The Gallup polling organization reports that 46 percent of Americans identify themselves as evangelical. Researcher George Barna estimates 41 percent are born again based on their answers to basic questions about salvation. But worship attendance, of all faiths, totals only 43 percent on a given week. By any accounting, more than half the people you see every day probably do not have a living relationship with Jesus Christ.
That's far more than the nation's 400,000 pastors can reach by themselves, not that they should. The Great Commission is for all followers of Christ. But equally clear is the disconnect between the Great Commission and the average congregation.
This disconnect is evident even among the more overtly evangelistic churches. In the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the ratio of members to baptisms is 38 to 1. In other words, only one member in 38 led someone to faith in Christ and membership last year. Other church's numbers are no better.
So, what's the answer? How can regular Christians be turned on to evangelism? The search led to five churches and six conclusions.
The pastor's blowtorch
Bill Hybels's passion is bringing lost people to faith in Christ. Since he started Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago in 1975, Hybels has redefined evangelism, giving Christianity a new approach to the unsaved and new language with which to identify them: they are seekers. Hybels estimates in Willow Creek's early years 90 percent of their energy and resources were invested in evangelism; the remaining 10 percent went into discipleship. Over the next decade, the ratios reversed. That is to be expected, Hybels told pastors at his Leadership Summit two years ago. "The shift in the life of believers is always toward less evangelism."
Confronted by this realization, Hybels set out to create what he called "a balanced approach to produce a balanced church." He identified five values, alliterated them (starting with "g," evangelism is "grace") and gave each an equal share of Willow's time, energy, and resources. Again, evangelism was trumped by discipleship and programs aimed at believers.
Willow's new configuration: 40 percent goes to grace (evangelism) and the other g's (growth, groups, gifts, good stewardship) get 15 percent each. "The war is at the point of evangelism," Hybels said. "This is the effort that will have to be blow-torched."
They identified those with the gift of evangelism and commissioned them. Hybels elevated the importance of evangelism in the life of everyday believers, and the church began praying for lost people in their believer-oriented midweek services.
Willow Creek entered what Hybels called "the greatest season of evangelism in our history." In the six months following the renewed emphasis on evangelism, the church baptized 975 people.
From Hybels's book Becoming a Contagious Christian, a study course was published that is used in many hundreds of churches today.
Evangelism Explosion is the granddaddy of congregational witnessing courses. Now marking its thirtieth anniversary, the E.E. organization founded by D. James Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Coral Gables, Florida, continues to train more than 5,000 people per year in the 45-minute presentation of the gospel. E.E. teams trained leaders with apprentices in a model that has since been used by many courses. In a 1994 survey of Christianity Today readers, E.E. was recognized as the most effective witnessing training program of the major courses available at the time. E.E.'s enduring contribution is its emphasis on teaching large numbers of church members to share their faith and sending them out to do it.