By Bill Wilson
It’s time to talk about the obvious: We have a problem with evangelism.
Let me explain what I mean.
• “We”: All of us, regardless of theology, denomination, setting or worship style are struggling with this issue. I work with churches from all points on all spectrums, and I have yet to find one that would argue with this statement.
• “Have a problem”: The ability of a church to reach the nonbelieving, unchurched community is at the heart of the design of the church Jesus left us to implement. When that pipeline of new converts is cut off, our days are numbered. It’s simple math and basic health. Nearly all our conversion growth is among our biological offspring, and the vast majority of it occurs prior to age 18.
• “With evangelism”: The abrasive American evangelism methodology from the mid- and late 20th century has left us leery and reticent about evangelism. Most churches have no real strategy for reaching others.
We need a fresh appreciation for, understanding of and plan for sharing the Good News with a world in need.
I find it helpful to consider evangelism through the simplistic ministry lens of my father, myself and my son.
• My father graduated from seminary in 1955. The prevailing method of evangelism in the churches he served was the revival. Growing out of the Great Awakening and the citywide crusades of the early 20th century, evangelism took place at the church in a revival. Gradually, the era of local revivals waned, as they became less and less effective.
• I graduated from seminary in 1980. The primary method for evangelism during my early ministry was personal witnessing. Evangelism Explosion, CWT, the Four Spiritual Laws and other methods were developed as a script to guide conversations with strangers toward a life-changing decision on the spot. Gradually, these methods fell victim to shifts in culture and an awareness of their limitations.
• My son graduated from divinity school in 2012. The church culture he entered is generally missing a coherent evangelism strategy. In its place has emerged a nebulous “missions emphasis” that seeks to engage church members in projects near and far with those in need. The good works and real help are done in the name of Christ, with the hope that the recipients will somehow become Christians as a result.
I have participated fully in all of these methods and found meaning in all. I have also found each of them severely limited in its ability to reach and appropriately convey deep meaning to nonbelievers. None of them adequately embody what our churches need if we are to live out our call to preach the Good News and make disciples.
When I work with a congregation that decides to revisit evangelism with a 21st-century methodology, here is what often happens.
1. It quickly becomes apparent that a general lack of clarity and literacy with Scripture and theology is a foundational problem. You cannot talk about something with others that you do not understand. The first step toward a coherent evangelism strategy is usually a strong discipleship strategy for existing Christians.
2. Confrontational evangelism is rejected for relational evangelism. The injury done by confrontational evangelists to the kingdom of God is hard to overestimate. As a result, any congregation starts its efforts to reach nonbelievers with a significant handicap of guilt-by-association that must be overcome. Emphasizing relationships leads to another insight for most churches: we don’t have very many relationships with nonbelievers.
3. These churches gradually discover that others are wrestling with similar issues, and that there are some excellent resources available. Many find Just Walk Across the Room by Bill Hybels and The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter especially helpful. Groups like Fresh Expressions offer creative and healthy ideas. There are many others.
4. It soon becomes apparent that some of the primary times people make significant shifts in their faith-life are clustered around crises and pain. Thus, a beginning point for churches which want to impact the nonbelieving community is to offer relevant and ongoing help in these critical fracture moments. Life crises like addiction, poverty, death, divorce, single-parenting, mental illness, medical crises, homelessness, hunger and incarceration become a significant focus of the church. This means funding, staffing, facilities and intention that are far more extensive than offering a basement room to the AA group.
5. These churches are becoming increasingly aware of who lives in their neighborhood, and taking responsibility for them and all of their life needs. Mission projects become much more than “turkeys, trips and toys,” but seek to establish life-changing and on-going relationships and conversations with neighbors or with a specific community.
Our evangelism implosion is real. I pray you will embrace evangelism in a way that honors Christ’s intent, your church’s DNA and your context. God bless you on that journey.