If I were to write a book on the NZ church, or evangelism in NZ, or such, I think I’d include a chapter along these lines. So, watch this space, perhaps. These thoughts are rough, but might be honed later; for instance I’ve merged at least a couple of economics-based thoughts together, and they could perhaps be profitably separated.
I’d need to revise basic game theory to spell this out rigorously, but it seems to me that there are somewhat distorted incentives operating in the case of local churches that may help to explain failure to act in some ways that seem to me like they would be very beneficial to evangelism. Two cases that I am particularly interested in come to mind.
The first is the large need for Christians moving from small towns to the city to connect in with a local city church – most clearly seen perhaps in the case of new uni students. Other than due to some pastoral concern for the individuals involved, there is little incentive for the home (small-town) church to be part of this connecting-up process. There are no doubt many pressures on a local minister’s time, and they can’t look after everyone to the extent that might be ideal. In many or most cases, there won’t be any direct benefit to the home church of helping a student from the provinces stay connected with their faith – for all kinds of reasons they probably won’t be going back to that town long-term; once they’ve gone to uni, whatever else happens they are most likely lost to that church.
If churches and Christians in general act in accord with this lack of incentive, then surely across the board we’ll see a widespread failure of students moving to university towns to intentionally connect up with good churches in the new city. Many will of course connect up with a church, but this is unlikely to be as intentional as it would be if there was more structured or facilitated support; I suspect the churches connected with are likely to be the largest and loudest, which seems to me to be to the loss of smaller churches everywhere. I say that this is a co-operative dilemma, as it seems to me that if there was a more common practice of facilitating the shift in churches for young people; if students were more intentionally connected in with Christian ministries in their new location, many churches would benefit. If the numbers involved are significant, then there would presumably be benefit to small town churches in the long-term too, as some of the graduates shifting from the city will have been plugged into churches through the practice (perhaps it would be smaller city churches that would gain most of the benefit), and hence more likely to want to join the small-town congregations. i.e. if most churches did this, everyone would benefit to some extent, while if only a few churches do it they are unlikely to benefit from it.
A second possible example of a co-operative dilemma regards a particular type of evangelism; probably in fact a few different kinds that I’m combining together. I’m not sure what to call this, but some potential terms include “green field evangelism”, “sowing widely”, “preparative evangelism”, and “kicking the rocks out of the way” (thinking of the parable of the sower). I think there is little incentive, particularly for small, struggling, churches, to engage in the early stages of engaging with non-Christians with evangelistic intentions. I think particularly of apologetics, and attempts to shape the thought of society more broadly such that it is more open to Christian theism, at the institutional level of universities and government, for instance. If many Christians are engaging in the area, surely evangelistic fruit would multiply, but there is, you could say, a fixed cost in this field – because the benefits are dispersed (people may come to faith through more direct appeals further down the track, which unknowingly depend on the earlier sowing) the initial pay-offs will be small to non-existent to churches involved in the effort. If there was a concerted effort to promote the fundamentals of the Christian worldview in society however, then activities associated with later stages in an evangelistic pathway would be more fruitful across the board. It occurs to me now, that one outcome of this situation may be (again, this is based on personal experience) that things that could be considered pre-evangelism, such as social-justice initiatives are often not really oriented towards sharing the gospel in practice; we simply don’t expect that particular goal to be successful in our context, so we ignore potential future evangelistic steps rather than acting in light of them (of course social justice type initiatives have intrinsic value in themselves, but if they are able to be oriented towards the holistic good of their recipients i.e. to promote the gospel, so much the better).
To acknowledge that there is an evangelistic pathway, and that apologetics and social justice have a role to play near the beginning of it, is not, I think, to bow the knee to rationalism or any such thing, but this is something I’ll need to develop more. The Word of God should be integrated into these activities in any case, in concert with attempts to prompt the intuitions of those who do not yet trust in Christ. God is pleased to act through secondary mechanisms such as nature and conscience, and surely if we can use these we ought to, while holding that saving faith will only come by hearing and believing the Word.
It seems to me that the wider church, denominations, parachurch ministries, or things along these lines, have an important role to play in reorienting the incentives for local church ministry here, so that people can see the importance of connecting people who leave into a new church and of preparatory evangelism. I’ve only skimmed it, but this article from UCCF on the theological and historical justification for non-congregational groups of Christians working alongside the local church seems very good. [link]