As I wrote in an earlier post, many churches have given up on any kind of organized evangelism program. And those that still have them seldom find them to be effective, but they soldier on out of a sense of duty. The problem with both giving up and staying committed to an ineffective methodology is that the results are the same. Few new converts are entering the average Bible-believing, gospel-preaching church. When asked why the American church is not experiencing the explosive growth it experienced in the mid-twentieth century, few seem to have an answer.
Some complain that the world has changed. Of course the world has changed! It is always changing. Since its inception, the church has always seemed able to adapt to the political and spiritual climate wherever it has found itself. Today in the West, however, we seem completely stymied about the solution. Many churches have resorted to what theologian David Wells calls the therapeutic approach. They view themselves as dispensers of good experiences, meeting the felt needs of attenders (meaningful membership? Old-fashioned!), and assisting them on the path to self-fulfillment.
What is abandoned in this psychologically-driven approach is serious thinking fueled by serious engagement with the Scriptures, sound doctrine, and church history. Many American believers don’t know enough about the historic Christian faith to sustain a five-minute conversation. This has had profound effects upon the average Christian. With the church’s almost-exclusive focus on big events intended to draw the community into the building, believers no longer need to know how to engage unbelieving thought. All they need to know now is the date and time of the next big event so they can invite their neighbors and co-workers. Once they get their unbelieving friends to the event, the experts take over with their slick presentations and studio-quality programming. As Marshall McLuhan taught us fifty years ago, the medium is the message, and if the religious therapists are on their game, “converts” are made, a lot of back-slapping takes place, and everyone goes home to await the next big event.
All this comes at a steep price, however, and I don’t mean the hundreds of thousands spent on lights and smoke machines. The cost to the church is the loss of a congregation of discipled and well-trained members scattering to their neighborhoods, workplaces, and families, sharing the gospel, refuting unbelief and being salt and light in their own little sphere of the world.
Is this even possible? The answer is definitely yes, because that is what we are called to do in a number of passages of Scripture, most notably Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, and 1 Peter 3:15-16. The problem, however, is that we have ignored the incredible resources available to us. The corpus of church history, systematic theology and apologetics, not to mention the Scriptures themselves have been left untapped by most churches. Why? Mostly because it requires effort. As G. K. Chesterton quipped, “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; rather it has been found difficult and left untried.” Chesterton’s challenge to unbelievers needs to be heard in the church today. It is much easier to read a book by Bill Hybels than to wrestle with the roots of unbelief. It’s much easier to encourage someone to invite their friends to rocking good concert than it is to train them to engage objections to the gospel.
I spoke at an apologetics conference recently, hosted by a church in the hills of central Pennsylvania. In the middle of nowhere, this rather large and vibrant church has sprung up in recent years. I was curious how this could be, and then I discovered that the conference was an annual event. That’s right, folks. This church understands, like few others I’ve encountered, that instilling a true passion for the souls of men requires regular reinforcement and equipping. What I found was a congregation of working joes who spoke the language of engagement with unbelievers. Many of them had read the best books on apologetics and were putting into practice what they were learning. Their questions at the end of my presentations were thoughtful and demonstrated a mature wrestling with the contemporary challenges to the Christian faith. I walked away wondering why more churches do not see the need to seriously equip their members for evangelistic engagement with unbelievers.
When was the last time your church had an apologetics conference? When was the last time a significant portion of the year was given to training in evangelism for the 21st century? Such an effort would be different than training 40 years ago when the majority of people one might encounter were Roman Catholics or liberal Protestants. Today we must be ready to engage skeptics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and more. How is your church planning to fulfill this need.
If there is no ongoing program for training in evangelism and apologetics, I would question whether your church takes the Great Commission seriously. Occasional encouragements to merely share your testimony will not cut it. As the Western world becomes more hostile to Christianity, the more seriously we must engage this task. The resources are abundant, and we have no excuse for not excelling at reaching unbelievers with the gospel of Christ. While some say that the world is more unreachable than ever before, I believe that the opportunities for the light of the gospel increase as the world gets darker.
So, when was the last time your church hosted an apologetics conference?
Apologetics for the Church is a local church training ministry designed to equip the average Christian. Over the course of one weekend, church members can gain the skills and confidence necessary to share the gospel with anyone. Mark Farnham (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) has been teaching Apologetics in local churches for the last ten years. His doctoral work in Apologetics has opened doors to interact with all kinds of unbelievers, from doctoral students in philosophy at a Philadelphia University, to Muslims inside the mosque, to everyday people on the streets of Lancaster, PA. To contact Mark, call 215-206-7249 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.