Confronted several years ago with continuing membership declines, several large Protestant denominations began preaching something like “Go ye into all the world … and replenish the church rolls.” While their original motivation may have lacked evangelistic purity, the result has been new programs for church growth and evangelism.
These denominations from the so-called liberal mainline once had stronger emphases on verbal witness. In recent decades, however, social action and lifestyle evangelism took higher priorities. Some conservative evangelicals stereotyped these groups as preferring coffee fellowships, social protests, and World Council of Churches meetings to verbal outreach and evangelism. In many cases, they were right.
Because of their draining parishioner power, some major denominations are taking another look at evangelism. Since 1970, the 2.8-million-member Episcopal Church and the 2.5-million-member United Presbyterian Church each lost roughly 500,000 members. The United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), with 1.8 and 1.3 million members, respectively, have suffered annual membership dips. Hit hardest, perhaps, has been the United Methodist Church: since 1964, the church has dropped 1.4 million members to its present 9.8 million level.
Evangelism leaders in these churches acknowledge that the word evangelism fell upon rocky ground, and still is ignored among some groups. But they indicate increased acceptability of evangelism. In interviews, they described some of their programs:
• At its 1976 general conference, the United Methodist Church made evangelism a top priority for the subsequent quadrennium. George Hunter, a former evangelism professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, was named to coordinate an evangelism program in the church’s Board of Discipleship, and he since has pulled together a staff of nine. His office is developing curriculum and resources for evangelism training and for strengthening the Sunday school; the church’s research has shown that 6 of every 10 new members came through the church school, he said.
In addition, the UMC has moved church planting from “the back burner to the front burner.” Hunter said the church now is attempting an outreach to non-Christians, whereas before, “four-fifths of our evangelism programs were really renewal programs, with inactive or nominal members as the target audience.”
United Methodists’ interest in evangelism showed earlier this month at a congress on evangelism in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The United Methodist Council on Evangelism, a fellowship of lay and clergy evangelism leaders affiliated with the church’s Board of Discipleship, sponsors such a congress every two years. This year’s congress began with Billy Graham, ended with Oral Roberts, and had Luis Palau sandwiched in-between. More than 2,000 persons attended mini-conferences built around the theme “… Turning the World to Christ.”
• Concerned about decreasing membership statistics, the nation’s oldest Protestant denomination, the 352-year-old Reformed Church in America, began in 1978 a $5 million, three-year, church growth project. Since 1978, almost 40 churches have been planted—mostly in the South and West. Herman Luben, secretary for New Life and Evangelism, has been holding spiritual renewal workshops for both the laity and clergy. Most recently he has been promoting church growth in the “longer established” RCA churches, where progress has been slow, he says: church growth in those churches doesn’t call for just a program, but for “systemic change, for a whole turnaround that can come only over a long period of time through church revitalization.”
Luben said many Reformed Church members have negative feelings about evangelism. They link it with “lapel grabbing” and emotionalism. However, he says, “what many of them are ready to learn is how to get in touch with their faith story.” Believers who can communicate their own experiences with God will be listened to [by non-Christians],” Luben said.
(Luben also is chairman of the National Council of Churches’ Evangelism Working Group, which formed several years ago about the time the NCC governing board approved a policy statement defining evangelism.)
• The United Presbyterian Church is in the third and final year of its Risk Evangelism Program. The program had a different emphasis each year: first year—spiritual renewal in the congregation; second year—congregational renewal through service in the community; third year—verbal witness. The thought was that verbal witness would have greater effect if it was “based on the credibility established in the first two years of the project,” said evangelism director Grady Allison.
His office developed curriculum materials relating to each year of the project. The materials suggested at least 60 projects for each year’s emphasis, and participating congregations were encouraged to choose five or more of those projects. At least one-third of the church’s 8,500 congregations have taken part in the project, said Allison.
• At its general assembly last fall, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) approved a $3 million church growth program. Some church leaders have warned about equating evangelism with a “sales mentality” and have cautioned against compromising social justice programs. At the same time, some conservatives have also questioned whether the denomination had committed itself enough to evangelism.
• Only five years ago the Episcopai Church created its first office for evangelism. A local church pastor, Wayne Schwab, was appointed director. His name had been selected from the church computer, which has profiles of most Episcopal clergy. Schwab’s profile listed evangelism as his “top of six integrating roles.” With insights gained from Fuller a Seminary’s School of World Mission, his office has developed 11 principles of church growth and evangelism. “We’ve been using those principles to help congregations develop their own work,” he said.
When the declining membership trends became apparent in the 1960s, major church bodies in many cases reacted defensively or denied their existence. Later, their leaders went so far as to acknowledge a problem, and then made studies of the decline. In recent years, they have taken remedial actions, such as those cited above.
Like the Episcopalians, other major churches have sought guidance from church growth specialists at Fuller Seminary’s School of World Mission in Pasadena, California. Senior missions professor Donald McGavran said that some liberal groups are inclined to look at church growth as a set of “useful gimmicks” to recover inactive members. He also asserted that some liberals still do not believe that Christ is the only Savior, that the Great Commission must be carried out, or that persons who do not believe in Christ are lost.
He sees his role almost as an evangelist for evangelism to these mainline groups. But he also is concerned about evangelical denominations, naming as examples the Free Methodists, Conservative Baptists, and Reformed Presbyterians. “These are thoroughly good, sound, evangelical denominations, but their growth record is pitiful.”
He advocates church growth as an outreach to non-Christians, not as a means for church “self-preservation”: “We cannot say Jesus is Lord if we don’t communicate him to other people.” Church growth principles place verbal evangelism before social action: “Social and ethical actions are the fruit, not the root; nobody is saved by ethical action,” said McGavran.
Several evangelism leaders indicated their McGavran concern for social action remains as high as before. But they suggested an effort to link the two—verbal and lifestyle witnesses—in the minds of churchmen who distrust evangelism as a hard-sell, emotional proposition and a cop-out to involvement in the world.
When he became the United Presbyterians’ evangelism director seven years ago, Allison found a greater hesitancy about evangelism: “One almost got the idea that it shouldn’t be mentioned in polite society.” Some groups said social and justice ministries ought to take precedence, he said.
“But I think we’re getting to the place now where we realize it’s all part of the same thing. The justice and social ministries provide the context out of which one can talk to people effectively about their relationship with Christ. One is not sufficient without the other.”
Some churchmen who gave themselves to reforming social structures and systems in the 1960s are suffering from “compassion fatigue,” said Hunter of the United Methodist Church. Now they are looking again “into the sacraments, Scripture, and prayer for renewal and power” as a result, he said. As they discover that power, said Hunter, they are finding it is something “they want to share with people.”
When the Episcopal Church created its first office for evangelism in 1975, director Schwab said church leaders were “very fuzzy and very hesistant” about evangelism. People asked “Are we running away from social justice?” he said.
But his main accomplishment in five years has been helping Episcopalians “embrace the word evangelism.” “At this point,” he said, “they’re pretty aware that you can’t share what you don’t have. The church pretty well knows that it is not as close to Jesus Christ as it needs to be. People are saying ‘we don’t mind being called into account for our life with Him and in Him.’ ”
Differences in approach are evident, however. In the United Church of Christ, which is developing a media campaign aimed at the unchurched, and a Hispanic ministry, the commitment to social programs remains high. Evangelism secretary Alan Johnson said the ucc historically has been strongest in areas of the United States where evangelism is regarded in “the pejorative sense”—in New England, for instance.
The church now must reclaim its “language of faith,” said Johnson. Churchmen shouldn’t be afraid to use words like evangelism and salvation, but “salvation in its full sense,” he said: the Christian faith must address such problems as women’s liberation, inner-city decay, and Hispanic ministry—“otherwise, it’s dead.”
The United Presbyterian Church places more importance on the “concept of God’s kingdom in the world today” than do more conservative groups, such as the Southern Baptists, said Allison. He disagrees with conservatives who have an individualistic approach to faith: “It’s more a matter of their getting their reservations for heaven validated than it is a matter of their being a part of God’s kingdom here and now.”
Despite their evangelism efforts, mainline denominations will continue losing members in the 1980s, said Constant Jacquet, editor of the National Council of Churches’ annual yearbook of church membership statistics. “The decline in membership is something that is going to be around for a long time,” he said. He also predicted a leveling off of growth in the fastest growing groups—the Church of the Nazarene, the Assemblies of God, and the Southern Baptist Convention.
However, some of the shrinking churches are optimistic. Herman Luben, of the 215,000-member Reformed Church, said his denomination in 1978 registered slight membership gains: “We turned a corner last year—not in blazing headlines, but we are no longer going down.”
More significant, present trends indicate that the United Methodists’ 16-year membership decline will end by 1983, according to Warren Hartman of the church’s Board of Discipleship. Fewer persons are leaving the church, he said, and gains are being made, particularly among young adults.
UMC evangelism official Hunter said, “Sometimes the religious press has exaggerated the degree in which our grassroots leaders and churches have gotten away from our Wesleyan roots.”
But how substantial really is the push for evangelism movement in the mainline groups, such as the United Methodist Church? Said Hunter: “I wouldn’t say it’s a stampeding trend, but it’s a definite inclination. It’s not a movement: it’s a definite wiggle.”
TV Personalities Merge Efforts for Starving Millions
Television preachers are criticized for many things, but no one argues with their ability to raise money. Jerry Falwell of “The Old Time Gospel Hour,” Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s “700 Club,” and Jim Bakker of the “PTL Club,” for instance, generate a combined annual income estimated at $150 million. Religious broadcasting as a whole flushes out a cool half billion dollars annually, the Wall Street Journal reported.
So what would happen if the electronic church and its generous audience got behind a single, worthwhile money-raising project?
That thought spurred the creation of a unique fund-raising benefit for the starving Cambodians. Singer Pat Boone and several others have organized this effort, which requests the on-the-air support of television preachers and will focus around a television special featuring entertainers well-known to the Christian viewing public. The goal is millions of dollars, which will be distributed equally among Christian relief agencies presently working in Cambodia and the Thailand refugee camps.
The project evolved from a political fund-raising party in the California home of Republican presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan, attended by a number of religious figures. Author Doug Wead (People’s Temple, People’s Tomb. Logos, 1979) had just returned from Cambodia where he had been gathering material for a book. In conversation at the dinner with Pat and Shirley Boone and PTL’s Jim Bakker, Wead described the horrors he had witnessed, and the group discussed ways to help the Cambodians. “We agreed that if something was going to be done, it must be done quickly,” said Wead.
Nothing was settled that night. But Wead said he got a telephone call the next day from Shirley Boone, who mentioned a plan for organizing religious leaders and television preachers for a Cambodia prayer and fund-raising effort. “At the time I thought she was being very idealistic and naive,” said Wead, “because I thought they’d [television preachers] never come together for anything.”
However, Dan O’Neill, the Boones’ son-in-law, who would be asked to coordinate the project, replied to Wead’s observation, “If they won’t come together to help a million starving people, they won’t come together for anything.” All agreed, however, that television would be the quickest way to reach the largest number of people.
O’Neill, formerly of Youth with a Mission and with writing and television experience, worked literally around the clock to pull together the first planning meeting within a week. About 50 religious leaders ate a “Cambodian Thanksgiving Dinner” of fish, rice, and water, in the Boones’ Beverly Hills, California, home.
Dinner guests included TV preachers Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, Robert Schuller, and representatives of the PTL and 700 Clubs. (Falwell and Jimmy Swaggert were invited, but did not attend, Wead said.) U.S. relief agencies represented were World Vision, World Relief, World Concern, Food for the Hungry, and Catholic Relief Services.
Also attending was Robert Maddox, the Southern Baptist minister turned White House staff member, who is President Jimmy Carter’s liaison officer to religious groups. Word of Maddox’s attendance at first caused controversy among those who thought “the whole thing might be politicized,” said Wead. He said Maddox’s interest in the Cambodian problem was sincere, however: Maddox and first lady Rosalyn Carter had just returned from visiting the Cambodian refugee camps and had expressed shock at the suffering there.
But partly due to cost and to the fact that another celebrity television special for Cambodia was being planned, the group’s executive committee shelved the telethon. Committee members Wead, Boone, O’Neill, and Bernard Law, Catholic bishop from Springfield, Missouri, now intend to produce a fund-raising television special without the celebrities, aimed specifically at a Christian audience.
The group’s intent is to keep overhead and organizational costs at a bare minimum. The only advertising for the campaign has come informally through Boone’s appearances on Christian television talk shows, such as the PTL and 700 Clubs. Donations have been sent to the mailing address of World Concern in Seattle, Washington (Save the Refugees Fund; Pat Boone, National Chairman, Box 33000, Seattle, Wash. 98133). Executive director of World Concern Arthur Beals explained the choice of mailing address as a way to speed the donor process—World Concern’s own Save the Refugees fund was already established. So far, he said, the only budgeted expense has been the cost of mailing tax deductible receipts to donors. Despite the lack of advertising, more than 10,000 letter responses had already been received, he said.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more