What is wrong with this picture?
When I graduated from college with a degree in Bible, I knew little about evangelism. Actually, I preached about a dozen years before I accidentally became aware of the possibilities for reaching out the gospel. Aside from some negligible results from involvement in bus ministry,(1) I had little experience in evangelism.
When the elders decided to offer evangelism training in the local congregation, I signed up, and I was especially diligent in finishing the assignments. (After all, I was the preacher.) Surprise! The gospel, simply presented to those outside of Christ, is powerful! From meager beginnings in which I knew almost nothing of evangelism, and even less of my personal obligation to be involved in sharing the gospel, I began to measure visible results (knowing that some results are invisible or yet future). I wanted to know how many were being baptized, how many were placing membership, how many were moving in, moving out, being born, dying, falling away. Only a decade later in continuing graduate school studies did I learn that church growth studies are also interested in that kind of information.
Now I am involved in training young men for ministry. I remember students preparing for ministry saying, "I have never shared the gospel with anyone." Some have expressed surprise that in a Church Growth and Evangelism class that they would be asked to attempt to teach Bible studies to non-Christians. One senior Bible major said, "I've never personally evangelized anyone, and I don't think I know how."
What is the nature of the problem?
The task of taking the gospel into our world is no easy task, and the task is not made easier by taking the gospel next door to our neighbors. In fact, in many cases, the task seems more difficult. What is the problem?
The problem is not in the power of the gospel! Nor in most cases is the problem laziness or apathy on the part of church members. (I hope you are relieved to know that I have no desire to lay upon you another guilt trip about our failures in evangelism.) The problem is that even in our nation, and especially in the foreign mission fields of our world, we are taking the gospel across cultural frontiers. As the 21st century looms large, traditional methods and activities that are meaningful to us as church members are increasingly ineffective in touching the world around us.
Brief History of Evangelism
Shortly after World War 2, two evangelistic methods became very popular--revivals (our gospel meetings), and individual Bible studies (our Cottage Meetings, later Home Bible Studies). The outward success of Billy Graham's crusades is only one evidence of the success these methods met in the mid-20th century. We can point to our own history and observe similar results. We were among the fastest growing religious groups in America.
By the time the Baby Boomers came of age and the prevailing worldview began to change with the loss of respect for authority and the rapid rise of individualism which was only one evidence of humanism, other methods came into vogue. Bus ministries attempted to "go into the highways and byways," the increasing technology of the mass media led to renewed efforts in print and broadcast, and saturation evangelism was a popular term in church growth circles.
In the early 1970s, Ray Stedman popularized the idea of "Body Evangelism," suggesting that a properly functioning church could draw others to it. The popularity of small groups increased. Cho proved that the natural efforts of the "body" could have tremendous results.
Recently I read a book on "Worship Evangelism." Along the way we have learned about seeker friendly services, meeting felt needs, preaching to problems, and a host of other methods. Most of our churches can be found somewhere methodologically along this history line of the last 50 years, and some few churches are trying everything.
Understanding the Dilemma
How well do we understand the secularized world in which we live? Do we understand the worldview of our neighbors, or what is going on in their minds? Are we in tune to modern philosophies, or contemporary emotional stresses?
What did Jesus mean when he said we are to be "in the world, but not of the world"? Is he merely talking morality? As I contemplate the immense challenge before us, I realize that the task of sharing the gospel is more complex and varied than we have realized. Our society is less than receptive. The great things occurring today in seminars and megachurches is making little impact on the larger society. The Western world is in a cultural shift that offers a bewildering challenge. What shall we do next?
1. I call the results negligible, not because few were baptized through the bus ministries in which I was involved, but because the long term effect was negligible with most of those baptized falling away from the church within five years.
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