who tend to be fairly inward in their focus, if they open their eyes and got to know their neighborhood, even if it wasn’t a direct visitation campaign program, could really benefit the church and the community in ways that we could hardly imagine. And so, seeing it through Dick Armstrong’s perspective was really eye-opening for me. It’s very different from James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion, which is much more programmatic, and I think would turn people off.

So, I tried my best to give it a more positive spin, not because I’ve personally experienced a visitation campaign or lead one, but because I wanted people to give it a second look and not just write it off.

Douglas Powe: You’ve been honest to say you’ve never led a visitation campaign. But can you share your thoughts, given what you’ve just said, about how you think a congregation can do this with integrity? Because I think that’s the challenge many are trying to figure out: How do we get to know our neighbors without turning them off? Because the challenge is that nobody wants somebody coming, knocking on your door. You just don’t know the timing. You know anything could be going on. So, what are ways to approach this practically without just immediately turning your neighbor off. Do you have any thoughts in that direction?

Priscilla Pope-Levison: Well, actually, my spouse Jack had a terrific idea about our own church during COVID because our church does not know it’s neighborhood and it’s a white congregation in a white neighborhood, socioeconomically middle to upper middle class. This is an educated congregation. We’re known for our music. Jack’s idea was having our choir just walk the streets of our neighborhood just singing. They did this kind of thing in Italy — you know with health workers and stuff. Is that evangelism? I don’t know. But I think more to your point, just even to say, “We’re in this neighborhood along with you. And we want to bring you some beautiful music.” If I were designing this, as I suggest in the chapter, I would have some kind of questions that I would ask. If someone does open the door, I’d be really honest to say “We’re from such-and-such church. We really want to get to know our neighbors. That’s our agenda whether you ever come to our church or not.”

Jack and I, since we moved to Texas, have gotten more politically involved. We were in Seattle and now we’re in Texas and we did a lot of political campaigning several cycles ago to try to flip our district. And it worked. But you know we made cold calls and all of that. We were doing that for a political campaign. And we got some obnoxious and even some threatening responses, but we also had really some wonderful conversations. And it just seems to me, why are Christians hesitant to knock on doors for conversation? I don’t know. It just struck me that we will do that in a political season and be ready for the vitriol, but it also led to just some really interesting conversations. I know that’s a very jumbled response, but I hope that some of those ideas might catch hold with people.

Douglas Powe: Yeah. I appreciate it. I think it’s helpful. I like the idea actually of the choir because, if people do come out, there is an opportunity to then have even a brief conversation with them to say “Hey, you know we’re going to do this on Saturdays and you’re welcome to join us.” It’s an opportunity — of course, understanding COVID restrictions. But I mean it does create some great opportunities.

I want to think about worship because worship is central. And you use a term that I think many would not be as familiar with, which is “liturgical evangelism.” And if you think of the decline of mainline denominations in particular, how effective do you think liturgical evangelism can be as we move forward?

Priscilla Pope-Levison: How effective? Well, I think, particularly for those churches — and I would include most United Methodist Churches — that have a certain rhythm or framework to their worship that could easily have some evangelistic moments integrated into it. This is the reason it’s called liturgical evangelism. It’s the marrying of this liturgical mindset with evangelism which I think is a really interesting because we tend to think of highly liturgical churches as not being evangelistic. And this is a way to keep true to who they are as liturgically high churches, if you want to call it that, and also have a commitment to evangelism.

And what I like about this is that this goes back to the roots of the early church and apostolic tradition. Just as we talk about the hours of the day that many monastic communities mark, this is taking seriously the church year. Already your people are living by a different sense of time. It’s a highly scripted model of evangelism. But to integrate it into Advent and then into Lent and so forth, I think a church could start simply by bringing evangelism to the fore in different ways during those seasons. So, yes, it does depend on people being in worship. The assumption is that this is taking place during corporate worship, and what I like about it is that it takes seriously the catechetical experience of worship, that we are teaching something, we are teaching God’s salvation history. And people can hear the Gospel in ways very different from maybe visitation or one-on-one where it’s kind of right in your face. They can hear it almost like eavesdropping if we’re attentive to presenting the Gospel on a regular basis and lifting up God’s plan for salvation. And what I like about this is that people kind of grow into conversion rather than that kind of paradigmatic moment of conversion. I think this sense of a “slower burn” so to speak fits our contemporary context much more than the revival mentality. You know I’m putting a positive spin on each of these because I want people to be intrigued.

Douglas Powe: Yeah, absolutely. And I really love the language of eavesdropping. I think that’s a great term. You should hold on to that. That’s good language.

Priscilla Pope-Levison: What if we thought of each part of worship and asked, “How could it be an evangelist component?” The call to worship. Even the offertory. And I think that would be a place to start if people want to think about integrating evangelism into worship.

Douglas Powe: You use a term that certainly fits our day, media evangelism. Can you share a little bit more with our listeners about media evangelism.

Priscilla Pope-Levison: Oh, gosh. This is the one that I struggled with the most because I am not really — I kind of dabble with Facebook every so often when I think I have a little bit of time, so it was just ironic. But again, I felt like this chapter just had to be in the book, not only for contemporary social media, but also when you think about media just in its simple definition of tools of communication. This is intrinsic to evangelism. Evangelism has to incorporate tools of communication. So, we’re thinking of TV and radio and of course now with Internet and social media. I had several people who are much more conversant with social media than I am read this chapter. And this was the one that I learned the most about because I’m just not involved in it.

What I do think is that a church’s website is the window that the world sees, especially during COVID. And if a church reads that chapter and does nothing else but really update their website and really keeps their website conversing with people and makes sure that their website is user-friendly, is stranger friendly, so to speak. That sounds kind of creepy, but you know what I’m saying. So much of a church’s website is often for this internal group. No. Think of a website as how you want to interact with the world because that’s what we’re doing. I mean people are going online. They’re livestreaming. You know, with as much as Jack and I’ve moved, we come to a new city, and we do a Google search of churches. Think about your website as inviting people in who don’t know you. Be sure service times are there and directions and all of that. But also, is there any testimony that you could provide of how God is active in your congregation or something that bridges the Gospel in your website? Even if it’s that simple.

I mean I go into Twitter and Instagram and all of that only because many, many organizations and churches are using media for evangelism. Again, it’s not something that I’ve had experience with. But I feel like, with the people who read the chapter and just my own research and thinking about it, there’s a lot of good wisdom in there.

Douglas Powe: Well, Priscilla this has been great. But as we get ready to draw to an end, let me ask you a question that pushes you to think towards the future. In a perfect world (and you can even use your own congregation), after someone reads this book, what are the next three steps you would hope they would take as they start thinking about these different models of evangelism.

Priscilla Pope-Levison: First, I would like as many people in the congregation as possible to become comfortable, at ease, with talking to others about how they see God in their own lives and their church’s life. I’m very fortunate. We received a grant from the Lilly Endowment called Testimony as Community Engagement. And so that’s very much on my mind right now because I think our story is written into God’s story. And I think that our story is a way that can more easily connect with people than say the Four Spiritual Laws or something that’s more content driven. Storytelling is alive and well right now. And a lot of that is because in COVID we missed each other, so we were longing to hear stories, and that often happens, you know, virtually. So, I think the first thing is becoming much more comfortable with talking about God’s activity in our human life right now. We don’t even have to call it evangelism.

Secondly, I would hope that a church would do a deep dive into the models and to ask which one or two best fits them now. Which could they honestly see themselves incorporating in the next year of the church’s life?

And then, third, I would convene groups of people — not a committee but people — praying and interacting on what this idea of testimony and what taking on some of these models would really mean not only for the church but in the community. I’m really convinced many churches have lost contact with their neighborhood, their location, and so I don’t want to forget that component.

So, the three would be: testimony; which model or two could this church really feasibly take on — they may want to do something else, but what do they really have capacity and courage for at this moment; and then really bathing it all in prayer and listening, lectio divina scripture study, because I just believe that God works and God responds to our pleadings and our prayers. You and others have written so much more and better on this. But those three come to mind as places a church could feasibly start. It doesn’t matter whether they have big budgets. That’s just not as important as having the capacity and the courage to begin or to really continue in a much more radical way being God’s instruments in the world.

Douglas Powe: That’s it exactly, and I think you stated it well. Thank you. I appreciate having this time with you. And it was a great conversation. And it’s a great book: Models of Evangelism. People need to read it.

Priscilla Pope-Levison: Thank you for the invitation. This has just been wonderful.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, Major General Randy Manner shares advice on leading during challenging times.

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Models of Evangelism book cover

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About Author

Priscilla Pope-Levinson

Priscilla Pope-Levison is Associate Dean for External Programs and Professor of Ministerial Studies at Perkins School of Theology at SMU. Her most recent book is Models of Evangelism (Baker Publishing Group, 2020), available at Cokesbury and  Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.