Because of the potential for bringing positive change toward more effective evangelism in the churches, the American Festival of Evangelism at Kansas City, Missouri, July 27–30, is a significant event. In this interview with CHRISTIANITY TODAY managing editor Jim Reapsome, the festival’s executive coordinator, Paul Benjamin, tells of the need in the churches and how the festival is aimed to meet those needs. Dr. Benjamin headed the National Church Growth Research Center in Washington, D.C., since 1974. Prior to that he taught at Lincoln, Illinois, Christian Seminary. He is a graduate of Lincoln Christian College, Butler University, and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Dr. Benjamin, how did you first get interested in church growth?
After I finished my doctorate at Northern Baptist Seminary in 1959, I went to Lincoln Christian Seminary and helped to develop their church growth department. In 1968–69 I took a year and then two summers to do postdoctoral work in American studies and church growth at the University of Iowa.
During my early years at Lincoln, my wife and I were involved in evangelistic meetings. She would do the music and I would do the preaching. I also taught classes in the mornings and we went out calling in the afternoons.
You had an interesting combination of theory and practice.
Yes, but I began to see, as time went on, that the local church’s week of revival meetings was not reaching many people. The local church revival was more of a “pep up the saints” campaign than it was an outreach to the lost.
Why was that?
It was because we had neglected some New Testament patterns of worship and witness. We had forgotten that the early church was not only a worshiping congregation, but also a witnessing congregation.
Do you think the traditional week of revival meetings is still pretty much the pattern around the country today?
Yes. Many churches are still relying on revival to reach the lost. But revival should be the training session to prepare the saved to reach the lost.
What have you been doing to change the old pattern?
I received many calls from churches and religious groups wanting help in church growth after we established our church growth department at Lincoln Christian Seminary. I had to make a decision between teaching daily on the seminary campus, and driving across the country visiting congregations, speaking to various groups, and so on. I therefore gave up a localized campus for a peripatetic one. I have continued teaching across the years, but I have done it on a broader geographical basis.
Also, the National Church Growth Research Center came into existence as a reflection of concern for the four out of five American congregations that are not growing. As I began to delve more deeply into this problem of nongrowth—a subject of investigation that I made my primary target when I spent two years at the University of Iowa—I decided that most congregational leaders have to change the way they think about the church before they can grow. For example, they have the idea the preacher is the only one who can evangelize. Furthermore, preachers have not taken hold of the equipping ministry concept, or they are so involved in pastoral responsibilities they do not have time to evangelize.
You have, therefore, in most local congregations a situation where there is really no one specifically involved in evangelism. It was to try to reorient the thinking of American leadership in local churches that I wrote what we call the American Church Growth Study Series: The Growing Congregation, How in the World?, and The Equipping Ministry.
You are basically addressing yourself to the question of how to get the churches out of this traditional approach to evangelism. What are you trying to get them to do instead?
I’m not trying to downgrade the revival. I simply point out that the usual revival meetings alone are not going to reach the thousands of people in our communities who are without Christ.
In an interview, executive coordinator Paul Benjamin explains the needs and goals that have shaped the practical and inspirational dimensions of this festival.
Where do you place the blame? Is it the pastor? Or is it that laymen don’t want to be involved in any kind of a different approach?
That’s part of the problem. But also part of the problem is a misunderstanding of the minister’s role. The idea has been that he is to do all the evangelizing, while the other people say, “Well, we aren’t prepared to do that.” The truth of the matter is that they are afraid to do it. They need to be encouraged and helped.
According to the best statistics, four out of five American churches are still not growing.
You’re saying that 80 percent of all churches are in a rut?
I would say that 80 percent have not been able to find a growth pattern.
If four out of five churches aren’t growing, could you make a ballpark guess about how many of them are interested in growing?
A major portion of the churches are looking for help, and the major number of the preaching ministers are looking for help.
Do you think perhaps we are turning the corner?
We are turning the comer. That is one reason why I became interested in the American Festival of Evangelism. I felt this would be a major step of progress.
What are the festival’s goals?
We want to bring 20,000 leaders from local churches to Kansas City, with the purpose of preparing them and equipping them to go back to their churches and do effective evangelism.
Your strategy will be a combination of instruction and inspiration?
Right! Instruction and inspiration, and also a tremendous variety of resources and materials.
We are inviting all the major religious groups with evangelism departments, as well as any of the church agencies interested in evangelism, to come and have exhibits and show us what they have.
Do you have any idea about how many church bodies will be there?
No, I don’t. More than a hundred groups have expressed interest in the festival.
How did the festival idea get started?
Tom Zimmerman, a member of the North American Lausanne Committee, was requested to convene a group of American churchmen in Saint Louis in 1978. The purpose of that meeting was to find out what kind of interest there would be in having an American festival. At that meeting it was almost unanimous that there should be some kind of meeting in America focusing on evangelism, especially in view of the fact that there had been no meeting similar to this for 12 years. The previous U.S. Congress on Evangelism was an invitation-only type of meeting; it was not a rank-and-file meeting. It was beamed toward denominational leadership, not primarily toward the local churches.
How is the festival being administered now?
The festival has two offices—one in Washington, D.C. (P.O. Box 17093, Washington, D.C. 20041), and a local arrangements and registration office at the festival location (P.O. Box 1981, Kansas City, Mo. 64141). A national planning committee of 42 church leaders is chaired by Dr. Zimmerman, Assemblies of God executive from Springfield, Missouri. The executive committee also includes C. B. Hogue, Southern Baptist evangelism leader; Ted Engstrom, of World Vision; Erwin Kolb, Lutheran executive for evangelism, and Ted Raedeke, World Home Bible League, both of Saint Louis.
The administrative staff includes Richard R. Hamilton, who heads the Kansas City office, and Robert L. Hart, who heads the Washington information office. While not formally related to the growing America for Jesus movement or other similar organizations, the festival is generating broad interest in cooperative evangelism on community and national levels.
J. Duncan Brown is chairman of the finance committee and Vonette Bright is chairman of the prayer committee. In the latter regard, under the leadership of Wyatt Lipscomb, a Texas attorney, nearly a million people were involved in Inauguration Day prayer meetings sponsored by the festival.
A lot of people are asking, “Who needs another evangelism congress?” How do you answer that?
By referring to the fact that this festival is focused on American evangelism, and that there has never been a meeting like this, that I know of, in all the history of America.
If you had the platform now to talk to some church, what reasons would you give for sending the pastor and lay leaders to this meeting?
I would tell them that they could learn more about evangelism in four days at this meeting than at any other type of gathering. They should know that at this meeting our definition of evangelism goes beyond leading the lost to Christ to helping them become responsible members of the churches and equipping them for ministry to others.
How can they get the most out of the festival?
In addition to the plenary sessions, they can take in some of the more than 200 workshops and seminars. The major emphasis of the entire festival will be on practical help.
What do you see the role of the prominent speakers to be—people like Billy Graham, Luis Palau, Jill Briscoe, Harold Carter, Jerry Kirk, and Adrian Rogers?
They have been recognized across America for their contribution to evangelism. Since the festival is for everybody, we don’t want to overlook people who have been recognized for what they have done. We want to include them, but at the same time we will be including hundreds of other less well-known speakers, who work in some specialized area of evangelism.
How do you disabuse people of the notion that this is just another religious P.R. stunt? Isn’t “festival” a poor word for what you are trying to accomplish?
The dictionary states that a festival is a festive community observance to celebrate a notable person. So the focus in Kansas City will be on Jesus Christ. It will be a time to celebrate and praise him. Also, “festival” describes a time to celebrate the harvest of an important product. What is more important than the harvest of lives? There’s another reason for having this festival at this time. The stunning statistics of George Gallup, Jr., indicate that there is a harvest. What could the churches do that would be more appropriate for their mission and task than to launch a massive evangelizing, discipling, equipping meeting at a time when, obviously, the American people are showing such receptivity?
There’s the spiritual hunger out there that Gallup has told us about. Do you see any signs that evangelism is going to be tougher?
What I see is probably a full decade of tremendous opportunity for the churches, such as we’ve never had before. The church in America during the 1980s faces a golden opportunity.
How do you help people understand that at the Festival of Evangelism you will not just be talking about mass crusades?
Our definition of evangelism helps to offset that. We’re saying that evangelism has to go beyond the decision-making stage. It has to go on to responsible church membership and, furthermore, it has to go on to ministry. An evangelism that does not lead us to ministry has not led us far enough. Perhaps no one is doing everything, but everyone is doing something. We want them to come and make their contribution. We are not disparaging any type of evangelism that is helping people come to Christ.
You are not trying to play down mass crusades?
Oh, no. In fact, Billy Graham is having the closing dedication service. Bill and Vonette Bright are very deeply involved. The program is the most representative of any program that has ever taken place on American soil.
Will individual churches and evangelistic agencies have a place on the program, apart from exhibits?
We have purposely left all day Friday open. That will give an opportunity for any agency or group or church body to meet. As a result of what they have learned, they can go ahead and plan and talk about their own strategy. A number of these groups have already indicated that they will meet on Friday. They will, in a sense, convene their own meeting. We have rented all the space up through Friday night. Our program closes out on Thursday; from then on they can plan their own programs. All they need to do is let us know what size room they want, whether it is to be a food function, and what time.
Will there be a sharp focus on reaching minorities?
Yes. There will be sessions on evangelism among ethnic minorities; Hispanic evangelism; intercultural evangelism; evangelizing Muslims; evangelizing the cults; evangelizing refugees; evangelizing the poor; evangelizing the secularists; coffee-time evangelizing, evangelizing intellectuals, and so on.
So if people want to specialize, will there be enough input in the program to satisfy them?
Yes, if they avail themselves of some of the resources. We have picked leaders for these workshops who have either written or produced something in the field.
What are the 36 “parable churches” on the program.
They are churches that have shown 10 percent growth per year for the last ten years. The pastors and their laymen will be there, and will tell how they are doing the job in their communities. They are following the discipleship and equipping concept. You can go there and hear their story, and they will have materials to pass out.
Are you sensing growing interest in the festival?
Let me say it has not only been necessary to build the “train” for the festival, it has also been necessary to build the “track.” My position with the festival did not begin full-time until January 1, 1980. We have used this past year to do a great deal of spadework, to make contacts with the major religious groups, and to encourage their participation and support. So far as I know, the American Festival has the broadest base of support and participation of any major gathering in American history. There is a tremendous amount of good will toward the festival from church leaders. At the same time, we have an almost Herculean task of reaching out to the grassroots areas.
There were some folks at the beginning who didn’t think it was going to turn out very well. I think the festival has been coming down the track, but some people were not watching for it, and now it’s bigger than they ever anticipated it would be.
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