Whatever happened to evangelism? It’s a fair question. It’s a good question. But it’s one which needs unpacking. Asking whatever happened to evangelism is not the same as asking, “Why don’t we have revival meetings anymore?” Let’s face it. Except for a few cases, those protracted meetings have gone the way of black and white TVs. In case you hadn’t noticed, culture has shifted. Attractional events have ceased to be effective in reaching nonbelievers. (Come to think of it, did those revival meetings ever attract the unchurched, or merely guests from other congregations?) Family fragmentation, parents working two or three jobs, kids’ sports offered seven days a week — you name it. Families no longer sit around, wondering what’s going on tonight down at First Church (if they ever did).
Furthermore, in asking whatever happened to evangelism, we err when we assume that no spiritual awakenings are occurring anywhere on God’s earth. China is exploding with spiritual life. I recently heard a report on the powerful acts of God among Syrian Christians, even in the face of their brutal civil war. And space does not permit us to discuss spiritual renewal bursting forth in South America and Africa. The late Phyllis Tickle deftly summarized some of God’s amazing work (Emergence Christianity and The Age of the Spirit).
Whatever happened to evangelism? I offer my “glass is half-full” answer here. In next month’s column, we’ll examine the same glass, half-empty. First, the good news about the Good News. Evangelism (bringing people into a saving, growing relationship with Jesus Christ) is present in our congregational life; it’s just dressed in different clothing. At its healthiest and best, evangelism is not an isolated program, sticking out all by itself. Instead, it is imbedded in the DNA of our congregations, as we live out an incarnational presence in our communities.
Examples abound. A woman teaches knitting at a faith-sponsored community center, and as they work, the students discuss answers to prayer and the difference Christ makes in life. A single adult finds authentic relationships in a Friday night small group and confesses Christ as Savior. A congregation sponsors Art-in-the-Park, and some local artists begin to reassess their negative views of God, faith and the church. A church takes communion to some of its members at a local care facility. A resident who is not a member is invited to share in the simple worship service. Suddenly, old chords within her heart are strummed, spiritual memories are awakened and she expresses a desire for a relationship with the Lord and His church.
Furthermore, how many families are reached for Christ as the church offers community service opportunities for children, youth and adults? During our recent Youth Sunday, one of our young men shared how he came to faith — not because a stranger knocked on his door, but through his first-ever youth mission trip to New Orleans, as we worked with locals toward community restoration.
And now, a new, 21st century twist. Some are calling the church’s advocacy work our new evangelism. Nonbelievers are turned off by institutional religion, which seems more interested in preserving its power than speaking for the marginalized. But when a group of believers begins to speak up for the powerless, the world notices.
Will Rogers once commented, “Schools aren’t as good as they used to be. But then, they never have been.” The same could be said about the church’s evangelism. We don’t merely remember the past; we sometimes embellish it. The church still has a life-transforming gospel. Instead of bemoaning the loss of the good old days of packed-house revival meetings, let’s celebrate all the ways Christ is being shared today, through new, creative and more contextualized delivery systems.