Christianity Explored has just celebrated its tenth birthday. We thought we should celebrate what has been achieved and — most importantly — plan and pray about how to take the ministry forward over the next ten years.
Firstly, it is worth remembering that Christianity Explored (CE) in its current form was created by Barry Cooper, Sam Shammas and myself at All Soul’s, Langham Place. It sought to ‘let the Gospel tell the gospel’ in the most powerful way we could find by letting people discover the Identity Mission and Call of Jesus from Mark’s Gospel.
Ten years on, the ministry has expanded its range of products dramatically. It now publishes a wide range of different materials, including the follow-on course, Discipleship Explored (DE) and books such as One Question and One Life. Various versions have been developed, including the youth version. English as a second language editions of both CE and DE are also now available. These resources are all designed to introduce the Christian faith, from the Bible, to non-believers, primarily in group settings. Increasingly, however, we are seeing them used in very small groups and even for one-to-ones.
More than 5,000 courses a year now run in over 70 nations around the world. We believe this figure represents just over a third of the member countries of the United Nations. Courses span the denominational spectrum and have been translated into more than 20 languages and numbers continue to grow all the time.
Our most significant decision in 2011 was to invest in a third edition of the core CE course. This meant shortening it from ten sessions to seven, re-shooting the DVD and creating an all-new CE website aimed at seekers wherever they may be around the world. Since the new edition was launched in May we have seen a rise of well over 50% in the number of handbooks sold.
This is a humbling result and looking back there are certain key phrases that I have found myself saying again and again to individuals and at conferences. I believe them far more passionately now than I did ten years ago and, as an evangelist seeking to prepare God’s people for service (Ephesians 4.12), I am passionate about the fact that they bear repeating. Indeed, whatever else happens to CE, these truths will be central to our ministry over the next ten years. Time and again I’ve found these are the places where the battle is fought as we plead with churches to become more evangelistically focussed. So here are the phrases.
1. Get the calendar right
Evangelism is like mother’s milk and apple pie. In theory everyone is for it, but the first battle you have to fight is getting courses running regularly in the church year.
If you have the dates of a course in the diary (spring, summer, autumn), then there is a place to put the visitors who come at Christmas and Easter, if their interest is sparked. It’s a focal point for preachers because they can say: ‘If you’re not a Christian here today, then thank you so much for coming and if that point strikes you, well here is a place to discuss it’. And, above all, the church family knows where to bring its friends. Having courses that run regularly is critical, because many people take a long time to come. I reckon it usually takes 18 months from someone hearing about the course and being asked to them eventually coming. This means that the church family needs to know it is rock solid in the diary.
2. You can do it
From 1996 I had been trying to teach church leaders and members how to go through Mark’s Gospel with non-Christians. During those sessions I would so often see the screensaver go up in people’s eyes and the sentiment was obvious: ‘Rico, you can go through Mark’s Gospel with people, but I never could’. Then, really by chance, as we met to plan the filming of the first DVD in 2000 we saw that the journey through Mark could be summed up with three words — Identity (who is Jesus?), Mission (why did he come?), Call (what does it mean to follow him?).
I’ll never forget the first training session I went to after that three-word discovery. It was in Stirling on a bank holiday weekend. I announced that understanding Mark’s Gospel is about grasping these three words and the drama is seeing that the disciples are blind to them. People listened, I could see the hope in their eyes because it was so simple and yet so profound. At the end I turned to an old lady in a group to my left and I asked: ‘Do you think you could teach through Mark’s Gospel?’ And she replied in a deep Scottish accent: ‘Well dear, if it’s only three words, I think we probably can’.
3. How they come is how they stay
The CE material encourages individuals to come to faith as they hear the Bible at four levels — and to establish that foundation of Bible input that will take them from here to eternity.
The four levels are: (1) from the front — they hear the talks; (2) in a small group — they look at the studies together and ask questions; (3) one-to-one — particularly at the end of the evening they discuss where they are at with their leaders individually; and (4) in the home study where they read the Bible for themselves through the week.
This means we are aiming not so much at having biblical pulpits but creating biblical churches. Underlying all this is a question I so often ask at training conferences: ‘Where in the Christian life is the power?’ Well, the power is in the Word (Mark 4.26).
4. Cross the painline
Victor Hugo said: ‘Life’s greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved’. Christianity Explored as an experience often stands or falls on whether an individual has grasped grace. However, to really understand grace we have first to see the horrors of our sin. We must see that sin leads to judgment, where we will experience God’s wrath and ultimately find ourselves in hell, unless we have trusted in the rescue of the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 1.10). So the question is, as a leader, do I have the nerve to repeat to people the warning of Jesus in Mark 9.43-48? If I think I can do what I like with the hands and feet and eyes that God has given me, I’ll find myself in hell for eternity. It is a desperately counter-cultural message, but, as Billy Graham said, ‘In evangelism it’s not getting people saved that’s the problem, it’s getting them lost’. This is why from weeks two to seven we say to people: you are not good people going to heaven, but sinners going to hell. So please embrace the Lord Jesus Christ.
These lessons are hard-wired into CE, we are passionate about getting them out and as we now look ahead they will be our guiding lights. So where do we want to be in ten years’ time? We recognise the need for a third course that sits alongside CE and DE, although precisely what that will look like at this point is unclear.
We will undoubtedly need to respond to the dramatic technological revolution taking place in the dissemination of information. This means that all our courses will be able to be delivered over the internet as well as face to face. This has exciting implications for evangelism in places officially hostile to the gospel, where seekers may in future do CE online, away from the prying eyes of the prevailing civil or religious authorities.
Having said that, we will not overlook the fact that many churches in our land remain unaware of CE. We therefore aim to have a network of CE advocates operating in every county or region, and in every major town in the UK, by 2021. And internationally, we hope and pray that, within the next ten years, we might have penetrated fully two-thirds of UN countries, through CE having been translated into no less than 50 different languages.
Are such grand designs possible, in such a time of almost institutional cultural opposition to the gospel in the UK? Well, if they accord with God’s purposes, and if we always stay faithful to him, they just might.