Evangelism in the Nineties


By: Elmer L. Towns

In the past 10 years there has been a definite change in the way people think about evangelism. The traditional American methods of evangelism are not as sacred in the minds of pastors as a decade ago. We hear less about tent revivals, mass evangelism, the annual church evangelistic campaign, and citywide crusades.

But evangelism is not dead. Gallup Poll conducted a survey for the Christian Broadcasting Network and reported 34 million adult Americans were involved in witnessing for Christ, and 43 million are actively participating in Bible study. An amazing 64.5 percent said they were more interested in religion now than they were five years ago.

Evangelism is as hot as ever, but the old techniques grow cold as new ways are developed to reach the lost for Christ.

From Decision-making to Disciple-making

The most obvious shift in evangelism during the past 10 years is that pastors are not as impressed by the evangelist who claims 240 decisions, as with the number of people who continue with Christ. Pastors want to see those who make decisions for Christ become disciples of Jesus Christ and grow toward maturity in the church.

Mass media campaigns have captured the attention of the public with such slogans as “Here’s Life, America” and “I Found It.” These efforts produced a great number of decisions, but pastors saw only a small number of new converts come into their churches. After investing millions of dollars in evangelism, some pastors question whether mass evangelism can indeed effectively evangelize a city.

Ten years ago, pastors passionately sought to be represented on Christian Life’s annual listing of the 100 largest Sunday schools. Statistics on bus riders, baptisms, and yearly growth became an idol to some. The Sword of the Lord listed churches that baptized 200 persons a year. The fixation was so great that some pastors mortgaged their future to bus ministry for instant growth; others tried every gimmick to attract a crowd. Some even lied to keep up the illusion of growth.

Since I was responsible for the “100 Largest” list, I do not apologize for motivating pastors to reach and baptize more people. I am responsible for my motives, and pastors who pursued only numerical expansion must be responsible for their motives. Those who attracted a crowd for the wrong motives paid the price in high mortgages, a mixed multitude, and loss of New Testament credibility.

Pastors now realize that disciple making is New Testament evangelism. They are not as concerned over the size of their Sunday school as with counting those who are truly Christian.

Some voices in the evangelical community protest Stimulus-Response evangelistic techniques, feeling that people are manipulated into making decisions by long invitations, emotional stories, and other gimmicks. They use the term soulwinning, implying that evangelism is similar to “selling” ice cream. They maintain that the pastor should emphasize the cause (preaching the gospel) and not the results (winning souls). They say that since the results are God’s responsibility, no one can be sure the responder is truly saved-the believer can only share his faith or give a testimony for Christ. Others don’t like the emphasis on results, claiming that pastors count decisions like notches on a gun. They claim that a pastor can only say a certain number of persons “prayed to receive Christ.” He could not say how many were actually saved.

But a closer examination of Scripture reveals that evangelistic emphasis on both causes and results is biblical. The Christian must “witness” (Acts 1:8) and the evangelist can “preach” (Mark 16:15) these are the causes that will bring a person to Christ. Results are also a human responsibility. In Matthew 28:19 Jesus commands His disciples to “Go ye,” a participle that implies continuous action Then He commands, “teach all nations.” The word teach (matheta) is an imperative verb, which is a command. The King James word for teach should be translated to “make disciples.” Christians are commanded to witness (Acts 1:8) and to get people to follow Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:19) A wise teacher once said, “There is no success in the Lord’s work without successors.

From Front-Door Evangelism to Side-Door Evangelism

Churches are turning from evangelistic outreach to evangelistic inreach. Front door evangelism was the technique of the seventies; side-door evangelism is paramount in the eighties. Front-door evangelism reaches out of the church into the community, with a view of stimulating people to come into the sanctuary to heal the gospel and respond. This type of evangelism is media outreach, organized visitation, Sunday school busing, advertising, and so forth.

Side-door evangelism finds church members witnessing for Christ in everyday life, getting their friends and relatives into church Bible studies, fellowship groups, sports teams, and service projects.

Surveys reveal that approximately 8 out of 10 persons who become members were first brought into the church through its side door by a friend of relative. They came in through “web evangelism,” also called “circles of concern.”

But the old has become new, as everything-including evangelism-runs in cycles. Since the church has always grown from the witness of its members, side-door evangelism is “back to the basics” in evangelism.

From Program Evangelism to Being a Witness

Traditionally, local churches have organized a visitation program where members were exhorted to become involved in the evangelistic outreach of the church. They went from house to house to witness for Christ. A pastor once told me, “I motivate my workers to go house to house and try to win people to Christ. I know they don’t win souls naturally, but I hope to prime the pump so they will try to win their friends in daily life.”

A survey shows that only 6 out of 100 visitors to the church result from the traditional organized visitation programs. Yet, 86 out of 100 visitors come at the invitation of a friend or relative. Program evangelism has a place and has some results, but such results are small compared to web evangelism.

Years ago I could not understand how Thomas Road Baptist Church was growing without a regular systematic visitation program. I know now that the church’s strength was that average members saturated the population of Lynchburg, Virginia, with their witnessing.

Two books have highlighted the shift in evangelism: Life-style Evangelism, by Joe Aldridge, and Evangelism as a Lifestyle, by Jim Peterson. These authors are telling Americans that simply verbalizing the gospel message is not enough to reach secularized Americans. Peterson describes a “post-Christian culture” where the average American does not operate within a religious framework. He says we must employ “affirmation evangelism in practice.” By this he means that evangelism is “a process of modeling and explaining the Christian message. His [God’s] people must incarnate His character, then audio visualize the nature of His eternal reign.”

Thirty years ago, Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life (an evangelistic organization to reach high school teens), called lifestyle evangelism, “winning a hearing.”

He says we must live a godly life before the unsaved so that they will listen to our message. What Rayburn calls “winning a hearing.” the Bible calls “witnessing” (Acts 1:8).

For all the advantages of lifestyle evangelism, Aldridge seems to be against confrontation evangelism. He wants evangelism to grow naturally out of life s relationship. However, lifestyle evangelism and confrontation can go together. Jesus confronted Nicodemus, Zacchaeus, and the woman at the well. Philip confronted the Ethiopian eunuch, and Paul confronted Sergius Paulus and the demon-possessed girl in Philippi.

From Media Evangelism to Personal Evangelism

Many churches have used every available means in their attempt to evangelize their cities. They have purchased advertisements on television and radio, and in the newspapers. They have passed out flyers throughout the community, mailed newsletters, organized a phone blitz, employed dial-a-prayer, nailed posters on trees, and walked from door to door to invite people to church.

But media evangelism is expensive. Ten years ago it cost $400 to purchase an entire page in the Lynchburg newspaper; today it costs $2,600. A decade ago television cost $4 for a 10-second slot; today it costs $35, depending on the number of slots. New and small churches cannot afford the cost of saturating their towns.

The greatest evangelistic asset for any church is not television time or electronic help. The power of evangelism still resides in church members who share their faith because they love Jesus Christ and because they are excited about their church.

A recent survey indicated that nonmembers look first for friendship when choosing a church. Secondly, they choose a church where they get spiritual help. Churches need to capitalize on friendship evangelism when planning evangelistic strategy.

In spring 1981 when the Heritage Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, was averaging 83 in Sunday school and having difficulty reaching 100, a Friend Day Campaign was planned. By a system of accountability everyone pledged to invite his friend to church. Rod Kidd, then pastor, preached a series of sermons on friendship. On the big day, 238 attended “Friendly Heritage Baptist Church.” Because of organized follow-up, subsequent attendance never dropped below 150. Today the church averages 450. Kidd told the Liberty ministerial students that everyone should plan a Friend Day to take advantage of the inherent strength of web evangelism.

From Mass Evangelism to Body Evangelism

In the past, pastors have led their congregations to become actively involved in citywide crusades. It was thought that a big-name evangelist, a large civic center, and the multiplied efforts of all churches could make an evangelistic impact on the city that individual churches could not do separately. In return, churches expected a percentage of the decision cards, so some new converts could be brought into their local congregations.

In the fifties each Billy Graham Crusade got larger. The first criticism against citywide crusades was that cooperative evangelism joined Conservatives and Liberals. The issue of second-degree separation divided Fundamentalists and Evangelicals. However, there is a second criticism against mass evangelism: for all the massive budgets, publicity, organized outreach, and numerous decisions, mass evangelism had comparatively small results for the cooperating churches. In many cases, there were no results, but actually a decline in church membership in cities where mass evangelistic crusades were held. Why! Because citywide crusades syphoned off money and evangelistic efforts for the local church, so that membership went down, rather than up, says Peter Wagner of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Body evangelism is local church evangelism. The title is taken from the picture of the church as a body. Body evangelism is the most effective type of evangelism, says Wagner. Perhaps what we have found by statistical verification (i.e., that local church evangelism is the most effective way to reach the lost) is that it always has been the priority in God’s program of outreach.

While the methods of evangelism are continuously modified, the command to evangelize remains constant. We must be conscious of the current needs of people and examine the most effective ways of reaching the world with the gospel. Whatever program we implement, our motive must be to honor God.

(The above material appeared in an issue of Gospel Tidings.)

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