Stale White Bread: The State of Evangelism in the Church

In an article last month in Christianity Today on the state of evangelism in the American church, Ed Stetzer summarizes two recent studies by Lifeway Researchers and the Barna Group. The Lifeway study concluded what any observant ChristiaWhite-Breadn already knows—evangelism has dropped off significantly in recent decades. Most Protestant Christians (85%) believe they have a responsibility to share the gospel, but only a few (25%) actually do so, or plan to do so.

Why is this? As with any issue, the answer is complex, but I can suggest several reasons.

First, evangelism training has not changed much in 50 years. The last evangelism training many Christians received was the same as what their grandparents received, even though the world has drastically changed. Post-WWII evangelism was primarily aimed at Roman Catholics and liberal Protestants, both of whom held to a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian view of man’s ability to merit God’s favor to some extent through good works. These were people who already believed in the Christian God (to some extent), and who already respected the Bible. Evangelism, therefore, was primarily focused on showing the listener from the Bible that salvation was by grace, not works. From the 1940’s through the 70’s, this strategy worked quite well, as untold numbers were saved and churches grew. But it inherently lacked any great substance, like white bread. It appeared to be nutritious for the church, but it lacked any substance.

By the 80’s and 90’s this form of evangelism began to decrease in its effectiveness. Postmodern skepticism, the public failure of influential Christian leaders, and the influx of world religions through immigration changed the fabric of American society. No longer could evangelists assume that their hearers believed what had been widely held a few decades before. Now they were encountering objections to the Christian faith from a variety of directions. Believers found themselves having to defend the Bible and Christianity in ways many felt ill-equipped to do well—textual criticism, the historicity of the Gospel accounts, and the uniqueness of the Christian faith among world religions.

Coinciding with this change in the culture was the Church Growth Movement’s emphasis on the “come and see” approach to reaching the lost. This is the second reason many Christians don’t share the gospel—the whole idea of serious discipleship and the “go and tell” of the Great Commission has been superseded. Removing anything that could be remotely offensive to unbelievers, these proponents sought to massage the unbeliever into the kingdom. I have met many attenders of CGM that were no clearer on the gospel than the average Muslim or Mormon, because the sharp edges of sin, wrath, repentance and belief had been whittled down to having an emotional experience with God. Christians in these types of churches, like toothless, domesticated bears at a roadside attraction, are reduced to inviting their friends and neighbors to the next “super” event at their megachurch, because they themselves have never been equipped.

The stale evangelism training of the previous generations fails in today’s world. This was brought home to me powerfully while speaking at a family camp in St. John, New Brunswick last summer. A retired pastor of 50 years, now in his late 70’s, approached me after I gave a session on apologetics. He grabbed my hand firmly and said, “That’s what we should have been teaching all these years! We have been teaching evangelism all wrong!” In other words, the canned approach of spitting out a gospel formula failed to follow the example of Jesus and the apostles in their evangelism, and therefore was unable to deal with objections and challenges. This elderly saint recognized the power in an apologetic approach that enabled one to “go and tell.”

That brings us to the Barna study, which found that 65% of Millennials (those born between 1980 and the mid 2000’s) had shared their faith in the last year with an unbeliever. This is encouraging news. And it doesn’t surprise me as an undergraduate professor. Much more than my generation, the Busters, younger Christians seem motivated to know their faith and to boldly share it.

There are many factors involved in this generational shift, but one I believe is a major part of this move is the resurgence of apologetics. With the advent of the internet the availability of resources for defending the Christian faith have become ubiquitous. Younger Christians who are tech-savvy can easily find and learn apologetic answers to the challenges that arise against their faith.

The younger generation may be able to revive the evangelistic fervor of the American church that the Busters and Boomers lost. Rather than see the declining state of evangelism as something to mourn, we ought rather to perceive it as an opportunity for a new, more potent and effective form to rise from its ashes. This new evangelism will be apologetically equipped and ready for the challenges that arise. We may yet see a great revival of evangelism in our day.

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