This article originally appeared in the December 8, 1997 issue of Christianity Today.

We stand only a few years away from the end of one millennium and the start of a new. Never has the Christian church faced so many challenges on so many fronts—political, social, demographic, economic, philosophical.

In response to these challenges, the church today often seems paralyzed and confused, torn by division and uncertainty. Instead of becoming salt and light in the world, we have been content to withdraw into our separate ecclesiastical ghettos, preoccupied with our own internal affairs and unconcerned about the deepest needs of those around us. In the eyes of many, religion has lost its relevance and is little more than a quaint relic from another time.

In spite of the difficulties, the twenty-first century could mark the greatest evangelistic advance in the history of the Christian church. In order for this to happen, however, the church (in all of its diversity) must embrace the challenges it faces and must mobilize every possible spiritual and physical resource to declare the gospel that has been committed to us.


In the years leading up to 2000 and beyond, at least four trends in particular will pose a special challenge to Christian evangelism.

Uncontrolled urbanization. When the twenty-first century dawns, the world's population is expected to total a staggering 6 billion people—approximately three times the number of people living at the dawn of the twentieth century. At least half of those people will be living in large cities—uprooted from their past, mobile, often struggling for survival in the midst of extreme poverty, and potentially explosive politically because their dreams may have ended in disillusionment and despair. Already over 50 percent of the world's population is under 25 years of age, and in the poorer parts of the world that number is much higher.

Unrelenting aggressive secularism. One of the most discouraging historical trends over the last century has been the "de-Christianization" of many former Christian strongholds (particularly in Europe) because of the massive onslaught of secularism. Secularism, however, has an increasing impact in other parts of the world, such as Southeast Asia. Likewise, we can't assume that most people living in the former communist nations of Eastern Europe will necessarily abandon their secular outlook, even if they have jettisoned its Marxist trappings.

Secularism can take many attitudes toward religion, from total indifference to virulent hostility. At its root, however, secularism always excludes God from the world and from daily human life, and the secularist lives for the present without any reference to God or divine moral and spiritual absolutes. People with a secular outlook on life often feel very little need of religion, and therefore are indifferent or not open to the Christian message.

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Expanding non-Christian religions. While secularism is growing in some parts of the world, other parts are experiencing a profound religious reawakening. One reason is a growing suspicion that secularism has failed to provide real answers to life's ultimate questions. As a result, some non-Christian religions have grown increasingly suspicious of Western secular trends, believing they could sound the death knell of their religious traditions. In many instances they have grown increasingly militant and aggressive, and some nations that have officially adopted one of these as their sole religion have passed new laws restricting Christian influence and activity.

Even in countries like the United States there has been an upsurge in religious interest. Not all of this religious interest, however, has been in historic Christianity; cults and non-Western religious traditions have also experienced growth.

Shifting frontiers and emerging fields. Years from now the last decade of the twentieth century will still be remembered by historians as one of the watershed periods of the modern era. The collapse of Marxism in Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Union has brought about staggering changes, the full impact of which we cannot fully assess as yet.

From the standpoint of Christian evangelism, however, it marks one of the greatest openings for the gospel in the history of the church. Never before has such a vast area, encompassing hundreds of millions of people, opened so suddenly and thoroughly to evangelistic activity. In most of these areas a remnant of the church has survived the fierce onslaughts of atheism, but the task of evangelizing their lands cannot be done by them alone. Those from outside, however, must learn to temper their enthusiasm with prayer, strategic thinking, cultural sensitivity, and willingness to work as partners with those who are already there. It remains to be seen, however, how the new law restricting religion in Russia will affect evangelism efforts, especially by outside groups.

What other new fields will emerge in coming decades? Will changes in the Middle East or Asia mean the door will open to Christian evangelism from other parts of the world?

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The twenty-first century may also be a time of closing doors and increasing religious polarization in some parts of the world. It may be a time when nations that have historically been Christian not only abandon their Christian roots completely (as has already happened in some parts of Europe), but increasingly become the targets of aggressive proselytizing by non-Christian cults and religions.


In the midst of so many changes in the world, it is the unique function of the church to declare by word and deed that there are some things that never change. It is the message that God—the supreme, unchanging, omnipotent Creator of the universe—loves humanity and wants us to know him in a personal way. It is the message that humankind has strayed from God—rebelled against his revealed will, and as a result of sin is alienated from God and from others. It is the message that God has taken the initiative to bridge the gap between God and sinful humanity, and he did this by coming down to earth in the person of Jesus Christ. It is the message that there is hope for the future, because Christ rose from the dead and will reign victorious over all the forces of evil and death and hell.

No, God has not changed, nor has the nature of the human heart changed. And that is why the gospel is relevant to every individual in every culture: beneath all the cultural, ethnic, social, economic, and political differences that separate us, the deepest needs and hurts and fears of the human heart are still the same. The gospel is still "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16, NIV).

But there is one other thing that has not changed—and that is the commission of Christ to the church to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation" (Mark 16:15).

That command—thoroughly undergirded by a deep love for Christ and for others—impelled the early Christians to go from one end of the Roman Empire to the other, often paying the price for their commitment with their lives. In obedience to that same command, a host of missionaries and evangelists across the centuries have brought the message of God's love in Christ to the farthest corners of human civilization.


Will the church of Jesus Christ meet the challenge of a new century, with all its complexity and even confusion? Or will Christians retreat slowly but inexorably into steadily shrinking ecclesiastical ghettos, their message unheeded and their efforts feeble and ineffective? Now is the time for the church to come to grips honestly with those questions.

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What will it take for the evangelistic imperative to be lived out in the future so that the twenty-first century becomes the greatest century for Christian evangelism in history? Let me suggest four keys to effective evangelism—basic principles in evangelism that have always been valid, but that take on special urgency given the challenges of the modern world.

A rediscovery of the full biblical message. Polls repeatedly demonstrate that if people in the Western world are asked if they believe in God, Jesus, heaven, or in other basic doctrines of the Christian faith, large numbers answer yes. And yet there is little or no evidence of vital, living faith in their lives. Why? One reason is that those same people, when asked "What is a Christian?" have little or no comprehension of what the Bible says about that urgent question.

Instead of becoming salt and light, we have
been content to withdraw into our separate
ecclesiastical ghettos, preoccupied with
our own internal affairs and unconcerned
about the deepest needs of those around us.

The evangelistic task, first of all, should send us back to our Bibles, carefully and prayerfully studying to uncover the heart of God's message to an unbelieving world. It also will mean a recovery of the biblical priority of evangelism. Sad to say, evangelism in many churches today (and for many individual Christians) seems almost an afterthought to the normal workings of the congregation or denomination.

Even a casual inspection of the New Testament will reveal that evangelism was the priority of the early church. Christians are called by God to do many things, but a church that has lost sight of the priority of evangelism has lost sight of its primary calling under God.

Biblical evangelism needs to be given much greater priority in theological education as well—in fact, it should permeate every aspect of a seminary's curriculum instead of being a minor appendage, as is too often the case.

The recovery of the priority of evangelism should not lead us, however, to make a false distinction between the proclamation of the gospel and social concern. Both are part of God's calling and must go hand in hand. A Christian who fails to express Christ's love for humanity through compassionate service is not living a life of full discipleship. In like manner, a Christian who fails to express Christ's love for humanity through clear verbal witness is also not living a life of full discipleship. Jesus, we read, "went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness" (Matt. 9:35). Immediately afterward he commissioned the 12 disciples to go out and do likewise.

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Christians today who have a special interest in evangelism have discovered in new ways the truth of this diversity of ministry. Article 5 of the Lausanne Covenant of 1974 states, "We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all. … We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of [everyone] from every kind of oppression. … The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities."

The mobilization of the whole church. For too long we have assumed that evangelism was the province of only a few professionals, or a task that the pastor alone could do (in addition to the multitude of other duties the pastor faces every day).

Such a view is not faithful to the New Testament, nor is it realistic if the challenges of the coming decades are to be met. The task is simply too overwhelming. Prof. Michael Green has rightly said that "whenever Christianity has been at its most healthy, evangelism has stemmed from the local church and has had a noticeable impact on the surrounding area. I do not believe that the re-Christianization of the West can take place without the renewal of local churches in this whole area of evangelism."

The early church spread not only by the preaching of those few who were gifted as preachers and evangelists—important as they were—but also through the quiet and faithful witness of ordinary Christians to their pagan neighbors. Paul wrote to the young Thessalonian church, "The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere" (1 Thess. 1:8).

The mobilization of the whole church for evangelism—including both the clergy and the laity—must be repeated today if the church is to spread the gospel effectively. Prof. George Hunter has written, "Western Christianity needs a multitude of intentional missionary congregations—churches that will abandon the Christendom model of ministry as merely nurturing the faithful—whose primary mission will be to reach and disciple people who do not yet believe" (CT, Dec. 16, 1991, p. 44).

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This means we must focus more intently on discipleship training—training that includes evangelism. It means we repent of our compromises and our failure to demonstrate the transforming power and love of Christ in our lives, and we learn afresh what it means to be salt and light in a decaying and dark world. Often the unbelieving world rejects our message because it sees no difference between Christians and non-Christians.

It means also that we encourage the discovery and development of the spiritual gift of evangelism in all of its manifestations. Within the church, God "gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers" (Eph. 4:11). That gift has never been withdrawn from the church. Some will exercise that gift with children or youth; some will exercise it with their neighbors or business associates; still others will exercise it in a public preaching ministry. However it is exercised, the special gift of evangelism should be an inherent part of the church's total ministry, not an isolated or independent work divorced from the church or even opposed by it.

A church that has lost sight of the
priority of evangelism has lost sight
of its primary calling under God.

Willingness to explore new methods and new fields. Methods that have worked in the past to make people aware of the church and draw them into its programs will not necessarily work in a media-saturated age. It is no coincidence that those churches that are most effective in reaching their neighborhoods and cities for Christ are often those that are the most flexible and adaptable in their methods. For example, just because we think unchurched people ought to come to Sunday morning worship does not mean they will come. And if that is a church's only channel for contact with those who are not its members, it should not be surprised to see its role dwindle and few people come to faith in Christ.

In America, some churches are starting Saturday evening services (in addition to those on Sunday) because they have found unbelievers in their areas are more open to attending then. This, of course, is not necessarily the right pattern for other churches; the main point is that we need to stand back and be creative.

In some communities, that will mean developing specific programs to meet the needs of specialized groups—mothers, singles, single parents, teenagers, the elderly, business people, and so on. Each of those groups has particular felt needs, and these often can form the point of contact between them and the church.

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I do not want to be misunderstood, however. Evangelism is more than methods, and in fact, methods can get in the way of authentic evangelism. Methods are necessary, but methods also can easily become ends in themselves instead of tools or means of evangelism.

Total and unconditional dependence on God. To me, there has always been a wondrous mystery to the preaching of the gospel. We are commanded to be faithful in proclaiming the Word—and yet, at the same time, every success, every advance, no matter how slight, is possible only because God has been at work by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us the message, leads us to those he has prepared, and brings conviction of sin and new life.

When we understand that truth, it frees us from the temptation to use manipulation or pressure. It also should free us from pride and boasting, because we know that God alone must receive the credit for whatever is accomplished.

When we understand that truth, we also will realize the urgency of prayer in evangelism. My own ministry, I am convinced, has only been possible because of the countless men and women who have prayed. I never stand before an audience without sensing those prayers and sensing also my own dependence on God the Holy Spirit to accomplish his work. The words from Zechariah should be written indelibly on our hearts and minds: " 'Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord Almighty" (Zech. 4:6).


As we stand on the threshold of a new century—and a new millennium—what is God saying to us?

If we are among those who have been indifferent to God, his message is clear: Come to me while there is still time. I made you; I love you; I have provided the way for you to come to know me personally by faith in Christ.

To his people, however, God is telling us to be faithful to Christ, to be faithful to his calling to point others to Christ by our words and by our deeds. Will the twenty-first century mark the greatest advance the Christian church has ever known—or the greatest defeat?

Archbishop George Carey's words from his enthronement in April 1991 bear repeating: "It will be woe to us if we preach religion instead of the gospel . …Woe to us if we preach a message that looks only towards inner piety and does not relate our faith to the world around. … And woe to us if we fail to hand on to future generations the unsearchable riches of Christ which are the very heartbeat of the Church and its mission."

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That is our challenge as we stand at the threshold of the third millennium.

Billy Graham, an evangelist, is the founder of this magazine. This article is abridged from a chapter in The Future Agenda, a festschrift published in honor of Sir John Templeton.

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