Knock, knock.

Homeowners may do nothing more than pretend not to be home to deter Jehovah's Witnesses at their door, but Stratton, Ohio took it a step further.

The village passed an ordinance in 1998 that requires canvassers to get permission from the mayor's office before approaching homes. The city says the measure is to protect security and prevent annoyance of homeowners. The Jehovah's Witnesses, however, say it "disregards a speaker's First Amendment right."

In February the case went to the Supreme Court. While the official ruling has not been delivered, comments from the bench make a ruling against the ordinance appear likely. A headline from American Lawyer Media says, "High Court Ridicules Ohio Limits on Solicitation."

The expected ruling will be good news to those who evangelize through cold-call door-to-door visits, like the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons.

But do evangelical Christians still knock on doors?

"There's no question there has been a decline," says Timothy K. Beougher, Billy Graham professor of evangelism and church growth at Southern Seminary. "But as Twain said, the reports of its death are greatly exaggerated."

Questions of effectiveness, changes in culture, and the emergence of other evangelical methods have contributed to a decrease in what is known as visitation evangelism. But there are healthy programs. While neighborhood canvassing is still practiced, successful strategies have changed with the times and added new components to the traditional model of home visitation.

"Visitation evangelism has to be more than cold knocking on random doors," says John Ewert, associate dean of integrated learning at Southern Seminary. "With new incarnations, it can take on a whole new light."

Best practices

Perhaps no name is more commonly associated with visitation evangelism than D. James Kennedy. In 1961, he established a lay-witness training program at his 17-member Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Members would go door-to-door asking residents such questions as "Do you know for sure that you are going to be with God in Heaven?"

In 1967 Evangelism Explosion (EE) saw 800 commitments to Christ; by 1969 the church had grown to 1,600 members. EE quickly spread across the country and went international in 1978. EE has now reached every nation and every territory in the world. This year, 760 weeklong clinics will be held worldwide to train more than 5,000 people in lay witnessing.

Kennedy told Christianity Today that within the first five or six years of EE, the program moved away from cold calling. "We try not to knock on doors helter-skelter," he said. "The best approach is having members bring visitors to church and then we follow it up with a visit."

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Kennedy said that visiting someone's home has to be handled carefully, even when the person has been a visitor or referred by friends. "We live in a lot more violent culture. Opening your door is scary," he said.

Visitation teams are always sent in groups of three: one woman and two men. Homeowners are more willing to let a woman into their home, he says, so the woman is always placed nearest the door.

Kennedy also teaches visitation teams to show visitor cards when the door is opened. "I always tell people to hold it right up under their chin so the person can see their own handwriting and remember visiting us," he said.

Evangelism Explosion still has a cold survey component, but it is administered in public at beaches, malls, or on the street. Kennedy says this method is less intrusive and more effective than approaching a home.

Another growing and influential training program is Faith, administered by Lifeway Christian Resources. Team members visit church visitors, referrals, members, and Sunday school absentees (in the same age range as the member) with a focus on encouraging baptism and church membership.

Faith falls under the guidance and responsibility of the church's Sunday school classes so it does not feel like an extra church commitment and because it helps to then draw people directly into the Sunday School classes.

According to Bobby H. Welch, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Florida, who developed the strategy, about 8,000 pastors and churches are trained in Faith. As of last summer, 26,000 individuals had trained in New Testament evangelism at Faith regional clinics.

Southern Seminary's Ewert has also developed a similar Sunday school-based visitation program. REACH (Reaching Every Available Community Household) adds a prayer component that makes evangelism a deeper part of church members' lives.

Sunday school members are given names of contacts and given a week to reach them however they choose. But at the same time, Sunday school prayer leaders from each class also call the contacts, who may be referrals or visitors, to ask if the church can pray for them.

"People are more likely to share about their faith after they have spent time praying for the unchurched," Ewert says. "People develop a burden for them. We just show that we care about our neighbors. I don't view them as door number three on my hit list."

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The success of EE, Faith, and REACH point to common practices for programs that work: making evangelism a mindset, creating discipleship, training properly, and committing the church to the program. But questions remain.

The cannon of evangelism

People are no longer comfortable with visits to their home, Southern Seminary's Beougher says. Not only do they not like it, they resent it. People are less open today, and not just to missionaries. When Americans return to their homes, they do not want to be disturbed. The home is an increasingly isolated place, or as the Chicago Tribune called it, "a cocoon."

Tuvya Zaretsky, Southern California district director for Jews for Jesus, says evangelicals must recognize that the role of the home has changed.

"People are finding new places to sit and converse rather than their homes," he told Christianity Today. "Within two blocks of my office, there are six coffee houses. That creates a perfect opportunity for a place to meet with mutual consent. Going door-to-door seems beyond the pale of American culture now."

However, Beougher doesn't believe the changing face of the home should stop evangelism. "I don't see where the Great Commission says to do it as long as the person is comfortable with it," he told Christianity Today.

Lon Allison, director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, warns that evangelicals should be aware of the effect that cold call evangelism has on residents. "It is like a cannon," he said. "If shot in the right place, it does great things, but in the wrong place it can be devastating."

Is visitation evangelism a gift?

Some churches have moved away from visitation evangelism, Allison says, because it requires qualities that not everyone possesses. In informal settings, Allison often asks people if they are comfortable evangelizing in such a way. He says the result is always less than 5 percent.

"For those 5 percent, I see it as a level of anointing that they can pop up where people need Jesus," Allison told Christianity Today. "It is for the few and those who do it well. But I don't want it out of the toolbox either. They may err on the side of being too forceful, but far too many of us err on being too reticent."

First Baptist Church's Welch says that many Christians have been misled by "the erroneous claim that evangelism is a special gift." He says it is no more of a gift than tithing. Welch says the drop in visitation evangelism is because training lay people is the church leader's hardest task.

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"Every other way to evangelize will be easier than intentional evangelism," Welch says. "You'll always come up with something easier than training, equipping, and motivating lay people."

Selling God

Beougher says that some churches drop visitation evangelism for more relationship-based models. But because one method is useful, he says, it does not mean others are obsolete. "Don't put all the eggs in one basket," he says. "Not every non-Christian has a Christian friend. Too many people have decided that since visitation evangelism is not relationship-based then it doesn't work."

Welch agrees. "Going house to house, either with prior knowledge of the homeowner or not, is extremely important," he told Christianity Today. "We have to use all the methods we have to reach all the possible people out there."

Allison says that if evangelism is understood as a process of steps, then visitation evangelism can be a means to plant a seed wherever people are on their journey. "However, it will only bring people to Jesus if they are already at the foot of the cross," he says. "It can harvest those who are ready to commit."

Allison says that in advertising, a product must be sold through a relationship if it is one that is very urgent or personal.

"Because a person's relationship with God is so impacting and personal, it must be done in a relationship where trust is built," Allison said. "I am convinced that a lot of people respond to door-to-door visits because they want to get this frightening and intrusive person off their doorstep."

Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.