THE STATE OF EVANGELISM IN AMERICA
BY WIN ARN AND W. CHARLES ARN
When he had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Luke 5:4
In the beginning the early Church grew . . . with mega power!
The events are recorded in the book of The Acts . . . from 12. . . to 120. . . to 3,000. . . to 5,000. . . from addition to multiplication . . . to entire communities turning to the Lord. Then off on its globe circling mission-a mission given by the Head of the Church. Jesus Christ, to disciple the many diverse peoples who make up the human family.
Through the centuries, the Church has grown . . . grown among alien cultures . . . grown among hostile religions . . . grown among primitive and sophisticated peoples. The Church has triumphed over traitors, persecution, famine, and sword.
The Church of Jesus Christ has grown, and continues to grow, to complete the task . . . a task yet unfinished.
WHAT ABOUT TODAY? THE STATE OF EVANGELISM
But while the Church has grown-and there are more Christians today than ever before in the history of the world-there is still a vast unfinished task.
Throughout the world, three out of every four people have yet to believe. In the United States, out of a population of approximately 230 million, there are nearly 170 million pagans or marginal Christians (“Christians” in name only).
Around every church in every community, there are winnable people waiting to be won. In fact, never in history has the worldwide potential for evangelism and church growth been greater.
As the Church has grown in innumerable ways and places, there has always been one way it has grown better, faster, and stronger than any other. From its beginning through the centuries till today, one unique way has been more responsible for the Church’s growth than any other.
Yet . . . that one way which God has used and blessed so greatly through the centuries seems to be strangely lacking in modern evangelistic endeavors.
A closer look at the state of evangelism today is in order. Evangelism is not well. In fact, the lack of results through intentional evangelism, compared to the task yet to be accomplished in America today, should cause Christians both apprehension and concern.
The Lord’s words to His followers two thousand years ago remain unchanged for His followers today. His commands have not been updated, nor have they been revoked. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
How do twentieth century Christians view this biblical mandate? Is the goal of making disciples still at the center of the activities and prayers of Christ’s Church?
During the last nine years, in traveling across America ministering in churches, conducting seminars, holding consultations, conferring with church leaders, discussing with laity, it has been our privilege to “feel the pulse” of evangelism today. Based on our wide experience across the Protestant denominational spectrum, we have observed some important characteristics of evangelism in America.
1. Reaching non-Christians is a low priority for most congregations.
What was once the heartbeat of the entire church, particularly the early church, has diminished enormously as a priority in the minds of its members.
What was once an important criteria for success” has diminished to merely one item (and not a particularly important one) on the church’s busy agenda. Church activities have become increasingly inward-focused. Events planned. money raised and spent, roles and jobs created are conducted primarily as a service to members and for maintenance of the organization.
Contributing to this decline in priority is the fact that many laity and clergy no longer see the church as the instrument to reach the world. They believe, mistakenly, that the television and radio air waves, the nationwide media blitzes, or the mass-evangelism rallies are the only effective way to respond to the Great Commission and reach the millions of unreached. Few perceive their own congregation as having the potential for being God’s instrument to reach their community.
2. Reaching non-Christians is a low priority for most individual Christians. Very few lay people feel able to effectively share their faith.
When asked why they are a Christian and church member, many can mumble little more than. “Well, it’s a good thing to be.” Not that they aren’t enthusiastic about the reality of Christ in their lives, they have just never been helped to communicate it. Most Christians today lack the training which would enable them to share what Christ means to them with a non-Christian in a natural, effective way.
3. The biblical concept of “lostness” has disappeared from the conscience of most churches and most Christians. In our modern culture, the understanding of what was once a theological imperative of people outside Christ being eternally lost-has changed in the minds of many believers. The reasons behind this are varied and complex.
However, little remains of the first-century Christians’ burning conviction that without Christ, every person is forever lost. Nor is there that fervent zeal for non-Christian friends and relatives which swept across America as great evangelists graphically portrayed the terrifying damnation of a Godless eternity.
4. Most evangelism methods are relatively ineffective in making disciples. The “bottom line” following evangelism efforts is-does the church grow? Most churches aren’t growing as a result of their evangelistic programs.
Local congregations, sincere in their efforts to reach out with the Gospel, often “import” a program or formula that has seemingly been successful in other churches. The methods widely used often attempt to compact a life-transforming Gospel presentation into a 15-minute visitation call. In the process, little consideration is given to the unique needs of the individual. The non-Christian has a very limited opportunity to dialogue about the consequences of this major step of faith. No significant relationships are established. Non-Christians seldom, if ever, have a chance to observe the realities of Christ in the lives of Christians. And often there is no effective plan for the new convert to become incorporated into the life of the local congregation.” Indeed some evangelism methods encourage callers not to even mention the church in their conversation.
5. Evangelism focuses on decision-making rather than on disciple-making. Most mass and local church evangelism approaches today have a significant common shortcoming. Attention is centered. and success judged around the goal of getting a “decision.” That brief verbal commitment is seen as the ultimate response to the Great Commission. Unfortunately, there is often a great gap between “getting a decision” and “making a disciple.” A “disciple” suggests a commitment, incorporation into the Body, then an ongoing, reproductive life-style as a follower of Christ. An analysis of many church training programs and para-church crusades in America today indicates that the bottom line for evangelism is the number of decisions recorded. This “decision making” mentality may actually be one of the reasons national church membership continues to decline, in relation to population growth, in spite of so much being said and done in mass evangelism, media evangelism, evangelism training. and evangelism conferences.
6. Making disciples is interpreted to mean only spiritual growth. In the Great Commission, Jesus makes clear that the command to “go and make disciples” includes the concept of winning. Today the term “discipling” has almost universally evolved to mean the process of spiritual perfecting-tutoring, learning, growing, maturing. Few “discipling” programs in churches today accurately reflect Christ’s vision to make disciples, or measure their success on the basis of new disciples they produce.
While the concept of spiritual maturation is unquestionably important, an exclusive emphasis on spiritual growth often serves as an undesirable magnet pulling a Christian’s focus increasingly inward, as the concern for those outside the Body of Christ progressively decreases.”
In such a self-centered environment, the goal of fulfilling the Lord’s Great Commission moves lower and lower as a priority.
7. Evangelism methods have become simplistic. There is strong research evidence to indicate that new Christians who accept Christ and continue as responsible church members first perceive the Gospel message in terms of its relevance to their own lives. Evangelism training which relies on “canned” presentations, memorized testimonies, and universal spiritual dictums has difficulty responding to the unique needs of the non-Christian in terms of his/ her day-to-day experience and the resources available in Christ.
New Christians who continue as responsible church members have first perceived the Gospel message in terms of its unique application to their own lives, situations, and problems.
B. Evangelism is much discussed but little practiced. The following parable reprinted from CHURCH GROWTH: AMERICA magazine, speaks insightfully to the problem of much talk but little effective action:
“Now it came to pass that a group existed who called themselves fishermen. And lo, there were many fish in the waters all around. In fact, the whole area was surrounded by streams and lakes filled with fish. And the fish were hungry.
“Week after week, month after month, and year after year these, who called themselves fishermen, met in meetings and talked about their call to go about fishing.
Continually they searched for new and better methods of fishing and for new and better definitions of fishing. They sponsored costly nationwide and worldwide congresses to discuss fishing and to promote fishing and hear about all the ways of fishing, such as the new fishing equipment, fish calls, and whether any new bait was discovered.
“These fishermen built large, beautiful buildings called ‘Fishing Headquarters.’ The plea was that everyone should be a fisherman and every fisherman should fish. One thing they didn’t do, however; they didn’t fish.
“All the fishermen seemed to agree that a board was needed which could challenge fishermen to be faithful in fishing. The board was formed by those who had the great vision and courage to speak about fishing, to define fishing, and to promote the idea of fishing in far-away streams and lakes where any other fish of different colors lived.
“Large, elaborate, and expensive training centers were built whose purpose was to teach fishermen how to fish. Those who taught had doctorates in fishology. But the teachers did not fish. They only taught fishing.
“Some spent much study and travel to learn the history of fishing and to see far-away places where the founding fathers did great fishing in the centuries past. They lauded the faithful fishermen of years before who handed down the idea of fishing.
“Many who felt the call to be fishermen responded. They were commissioned and sent to fish. And they went off to foreign lands . . . to teach fishing.
“Now it’s true that many of the fishermen sacrificed and put up with all kinds of difficulties. Some lived near the water and bore the smell of dead fish every day. They received the ridicule of some who made fun of their fishermen’s clubs. They anguished over those who were not committed enough to attend the weekly meetings to talk about fishing. After all, were they not following the Master who said, `Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men?’
“Imagine how hurt some were when one day a person suggested that those who don’t catch fish were really not fishermen, no matter how much they claimed to be. Yet it did sound correct. Is a person a fisherman if year after year he/she never catches a fish? Is one following if he/she isn’t fishing?”
SO WHAT ABOUT TODAY?
How does this present “state of evangelism” compare to the New Testament “state of evangelism”? Interestingly, there were significant differences in the early Church . . .
1. Reaching non-Christians was a high priority for the Church. Indeed the very “call to arms” of Christ for His Church was to reach out and make disciples.
2. Reaching non-Christians was a high priority for individual Christians. It was an assumption that every Christian was to be a committed witness to Christs love.
3. The concept of “lostness ” was foremost in the minds of Christians and churches. Christians believed wholeheartedly that Jesus Christ was the way, the truth, and the life.
4. Evangelism methods were designed to make disciples. Peter, Paul, Philip, Barnabas. Mark-the success of their endeavors was measured by the growth of the Church and new disciples. Throughout the book of Acts, references are found pointing to the growth of the church and the multiplication of disciples.
5. Evangelism focused on disciple-making not decision-making. Nowhere in Scripture is the concept of “decisions” found. The bottom line was a transformed life and an active Christian-a disciple.
6. Making disciples meant spiritual growth and making new disciples.
Christ said it best when He said to go and baptize new disciples, and then to teach them all He had told them. First reaching, then teaching . .. . the both went hand in hand.
7. Evangelism methods presented the whole Gospel and its implications.
When people made a Christian commitment, they knew the implications and the potential price they might have to pay.
B. Evangelism was the priority of the Church. And they were His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of their world.
How can more Christians and more churches respond to this opportunity for making disciples? The future is bright for any church dedicated to the task of fulfilling the Great Commission. But there must be a fresh beginning!
Old methods have not and will not bring in the catch that is waiting just outside the boat. There is a better way, a creative and enjoyable and effective way for you and your church to bring in a net that will be full beyond your most fervent prayers and greatest expectations.
We believe the strategies of THE MASTER’S PLAN build on powerful principles of disciple-making exemplified and called for by our own Master.
THE MASTER’S PLAN seeks to identify, illustrate, explain, and apply principles and practices which have and will continue to produce abundant results in the lives of individuals and churches . . . for the glory of God and the growth of His Church!