Churches of Christ have lost much of our historic evangelistic fervor and it seems few have noticed or care.
From time to time I hear the infrequent question, "What has happened to evangelism?" The question is a valid one. In the 1950s and '60s, we were among the fastest growing religious groups in the US, if not the fastest growing group. More recently, repeated studies have revealed that our growth rate has declined significantly, and for a short time a few years ago was in negative numbers (we were not growing but declining). We may be growing again, but we are certainly not keeping pace with many of our religious friends and neighbors. What has happened to evangelism? Several answers have been given.
* Some suggest our preachers have become less evangelistic. I believe that is true. Yet with the average congregation employing more ministers than in times past, decline in the personal evangelistic efforts of our preachers is not likely the primary reason for a lack of evangelism in a local church.
* A corollary suggests that we are more dependent on the preacher than in times past. As a congregation hires more ministry staff, its members become less involved in and committed to ministry. We observe an increasing tendency to hire our ministry done. This factor seems to explain a lack of evangelism more readily than the first.
* Our leaders have become less evangelistic. I believe this is also true. I remember when it seemed to me as a youngster that the primary job of elders and deacons was to teach home Bible studies and do personal evangelism. That has certainly changed.
* People in our nation are less interested in religion. This is also true in our culture with declining church attendance, but as various other religious groups around us continue to grow, we know that this cannot be the entire answer.
* Our members have become less evangelistic. I believe this is the real reason for our decline in evangelism.
In the view of an overall decline in the evangelistic efforts of Christian religious groups, a recent Barna survey (July 2003) researched evangelism. Barna states the problem, "As people in the United States increasingly embrace elements of postmodern philosophy, Christian evangelism could become an endangered behavior." Postmodernism values tolerance and individual truth, thus opposing evangelistic efforts to persuade others concerning truth. Barna recognizes the problem is due in part to a changing cultural mindset, especially in the post-modern worldview. "Despite the emphasis that postmodernism places upon tolerance and diversity of opinions, it also says that there are no absolute moral or spiritual standards that are appropriate for everyone and thus rejects aggressive evangelistic efforts as an attempt to 'impose' one person's view on others."
The report has important information. Barna's research showed that million born-again adults shared their faith in Jesus Christ with non-believers during the past year. That is about 60% of approximately 80 million born-again adults. The 80 million are about 40% of the 200 million adults in the US. Overall, Barna says that slightly less than one out of four adults who attend a Protestant or Catholic church (23%) are both born again and have shared their faith in the past 12 months.
This statistic focuses much of our problem in churches of Chirst. On average, 1/4 of "Christians" in our society are sharing their faith. My observations suggest that the number in most congregations of the churches of Christ is not nearly that high. We may be good at inviting to church, but we are not very active in sharing our faith. We must return to "personal" evangelism. Personal evangelism recognizes that effective evangelism is personal, personally reaching out to friends and family and neighbors and coworkers. Impersonal evangelism--largely through cold turkey contacts--is not nearly as effective as "personal" evangelism. I can share my faith best with those I know best. The effectiveness of personal evangelism depends upon a large number of people becoming personally involved in evangelism if a church is to reach its community.
The Barna research identified only three church groups among the nine studied for which at least half of the adherents were born again and had shared their faith in the past year: Assemblies of God (67%), non-denominational Christian churches (51%); and Pentecostal churches, other than Assemblies of God (50%). The rates were lower for Baptists (40%), Presbyterians (31%), Lutherans (24%), Methodists (21%), Episcopals (13%) and Catholics (10%). Other statistics of interest are that an evangelistic focus is less common in the Midwest; whites are somewhat less likely than ethnic Christians to share their faith; and that evangelizers are more likely to attend a church of 300 or more people.
In churches of Christ, we understand that church membership involves new birth. We would claim, at least in theory, that all of our members are "born again." But where is the church of Christ that can claim that 50% or more of its adult members are actively sharing their faith and evangelizing their friends, families, and neighbors? Let us return to "personal" evangelism! In our heart of hearts, we know, do we not, that such congregations, if they exist at all, are few and far between? Let us return to "personal" evangelism!
What would it take for us to get growing again?
Our ministers certainly must seize the evangelism opportunities presented them personally, and our sermons must have an evangelistic awareness and not ignore the evangelistic needs of our society. But the real key is our members. Let us return to "personal" evangelism! We must restore the mission of the church in the minds of our members. We must actively share our faith with our religious friends and neighbors.
Barna writes that churches desiring a greater evangelistic presence might be better served by focusing people's spiritual beliefs than by offering evangelism training and motivation. He concludes, "We know that people's behavior is driven by their beliefs, and the research showed that the most significant distinction between those who share Christ with the culture and those who don't relates to their religious beliefs. Providing motivation and behavioral training are helpful, but the factor that seems most likely to stimulate Christians to bring the truths and love of Jesus into the marketplace are what they believe about sin, surrender and salvation."
© Robert J. Young. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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