To many, there was a time when evangelism was primarily defined by traveling evangelists speaking at mass gatherings. Yet, that is changing now and it is no secret that mass evangelism is in decline in the West.
More on that in a moment…
Regardless of culture, the Evangelist is a biblical role and traveling evangelists have been around a very long time. At the end of the New Testament era, we see wandering prophets and evangelists delivering God’s message to the people.
But looking at our context today, it seem have seen a decline in certain evangelistic strategies by evangelists in the West. Perahps Charles Finney (in the 1800s) and Billy Graham (in the 1900s) serve as the two bookends of the great age of mass evangelism.
Finney and others during the Second Great Awakening were not the first to practice mass evangelism—that was Peter (Acts 2). But, mass evangelism seems to be becoming the exception rather than the rule today, in many places.
A Major Shift
Some may balk at the idea of mass evangelism going by the wayside.
But if you grew up in the Pentecostal, Wesleyan, or Baptist tradition, think about your history. Twenty years ago, you probably had spring and fall revival services in your church. That was seen as an effective way to reach the community. It was a time of intentional evangelistic preaching where church members would bring lost friends and family to hear a guest speaker urgently preach the gospel.
But in all likelihood your church no longer has those services or brings in that traveling evangelist. That’s a major shift. The major evangelistic strategy 50 years ago is now a tangential strategy at best. For better or worse, mass evangelism is in mass decline.
I’m not saying that mass evangelism has come to an end, and it has certainly not in the majority world, but only a cursory look reveals it has drastically declined. Now, we know about evangelists like Greg Laurie, Will Graham, and many others continue to have such meetings, but they are more the exception now, rather than the rule.
A Changing Emphasis
The evangelist, however, has a biblical call; that hasn’t changed. Their call is still the New Testament: evangelists equip God’s people for works of service to the building of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11). And that’s what has changed.
In the future, rather than being the primary harvester for the church year, the evangelist can be the one to help members see proclaiming the gospel is the responsibility of every believer, not only pastors and staff members.
Evangelists are needed greatly even if mass evangelism slows. It’s the evangelist that matters, as the Evangelist points people to the gospel.
Many Western evangelists will have to change their methodology and their approach to fulfill their God given task. They have to become more like missionaries, adjusting their methodology based on the new context they face.
And, this may change from place to place. For exampel, this Occasional Bulletin from 1974 discussed how to best evangelize:
Christians must repudiate the role of arrogant proselytizers. The "crusading mentality" and all methods of mass evangelism are offensive and threatening to our Muslim brothers. We should be among Muslims as friends and fellow citizens, not as rivals, but as Christians attempting to witness to our faith and to the best in our religion.
Our culture is different, but the need is the same, as is the gospel that meets the need. In some places, that will be through mass meetings (witness some of the great meeting in Africa, for example).
It is imperative that we seek the most effective biblical means of reaching the culture around us.
The Role of the Local Church
Increasingly, the function of evangelizing communities is going to be filled by local churches. It’s just a matter of math that, in the West, local churches are leaning less and less on traveling evangelists and more and more on raising up local church people to do the work of evangelism.
That doesn’t mean we throw out mass evangelism altogether. This sort of approach still produces fruit, particularly when done well, and the best method of evangelism is determined by the local culture and context. But, the general culture in the West is no longer a mass meeting culture, and that is reflected in our evangelism methods.
Interestingly, organizations usually connected with mass evangelism are seeing this as well. For example, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (yes, mass evangelism Billy Graham) recently launched (and has remarkable success) with the My Hope campaign, where it used the sermons of Billy Graham in homes and through relational conversation.
Now, the fact that your Wesleyan church is not having a spring and fall revival does not mean that your church should no longer does evangelism.
In Evaluating the Church Growth Movement, Gary McIntosh notes a significant insight that movement has given us for the modern state of evangelism:
The gospel spreads most contagiously, not between strangers, nor by mass evangelism, nor through mass media, but along the lines of the kinship and friendship networks of credible Christians, especially new Christians.
The universal message doesn’t change, but the media through which it is delivered must. The preferred media in our culture has shifted significantly and churches have followed suit.
Evangelism does not look the same today as it did yesterday and it will not look the same tomorrow as it does today. Churches should continue to proclaim the same old gospel message, but in new creative and effective ways.
Evangelism in context will always the best type of evangelism.