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Thursday, June 18, 2015

The End of Evangelism

[Originally presented March 10, 2015]
There is general fear being widely expressed among evangelicals today that we are not reaching people the way we used to. Certainly the numbers of people in the modern West who are becoming Christians seems to be slumping, and a lot of us are a bit nervous about the trend.

Is the Age of Evangelism Ending?

According to Bible.org, one problem is that the professional clergy people and leaders are not stepping up, and that church ministries and programs are not going out to reach people. Meanwhile, The Evangelism Institute has found that while 85% of evangelical churches have a pro-evangelism statement in their constitution, less than 5% of the people are actually involved in doing something with it. All these worriers are agreed that Christians do still have a message worth getting out to the world, but for some reason we’re just not getting it out. So while this may not yet be the end of the church, it’s starting to look like it’s the end times for outreach, for evangelism, for the gospel.

Well, contrary to all this, I want to suggest that it’s actually not that evangelism is ending. It’s that increasingly the message of salvation is being shared (or more correctly not being shared) in such a way that it simply is not attaining its true ends.

The message is not failing us. We are failing the message.

Let me explain.

Churching for Seekers

Back at the end of the last century, a huge wave of alleged enthusiasm for outreach swept through the evangelical congregations in the West, particularly in North America. Taking its cue from large, affluent congregations like the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, the megachurch movement strove to remodel the church so as to make it more “seeker sensitive”. Proponents of this idea drew on the knowledge tradition of business and mass-marketing, and thus sought to reorient congregational life and activities to make church more open to the needs and demands of the secular community. Their theory was simple: that providing an abundance of well-organized programs and services and creating a more entertaining atmosphere would draw unbelievers — characterized as “seekers” — into a less alien and threatening sort of spiritual experience. More people would hear the gospel, souls would be saved, and the numerical draining off of congregants from the churches would be reversed.

Now, some of the changes they proposed were ultimately beneficial, I think; and some were probably long overdue. But others were sorely misguided in ways that are far easier to see in retrospect. One problem was this idea of the “seeker”: it did not turn out to be true that the vast majority of unsaved persons were actually looking for a church experience. Rather, they tended to be basking in the glow of their television sets and computer screens, or scouring the shopping malls for the latest soul-soothing purchases. It turned out rather to be as Christopher Lasch characterized Western people in his celebrated 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism:
“The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health and psychic security.”
Or, to take the same idea from a Christian source, consider Roger Lundin’s 1993 comments about how people of his day were thinking:
“A therapeutic culture is one in which questions of ultimate concern — about the nature of the good, the meaning of truth and the existence of God — are taken to be unanswerable and hence in some fundamental sense insignificant. A therapeutic culture focuses upon the management of experience and environment in the interest of [a] ‘manipulatable sense of well-being’ …”
Or again, consider Christian pundit Ken Myers, in his essay, The Wonders of Salvation, published in the same year:
“There is much in modern American culture to encourage us to believe that whatever’s wrong in the universe, it can’t possibly be our fault. We are much less bothered about being guilty than about feeling guilty, in part because we are perpetually reminded that who we are is determined by how we feel about ourselves. In such an atmosphere, salvation means being freed from bad feelings about who we are. The gospel contextualized in such a setting redefines Christ as the ultimate source of self-esteem.”
Myers continued with the quip that while the most famous sermon of the previous century had been Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, today’s culture would probably produce an equivalent sermon entitled, “Clients in the Hands of a Smiling Therapist”.

The bottom line was that people just weren’t “seeking” a church experience the way the megachurch advisors seemed to think they were. Consequently, the rapid growth experienced by many megachurches in the surrounding years turned out to come more from the dissolution of smaller congregations or the transfer of believers from one sort of church to another than from any revival of evangelism — a realization that was eventually to be reluctantly conceded by both celebrated pollster George Barna and chief megachurch advocate Peter C. Wagner (Dunlap, 1997).

Evangelism by Numbers

An equally troubling problem was the tendency of contemporary liberal and conservative evangelical congregations to view evangelism as a problem of mass-management. Those who can think back may recall Nelson Annan’s popular renewalist booklet, More People (1987), in which he unapologetically excoriated the conservative churches for their undervaluing of numerical expansion, and pled for a more statistical, numerical approach to evaluating church success. But in fairness, the same folly was evident among conservative thinkers lamenting the failure of the “gud auld gospel meeting” to bring in the expected numbers to pound down the chapel doors to hear the get-saved-now messages that so many of them were cranking out weekly to no particular audience. The renewalists blamed the church for being insufficiently driven by numbers, and the conservatives blamed the believers for not inviting their friends into their antiquated, polemical services. But both sides thought the problem was the same: they were just not getting the right people inside the church doors to hear the lovely programs being put on for their benefit.

Numbers-thinking is a serious problem. It’s not at all a Christian way of thinking about things. The Lord Himself told us that the ninety-nine that need no salvation are no compensation for the one that does. And in a way, the numbers-based approach reminds me of the salutary caution of Christian historian Paul Johnson. Writing of the humanist poet and social theorist P.B. Shelley, Johnson observed:
“… he loved humanity in general but was often cruel to human beings in particular. He burned with a fierce love but it was an abstract flame and the poor mortals who came near it were often scorched. He put ideas before people, and his life is a testament to how heartless ideas can be.”
If ideas can be heartless, numbers surely can. And there was not much heart for the gospel either in the megachurches or among conservatives. To be sure, there were loud and insistent protestations to the contrary; but looking back, I think we ought not to take them very seriously. The truth was that neither side was willing to do the hard work of evangelism; and so long as that was the case, we have every reason to doubt the depth of their conviction.

Serving the Seeker-Seekers

Now, try this idea on for size: neither the megachurch advocates nor, of course, the conservatives, were actually being sensitive to “seekers”, if any such were to be found. Rather, both were “seeker-seeker sensitive”. That is, both were sensitive to the fear of individual believers associated with any thought of reaching out to the unbelieving world personally. They knew that individual believers were increasingly nervous and unpracticed in having any deep interpersonal dealings with the world at large; and both the conservative and the liberal churches were sensitive to this concern, and were attempting to provide for these nervous believers. On both sides, the local church itself was thought to be the engine that would solve this problem by providing either an upbeat program or a regular round of stodgy polemics that would do the job of evangelizing that local believers were increasingly unwilling to do.

The first step in being more sensitive to these nervous believers would be to make sure that they had as little to do as possible prior to a professional evangelist or professionally-run program being able to take over. Believers had to know that if they brought a neighbour to church there would be some well-oiled presentation of the way to be saved, so that the pressure on them would be lessened as soon as their neighbours were inside the chapel doors.

A second way this approach was sensitive to seeker-seekers was that within the precincts of the church building the numerical advantage held out-of-doors by unbelievers would be spectacularly reversed: no longer would there be only one Christian for a thousand sceptics, but a whole congregation of Christians for only a few unsaved people. Peer pressure might well achieve what intelligent persuasion or even consistent living within the local neighbourhood could not; and if it did not, at least it would make the situation far more comfortable for the evangelizing believer than for the potential convert.

Side Effects

But this strategy also had some very serious side-effects that were little noted at the time, but which now are manifest everywhere, in conservative and liberal congregations alike. One was that it removed any sense of ultimate responsibility for evangelism from the individual believer to the church. The church became an institutional replacement for the missing knowledge, courage and obedience of local believers, and thus also institutionalized their passivity about the problem. After all, if the church is the engine of evangelism then why should I feel personally concerned if evangelism is not being done? Do I not give to the church? Do I not attend regularly? Are there not evangelistic meetings or wonderful, upbeat programs of music, drama and spiritual therapy on offer every week? Then surely the fault is with the unbelieving world, that is now, in these last days, simply becoming so hard-hearted that all our best efforts can produce no more than the think trickle of results we are accustomed to seeing …

So went the reasoning. And so went the gospel. Distracted from their personal obligation to share their faith with their neighbours, and increasingly cloistered in the church or cocooned in their suburban homes, modern, western believers simply stopped feeling that they had a problem. Evangelism was the work of the professionals, and the individual believer’s obligations began and ended with supporting the professionals.

This was the end of the gospel. It ended when we believers began to think we didn’t have to know our own faith well, live it out personally and strive to share it with those who were perishing. It ended when we forgot that neither the Great Commandment (“Love your neighbour as yourself …”) nor the Great Commission (“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation …”) could ever be fulfilled within the safe confines of the local church. It ended when we stopped obeying the One who gave that responsibility directly to His disciples, and did so at a time in which there was no church. For the church began at Pentecost; and had the Lord ever intended the church to take over the individual responsibility of every disciple to go and preach the gospel, He could have easily repeated those instructions when the Holy Spirit was first given. But He did not.

Churches and Evangelism

Today many of our own people — our own fellow believers and our theologians — are fond of drawing analogies between us and the church of Laodicea spoken of in Revelation 3. Of the church of Laodicea, you will recall, the Lord says:
“…you are neither cold nor hot” and “because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked …”
To this he adds a great many other things: but to none of them does he add, “… this I have against you; that you failed to preach the gospel”.

Now, this would seem to be a terribly surprising oversight. If, after all, the church at Laodicea was characterized as “lukewarm” and worthy of such visceral rejection, and if it had become rich and arrogant, you would surely expect it to have fallen down on its responsibility to the gospel. And yet, if this was the one area in which this corrupt church was not falling down, then it is not apparent that they were doing so well in maintaining it that the Lord thought they merited a commendation — or even just a momentary nod of approval. So either they were doing it so passably that it was not a problem but so weakly that it was not a stroke in their favour, or else there is one other possibility: that they were never expected to do it at all.

Is that likely? Well, it would seem so. For of the seven churches of Revelation, not a single one is commended for their faithfulness to messaging salvation to the unsaved, nor are any of them criticized for failure to do it! Their faithfulness in suffering is commended, and their doctrinal and moral failures are indicted, and above all their love or lack of love for the Lord is emphasized — but not one word about their gospel meetings. How strange, if any of them were ever expected to be having them.

But they weren’t, you see. Evangelism is not a church function. It’s the responsibility of each and every individual Christian in his or her neighbourhood, workplace and world. While the church can edify the believer in his faith, as a corporate entity it bears absolutely no stitch of responsibility in reaching the lost. The gospel begins and ends with you and me.

Ashamed of the Gospel

So now we come to our key question: why has the gospel ended? And the answer is simple. It has ended because you and I are not sharing it. We have stopped taking the risks involved in reaching out to our neighbours. We have stopped living lives that are consistently different, so our neighbours have stopped asking about any difference. We have stopped reading our own Bibles and thinking things through for ourselves, acquiring our own grasp of doctrine, so we feel too ignorant to speak up, and too scared that perhaps some difficult question will set us back on our heels. In part, we are fearful that we will fail in the most important kind of communication a person can undertake, and that somehow we will contribute to making the Christian message even less plausible to our neighbours. 

But we are also fearful that witnessing will place on us a significant burden to be open, communicative and hospitable with people who live rather differently than we do. We don’t want to be faced with the decision of whether or not to drink socially, or how to respond to an invitation from those two people living in that broken home or that homosexual partnership. We don’t know how to handle ourselves around the Sikh, Muslim or Taoist who lives across the hall and invites us for tea. We don’t want to run into that sceptical local Socrates who will frighten us with his questions, or that extremely needy person down the block whose kids are running loose all the time. We especially do not want our Christianity to get into our workplaces and bring us into embarrassment or conflicts there; after all, we have to make a living, right? And anyway, those people know us: and given the way we struggle in our own lives every day, what are the chances we can even speak to them?

And so we pull back, avoid relationship and hunker down among Christian friends, in life groups or in local churches. We don’t go out much, and we certainly do not seek friendships out there in the world, where every kind of cold wind is blowing. And yet we wonder that we never find a time or opportunity for the gospel …

The End

But what, really, is the end of evangelism?

As the late, great Neil Postman once so perceptively pointed out, there are two types of “end”. One means simply “termination” or “cessation”. But we use the word in quite a different way. If someone asks us to borrow our hammer, we might ask, “To what end?” And in that case, we don’t mean “are you going to stop” but rather, “for what purpose”, “with what goal” or “what is the legitimate end point of the labours you aim to undertake, once they are completed?”

This sort of end is what the Greeks used to call telos, meaning, “outcome” or “end-point”, not at all a “cessation”. The end of the gospel is, and has always been, the bringing of lost people into relationship with their Creator through the message of the life, work and person of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. Its end has always been salvation. It has never been a bauble to be admired, or even a comforting mantra to be recited to Christians, but a rough-and-tumble message of blunt truth to a dying world. The end of the gospel is to get out there and save souls, for their eternal joy and for the ultimate glory of God.

So get it out there, and end the gospel — that is, give it the end for which it was given to us in the first place. Suck up all your fears, and just do it. Stop making excuses. It’s the most powerful message on earth, backed by the real power of the Spirit of God; so our inadequacies will not be a block to it.

You don’t know how to do it? You don’t know what you’d say? Guess what: you can learn. You can’t learn by sitting at home, but you can learn by getting out there and trying. The Lord knows you’re not perfect. And yes, sometimes you will make mistakes. No doubt you will sometimes — quite often, maybe — fail to do justice to the message of salvation that you so cherish.

But the Lord knows who you are: do you know who He is?

All we need to do is to be faithful. The Lord of Glory himself gave us His Spirit. He also gave us a direct personal command, and backed that command with all the authority in the universe.

As for the church, be grateful for it. Enjoy the fellowship, practice worship, sing, pray, serve and give. 

But as for the gospel, take it to the streets yourself. If you don’t, no one else will.

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