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Why some evangelism peters out: The negatives

Samuel Moor Shoemaker (1893-1963) was rector of Calvary Church, New York, from 1925 to 1951 and of Calvary Church, Pittsburgh, from 1952 to 1961. A graduate of Princeton and the General Theological Seminary, Shoemaker was a popular radio preacher, a missionary in China, and a major 20th-century evangelical leader both inside and outside the Episcopal Church. He is sometimes credited as a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, but this is not accurate; rather, his work with the Oxford Group movement for “moral re-armament” inspired the founders of AA, and Shoemaker supported their early efforts.

17 years after this essay for TLC, Shoemaker reported on a later effort at organized evangelism: “The Episcopal Church and Evangelism.” He is commemorated on January 31 as “Priest and Evangelist, 1963” in Holy Women, Holy Men.

Below is the first part of his essay.

“Why some evangelism peters out,” from The Living Church (April 26, 1930).

By Samuel M. Shoemaker

I BELIEVE that our Church has, at long last, awakened to the need for evangelism. But I am not sure that as yet we know very much about how to set an actual evangelistic movement on foot. We have tried it once or twice in the past few years, and am I far wrong when I say that most of the fires of evangelistic zeal which blazed up in many places two or three years ago have pretty well gone out? These movements did a great deal of good. Many were lifted into a sense of the reality of spiritual things; others deepened in their sense of obligation to the Church; some were doubtless soundly converted. For all this we may thank God: even a few results in the spiritual life of individuals and parishes were worth all that they cost of time and effort and money. I suppose that these movements have left behind them the machinery which they called into operation: there are committees and commissions and pamphlets and follow-up. But has the Church, as a whole, or even in any considerable portion of it, been awakened to new life by them? And have not a good many of the clergy and most interested lay people said, “This is only what we expected in the first place. All this talk about evangelism is emotional; it was just a flash in the pan?”

Now, I worked for one of these movements. I never worked harder or more happily than in the week’s mission which I conducted in connection with it. But I believed then that the movement was in danger of impermanence because it did not seem to me to be following the experience of genuine awakenings in the past. I am throwing no stones at particular movements as such; I am simply using them as types of efforts which arise from time to time, have their day, burn themselves out and, so far as the general membership of the Church is concerned, vanish away. I am asking why they vanish in this way. Some of the wisest and best men of our communion poured themselves out in a flood of prayer and worked without stint. I still insist that we did not come anywhere near getting the Church evangelized, nor did we make any appreciable bid for the attention of the outsiders to whom we were sent. What was the matter? Will you forgive me if at the outset I say some things which sound negative, and later come to some positive suggestions?

First, I think our plans were too pretentious. We felt a great need about us, within and without the Church. We felt responsible, and we wanted to “do something.” We wanted to do something large: our people were cold, the world was indifferent, and God laid a concern upon our hearts. And so we made great plans to reach the whole Church, almost at once. We would not start a fire in one place, and let it spread; we would start it everywhere simultaneously. The thing was highly organized, with the emphasis always upon the spiritual. We claimed the talent of the best men we could find. The Church papers were full of it; we got it “in the air” of our people’s thinking. But, to put it crudely, I think we bit off more than we could chew. There was no corresponding increase in our spiritual power to this predicted increase in our fruitage. I am afraid that organized modern evangelistic movements are spiritual Towers of Babel. I think the Inter-Church World Movement was born of a union between pride and spiritual passion: and it crashed fearfully because it over-reached.

Second, we took for granted our workers. We called in the “best” men, those humanly gifted or qualified with brains, personality, preaching power, evangelistic interest — in other words, appropriate men. The plans must be general enough to include widely divergent points of view, and these men must come together without any previous intimate fellowship, must work rapidly, assuming their loyalty to one another but not having time to test it. Their fellowship was purely formal in most eases, and grew out of the immediate enterprise in hand. They were chosen by responsible men at headquarters as men likely to be able to lead an evangelistic crusade. The number chosen must be somewhat arbitrary, so as to fill the openings which were given. But unfortunately, not every man who believes in evangelism knows how to evangelize. Men who knew nothing of practical evangelism at home were not more effective when they went a few hours’ journey on a train, and preached somewhere else. “Such as I have give I thee.” If he had had no evangelistic results in his own parish, he would not have them in some other parish where he was sent. I said at the time of the Bishops’ Crusade, “There needs to be held a crusade among the crusaders before they will have power among the people to whom they are sent.” Now that crusade among the crusaders was, of course, never carried on. We assumed that a man’s willingness to try to conduct an evangelistic campaign was evidence enough of his power to do it. They were busy men, there was not time to get them together for long; and it seemed almost an insult to their spiritual consecration to suggest that they needed anything more than a few suggestions about how to organize their work.

Similarly, when it comes to lay evangelism, we choose our earnest men, and the women who are faithful in the guild, ask them to come for a small meeting at the rectory, outline a plan for bringing more people to church, do most of the talking ourselves, the conversation being punctured now and then by a vacuous question from a good soul without the slightest idea of how to persuade anybody of anything, or — still worse — by a wordy discourse from an evangelistic eccentric, try to “sum up” the results of the evening, manage to make an extemporaneous prayer, give them a leaflet from 281 Fourth Avenue, and send them forth to evangelize the parish! What wonder they give up and fall in their tracks, and that the results are meager? Much more has got to happen to them before they can help it to happen to other people.

Third, the workers, lay people especially, but clergy also, were not acquainted with the kind of need which they had to meet, and therefore had no technique by which they might be expected to meet it. It is one thing to go to a parish, or a lapsed Church member, with the thought in our minds that these men and women do not make their Communions often enough, or help their rector enough in his parish responsibilities, or read their Bibles enough, or give enough to missions. These things are all probably true. But such results as we seek come only after a very long process, and cannot without disaster be made the immediate aim of an evangelistic address or conversation. This means that you merely want them to come to church: you never get at their personal needs, or their relation to our Lord. Whether you speak to a group, or face an individual, there is apt to sit in front of you one who is wondering whether there is a God, what motives bring you to him, will he admire your courage or pity your naivete, what would happen if he got the divorce he wants, how can he drive a better bargain in business, how can people find any excitement in such a tame outfit as the church on the comer, why is sin and selfishness so much more alluring than the timid program which this person is putting up to him? There is doubt abroad in the land, and there is sin. And it is no use skirting about and talking of the rector being overworked, or the foreign missionary budget, when it is all in a different world from the one in which your host habitually lives. This simply means that the conversation is bound to be somewhat trivial, and to center chiefly in the question of Church loyalty and attendance.

Fourth, evangelism means both an experience and a technique, and it is utterly impossible to hurry these things through for a special occasion. Someone at diocesan headquarters goes out in the country to see a rector, and talk with him about his cooperation in a great evangelistic campaign. The scheme is outlined. He is a warm friend of spiritual work, and says he will gladly come in on it: and the diocesan officer goes back and says he had a “great response!” Now, that country rector is just where he was before he was called on. He is not doing a bit better work with his own parishioners. If he were far enough along to be useful in a great evangelistic campaign, he would be having definite evangelistic results in his own parish. I am not saying that some men do not have them; I am saying that we call to general evangelistic service a good many of them who do not have such results in their home parishes. We ask them to preach missions, we put them on our evangelistic committees. Some people can be won at first approach, some you will wait years to win. Many are gun-shy and afraid of any approach at all  —you cannot touch them in a big, sweeping evangelistic drive, and will do them more harm than good. You get your greatest response from the emotionally suggestible, or else you awaken a merely temporary interest in your steady people. People are not won merely by being put on a parish list and being visited, except those least capable of leadership. They are won when we put them in our hearts, and win their friendship, and some day share with them a great experience of Christ, and get them to give their lives to Him. This slower, quieter, more flexible way is much better adapted to the Church member who has no idea of the need of further possible reaches in experience; to the out-and-out sinners who shy away from being gathered in a net; and to the more intellectual outsiders who must slowly be exposed to more of the facts of religious experience.

Fifth, even where real spiritual results were secured, there was no center for continuing and developing the experience which was begun. Frankly, the average church is no place in which to find fresh fuel to keep warm a new religious experience. By and large, we are organized to produce and to sustain a kind of religion in second-gear, something admirably adapted to the cautious, the conservative, the middle-aged. Beginners need fellowship with other beginners, so that they may go through their readjustments together. And they need fellowship with those farther along who yet know what Drummond called the “rationale” of conversion, and are very understanding of how to bring these people through their slumps and difficulties. To help a woman to find a first-hand experience of Christ, and then by way of fostering it ask her to work on a social service committee which must not mention religion to their cases, or to make jam for the orphanage, or even to pack a box for a missionary is just poor technique. She still needs something to get her into regular devotional habits, someone to help her integrate the new experience into the old surroundings. She needs intelligently articulate people who can talk naturally about what has been happening to them and to her. You know perfectly well that there is almost no such thing as spiritual fellowship in most churches, unless you are going to misuse terms and call by this high name the mere social chit-chat in the porch of the church after service, or the groups working together in various parish guilds. Fellowship takes time and it takes honesty, and it is one of the happiest and one of the costliest of gifts of Christian experience.

Part 2 of Shoemaker’s essay, on positive suggestions, will appear next Thursday. 

Richard Mammana is the archivist of The Living Church.


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