Evangelism has fallen out of style.
Sure, some of us are trying to keep it at the forefront of our churches’ thinking, but stats don’t lie: While 79% of unchurched people said they would engage in a faith conversation if asked, only 39% of Christians have shared how to accept Jesus in the past six months. That’s a wide margin by any measure.
This means that over 60% of people are not telling our world about Jesus—even on an annual basis. This is a sad reality. Of all the activities in the church, evangelism is most likely to be neglected and thus, we actually do need to make it great again in a world which offers us so many competing priorities.
Both evangelism and social action are part of the mission of Jesus. Jesus came to serve the hurting (Luke 4:18ff) and save the lost (Luke 19:10). We do similarly as we join Jesus in that mission.
However, in almost every era, when Christians hold the values of gospel proclamation and gospel demonstration, it is proclamation that gets lost. So, I believe in what is often called “integral mission,” but I also think we have to find a way to be sure that evangelism does not get lost.
And, in 2019, evangelism is getting lost.
I call this being an “integral prioritist.” I love mission, social action, and discipleship. These are all good things — even essential things. But I have to find a way to prioritize the thing that gets lost— to prioritize evangelism. In 2019, we all need to consider how to be sure that evangelism does not get lost.
If we go back to the 1930s and 40s and look at the Wesleyan, Pentecostal, or Baptist traditions, Spring and Fall revivals were commonplace. These were intentional times where Christians got together to do evangelism and to engage those unreached around them. Many came to Christ through these events.
These revivals were often accompanied by (and in some cases overtaken by) in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s by things like Evangelism Explosion. Many churches began to incorporate weekly activities like the Tuesday night visitation, which included some evangelistic activity. People would go out and visit people to share the gospel, or invite their friends to church. One word might sum up the commitment to evangelism during this time: intentionality.
People sought opportunities to share the gospel.
Fast forward to today
Today, however, things have changed.
Many churches do not have dedicated times or ways for people to reach our world for Jesus. As a result, intentionality has faded. The truth is, like anything else in life, when people have some sort of means, time, and intent, they actually are able to better prioritize intentional outreach.
Engaging others—whether we know them or not—around the gospel is something all of us should seek to do each week. Yet, we’ve lost much of our intentionality.
So what about our churches?
But how do we mobilize our churches to actually engage others in gospel conversations and be intentional in prioritizing outreach? If time and intentionality are the commonality between the revivals and the time of regular meetings in earlier decades, is there a time and intentionality tool today that we can utilize to increase our churches’ evangelistic temperatures? The short answer is yes, there are many. The problem is, too few churches are using them.
At Moody Church, where I’ve been serving as Interim Teaching Pastor, we've been using Organic Outreach with Kevin Harney. This has been helping us improve our intentionality. Kevin talks about turning up the evangelistic temperature a few notches in our churches. Here at the Billy Graham Center, we also recently created a tool for churches called Our Gospel Story. This is a six-week online curriculum that can be used in small groups, one-on-one, or in larger group contexts.
Another tool that most of us are familiar with are home-based evangelistic small groups or Bible studies, the Alpha Course being the most famous. Millions of people have taken the Alpha Course. Why?
Because just as revivals met the need of the day in the 1930s and 40s, and the Tuesday night evangelistic visitation met the needs of the 1960s, 70s, and even into the 80s, conversational evangelism has become a trademark of today.
These evangelism tools are those that help us engage conversationally with others, sometimes with a high emphasis on hospitality, like hosting people in our homes.
The point is, they are intentional. They prioritize evangelism. If you don’t prioritize evangelism and outreach, you won’t have evangelism and outreach!
What does the future hold?
As depressing as the stats may be, the future of evangelism does not have to be like the past.
It’s as bright as we, empowered with the Holy Spirit, are willing to make it. We must commit ourselves and our churches to being prioritize evangelism, always seeking to hold the banner of evangelism high, and always encouraging our congregations and leadership to utilize tools that will make our gospel witness intentional and doable.
I invite you to check out the Our Gospel Story curriculum and take your churches through it, then let me know what God does.
As leaders, may one of our highest goals always be that men and women might hear and respond to the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Ed Stetzerholds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.