I know the title puts the skids on for some. What? Evangelism lost? That didn’t happen. You are right in the sense that God continues to reach people, and he continues to use his church, unquestionably. But what I am insinuating did happen. A shift took place that relegated evangelism from prominence. I believe such a moment occurred. I am not alone. Scores of authors have noted big E’s demise. For blog’s sake, I will leave out the long list. But I see value in explaining it. So here is my semi-anecdotal (not based on hard research) perspective on how evangelism got lost, and the rippling wake it has left behind.
Beginning decades back, when expert-after-expert began to sequester gospel influence inside our weekend enclaves, the church gathered, in all practical measures, became the salvation vehicle. In general terms, this depicts our current state. As an example, consider the 2014 Outreach Magazine article from Dan Kimball, where after describing the stories of eighteen baptizees, he writes, “In almost every case, the Sunday meeting is a major factor in a person’s decision to follow Jesus.” In the minds of leader legions, the church service enveloped evangelism. The value even became a mantra: “Belong before believe.”
The idea of equating “joining” with evangelism, from my vantage point, is the great missiological shift of our time. The early church would have squashed it, seeing the self-imposed limitation. But in the modern era, when traditional-evangelism has turned off so many, it was welcomed as the prime vehicle and bearer of the good news. Thus, congregants learned to downplay their messaging and invite to church where they could be won.
The shift arrived from two places: (1) The re-visional seeker model of church, and (2) the rejection of the traditional “telling ” mode of evangelism within missional circles. For the record, I am not against the first change (God has used it to reach scores), and I happen to agree with the second reaction, but not the rejection of personal evangelism per se. But can you see it: Church evangelism in, personal evangelism out. Both ideations were underlays to the new ground, which playing out has left residuals—the biggest being a missional discipleship hole. That is where we are today. Christians know the gospel, but reach few with it.
Whether you agree or disagree with my assessment is up for debate. Yet, we can all assess the stats staring us down right now. According to researcher Ryan Kozey of Christ Together, 73 percent of surveyed Christians had no relationships with people outside the church. The Southern Baptists recent study affirmed 75 percent as unengaged. Some years back, Thom Rainer’s research calculated that it took eighty-five Christians per year to reach one non-Christian. Compounding the anemia is a drifting culture. The now famous ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) report showed America’s irreligious sector soared from 8 to 15 percent in two decades. Barna bumped it to 20. Which means 1 in 5 now describe themselves as non-religious. Author James White notes, “They are not seekers.” In my words, they are not willing to belong, being outside the “joiner’s circle.”
A new challenge arises. Whether the “attractional” mainstay will keep its dominant hold—will have to be seen. I do not predict much change. Attraction is what we know. Mission is what we do not know and where most members remain inept with little knowledge of faith formation process and skills. Nevertheless, in light of the darker day and in hopes of a greater discipleship vision, I advocate for reframing evangelism and re-equipping church members. Will you join me?
It is ironic that the greatest potential of the church does not lie in the messaging of its pastors, but rather the messaging of its people. It’s the people who are in closest proximity to a more distant culture. I believe the reason the early church had its prolific advance is that there was such a close connection between following Christ and his call to further his message. Amid the cultural slide, the untapped potency of our people becomes more relevant everyday. As to the antiquated “telling” mode, which has repelling affects, I have a new evangelistic paradigm that is more natural and far more effective. Without watering anything down it loses the hindering baggage. Based on Christ’s communication patterns, I call it “soul whispering.” It’s worth your look.
We could reach so many more, if evangelism was found.