Chapter 1. “Whatever Happened To Evangelism?”

He asked the question in all sincerity.

“What is the best program or methodology for evangelism in the local church today?” he began. “Is it a certain program or memorized approach? Or is it simply encouraging members to develop relationships with unchurched people? Or is it an incarnational approach, where Christians live and work and play among non-Christians with an intentional desire to share the Gospel with them?”

My answer was yes.

Some who knew me at that speaking engagement began to laugh with hesitation. I could tell that they thought it was another Rainer attempt at humor. A weak attempt.

But my response came with no smile. I was serious.

“Any prayerful approach to evangelism,” I began, “is better than what most churches are doing, because most churches are doing little or nothing.”

The Curious But Sad Trajectory

“Local churches are devoting less time, less funding, and less emphasis on equipping, encouraging, and sending people to share the good news of Christ.”

Because I have consulted with churches for over twenty years, I have been able to observe the pattern up close. Each year it seems that local churches are devoting less time, less funding, and less emphasis on equipping, encouraging, and sending people to share the good news of Christ, particularly within their own immediate communities.

At one point, I could see theological distinctions. As a rule, the more theologically conservative churches were more likely to emphasize evangelism as a critical component of the church’s life. Such is not the case any more. The conservative churches are almost as anemic in evangelism as others. And the even more troubling news is that the trajectory gets worse every year.

More Evidence of the Disappearance of Evangelism

If my anecdotal consultation observations are insufficient evidence, our recent studies support our thesis. In one study we asked senior or lead pastors how many times they had intentionally shared their faith with someone, or just developed a relationship with a non-Christian with the hope of sharing the good news. In this survey where anonymity was protected, over half of the pastors, 53% to be precise, said “zero” in the previous six months.

You read that correctly. The majority of pastors weren’t evangelizing.

“Our evangelistic efforts are diminishing while a significant number of non-Christians are more receptive to hear about Jesus.”

Before we criticize these leaders too harshly, we see even less evidence of evangelistic efforts among the laity. And in some churches, the laity will get angry if the pastor doesn’t visit them when they have a minor illness. But they have no problem if no one in the church makes an effort to tell a lost person about Jesus.

"Meet my needs," they cry. "Who cares if those people spend eternity in hell?"

I’m sorry. My cynicism is not always healthy.

Decreasing Evangelism, Greater Receptivity

The sad irony is that our evangelistic efforts are diminishing while a significant number of non-Christians are more receptive to hear about Jesus from a Christian. In one study we conducted, we found that nearly four out of ten (38%) of non-Christians would either be highly receptive or receptive to hear from Christians about their beliefs. And only 5% indicated an antagonistic attitude toward hearing the Good News.

Tens of millions of lost persons in America are waiting to hear from Christians.

The silence is deafening.

The Evangelism Mandate

So why should evangelism be one of the highest priorities in your church? Allow me to share several of them.

Because Christ commanded it. We typically refer to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 as our evangelistic and disciples-making command. But there are many other places in the New Testament where the priority of evangelism is clearly evident. Christ commanded it. We must do it.

Because Christ is the only way of salvation. There is no way around it. Salvation is exclusive. There is only one way. Jesus could not have made it clearer in John 14:6: “Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” Jesus had an urgent message. He had an exclusive message. We must be conveyors of that narrowly-defined hope.

Because Christ died for the world. There is a reason John 3:16 is the most familiar and most quoted verse in the history of humanity. Jesus died for the world. He is the only way, but He has provided a way for everyone. That is a message that is urgent and worth telling. Indeed it’s the greatest message ever.

Because churches that are not intentional about evangelism typically are weak in evangelism. Many pastors and church leaders will affirm this article. They will give mental assent to the priority of evangelism. But they do not practice the priority of evangelism in their churches. What are you doing today to make certain evangelism is a priority in your church?

Because churches tend to obsess inwardly when they fail to move outwardly. Where has a lot of your church’s energy been expended lately? Rancorous business meetings? Expressions of petty church preferences? Worship wars? Power struggles? Those are inward obsessions. Lead your church to an evangelistic priority and watch the focus shift for the better.

Because churches become content and complacent with transfer growth. Some churches are growing. Others are adding members without significant numerical growth. But many in both categories are growing at the expense of other churches. Some may be reaching unchurched Christians. That’s good, but that’s not evangelism. We can fool ourselves into thinking we are evangelistic when we are simply recirculating the saints.

Because evangelistic Christians actually grow stronger as better discipled Christians. Those who are evangelistic are obedient to Christ. Being obedient to Christ means that we are following His teachings and becoming a better fruit-bearing disciple.

Churches are often too busy with activities, programs, and ministries. Few churches are truly sending out their members to evangelize those in their communities. The Great Commission has fast become the Great Omission.

Evangelism is dying

Churches are dying.

People are going to hell without Christ.

It is perhaps the greatest tragedy today.

What Keeps Christians From Evangelizing?

For now, let us focus on what is wrong. Let us look with stark honesty and candor at the ineffectiveness of most American believers when it comes to sharing their faith.

Spiritual Lethargy. One of the main reasons many Christians do not share their faith is simply explained by the word: disobedience. Spiritual lethargy takes place when we fail to obey Him. The problem for many Christians is that they are not growing spiritually, and lack of spiritual growth inevitably leads to a diminished desire to share Christ with others.

Growing Inclusivism. One of the faster-growing belief systems today is pluralism (all religions lead to God). A variation of pluralism called inclusivism is a dangerous doctrine that is gaining momentum in many American seminaries, Christian colleges, and churches. This view affirms that Jesus is the only way of salvation, but he can be found in other "good" religions. There is a subtle but growing belief among many Christians that somehow "good" followers will make it to heaven outside of a true Christian conversion. Our message will fall on deaf ears if this belief persists and grows.

Growing Disbelief in Hell. At one time, this was a view held almost entirely by unbelievers. However recent books by those claiming to be evangelicals have brought this discussion front and center. Those who truly have a desire to reach the unchurched have a burden to see people in the eternity of heaven, but they also desire to see them escape the wrath of an eternal hell. Denying the existence of hell undermines the urgency of placing one’s faith in Christ.

Busyness. Perhaps one of Satan’s most effective strategies is to get us so busy that we fail to do that which is such a high biblical priority. We can be deluded into complacency about the lostness of humanity around us. The unchurched are waiting for you to tell them about Jesus. They need to be on your to-do list. What priority do you give to reaching the lost?

Fear of Rejection. In research on this subject, I found that only one in four unchurched persons would be resistant to faith discussions. But nearly four out of ten of the unchurched will be receptive to your concern for their eternity, and more than one out of three will simply be neutral to your attempts. Simply stated, fear of rejection is unfounded. The few with an antagonistic attitude are not rejecting you personally; their anger is merely a reflection of something in their past. Fear of rejection is an often-used excuse by Christians for their failure to witness. And it is just that: an excuse.

A Desire to Be Tolerant. The message of the gospel, in some senses, is intolerant. The one true God insists there can be no other gods. He is a jealous God and leaves no room for other gods. In the post-modern culture of 21st century America, Christians should know the criticisms of intolerance will come. The great concern is that many Christians are unwilling to take a narrow view because they do not want to be labeled as intolerant. But Jesus never wavered in His insistence that He is the only way to the one and only true God.

Losing the Habit of Witnessing. Some Christians have been very active in sharing their faith with the lost and the unchurched. But, for a myriad of reasons, they get out of the habit, and it no longer becomes a priority. Witnessing, like prayer and Bible study, is a discipline. It is a habit to learn, to retain, and, if lost, to regain.

Lack of Accountability. Programmatic evangelism in local churches is sometimes denigrated because it is seen as a "canned" approach to witnessing. But one of the strengths of many of these programs is that some inherent system of accountability is built into the program itself. Accountability is likely to engender more witnessing attempts to the unchurched. Attempting more evangelistic encounters creates a habit of witnessing that then increases our zeal for evangelism.

Failure to Invite. When is the last time you invited an unchurched person to church? When is the last time you offered to take a person to church, or, at the very least, meet him or her at church? It’s a simple gesture, yet so few Christians do it.

We Go to Churches That Do Not Reach the Unchurched. The research from my book The Unchurched Next Door showed that churches reach one person for Christ each year for every 85 church members. That is a frightening and terrible ratio. One of the key reasons is because most Christians in America are members of churches that do not reach the unchurched.

So what are most of our churches in North America communicating to the world with our self-centeredness and lack of evangelistic fervor? It’s simple.

We are telling the world to go to hell.

May God convict us of our evangelistic apathy.

Getting Back to the Root of Evangelism

The first time I read Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church in 1984, it was a required textbook for a course at seminary. My subsequent six readings since then have all been the result of my desire to be reminded of the passionate heart of evangelism of the early Church. Green’s book, published in 1970, looks at the Church from the time of the Apostle Paul to Origen in the middle of the third century.

One of the greatest appeals of the book is the deep commitment to both theology and evangelism, and the recognition that the two cannot be divorced. Green says it well in the preface: “Most evangelists are not very interested in theology. Most theologians are not interested in evangelism. I am deeply committed to both.”

An Emerging and Encouraging Trend

Though my observations are anecdotal at this point, I am greatly encouraged to see more young church leaders today with a passion for both theology and evangelism. They realize that true evangelism will not take place without a solid biblical and theological foundation. And they realize that theology is dead unless it is lived out passionately in ministry and evangelism.

Nearly four decades ago, Michael Green rightly insisted that theology and evangelism must not be separated in the Church today.

Evangelistic Motives in the Early Church

Green noted some of the evangelistic motives of the early Church. Not surprisingly, each motive has deep theological and biblical roots.

A sense of gratitude. The early Christians were tireless and unselfish in their evangelistic zeal. They were prepared to sacrifice all, even their own lives, in order to share the gospel of Christ. One of their primary motives was their overwhelming gratitude for what Christ did for them. So many of the biblical truths affirm this reality. For example, we hear the Apostle Paul declare, “And I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

A sense of responsibility. The biblical mandate of evangelism is clear. We hear Great Commission passages repeated often. But the Bible is replete with passages that reflect this sense of responsibility. Paul, in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders, reported, “I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21).

“True evangelism will not take place without a solid biblical and theological foundation.”

A sense of concern. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10). The simple but powerful truth is that there are really two categories of humanity: the saved and the lost. The saved will spend eternity with Christ; the lost will spend eternity separated from Christ in hell. We must proclaim with passionate concern that Jesus in the only way of salvation (John 14:6). Our hearts should break over the lostness of humanity, and our response should be obedient and urgent evangelism.

A Beginning of One

Whatever happened to evangelism? I have my thoughts and my research, but for now the question is unanswered.

I can whine. I can lament. I can point to what others are not doing.

Or I can do something myself.

I admit that I could do more. A lot more. I could specifically pray each day that the Lord would put someone in my path where I could at least begin the Gospel conversation. I could pray for more spiritually sensitive eyes to those around me. I could be consistently accountable to someone about consistently sharing my faith. And I could encourage others to join me.

It’s time to do less analysis, less complaining, and less finger pointing. It’s time for action. And for me, it has to begin in my heart.