Ed Stetzer on Why Evangelism Has Declined

Image: Photo by Ashkan Forouza on Unsplash

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange team helped with this article. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

Over the next six months you will find us talking more and more about evangelism. As an integral prioritist (my phrase), I believe both mission and evangelism are important for both individual followers of Christ and to churches, but I also believe evangelism will fall off our radars if we aren’t intentional to prioritize it. On June 23-24 we will be hosting Amplify: The Wheaton Evangelism Leadership Conference where we will bring together 1,000 church leaders to create churches growing and transforming through evangelism and transformed lives. I’d love to see you there.

We have entered a decade or two lull in evangelistic passion among evangelicals now. This is ironic since “evangelical” and “evangelistic” come from the same root word which means gospel, good news, or evangel. I think there are several reasons for this.

First, there’s been a bit of a backlash to past models that seemed reductionistic and mechanistic.

Os Guinness in Fool’s Talk observed how “recent forms of evangelism are modeled not on classical rhetorical or even on good communication theory, but on handbooks for effective sales technique.”[1]

Some are bothered by the idea that evangelism is boiled down to asking people to answer two questions: “If you were to die today, do you know for sure you’d go to heaven?” And, “Do you know for sure you are going to be with God in heaven?”

Over time, people increasingly felt these were reductionist and mechanical, so (for good or for bad) they moved away from them.

You’re more likely now to find Christians make jokes about the way they used to do evangelism than actually do evangelism. Instead of starting with our questions, we should start where people are and walk them to the gospel.

Second, many believers don’t have confidence in the gospel.

LifeWay Research study found about half the people who regularly attend an evangelical church give a pluralistic or a universalistic answer to questions about the need for people to know Christ.

A higher percentage would likely be functionally universalistic or pluralistic. Showing how the gospel and Scripture connect to and help make sense of all of life –– not just our spiritual life –– can grow confidence in it. One study found Millennials are four times as likely to stay in church when shown how the Bible applies to all of life, including their career.

Third, it’s getting harder to share the gospel in a context where people are further away from what their parents or grandparents believed.

You’re starting with people who are far more secular than before. This means there’s a greater gap between what you believe and what they believe, so the starting point for sharing Christ is different. You can’t assume they believe things like you. Like Paul at Mars Hill, we can start where they are and show them Christ.

A fourth issue is a sort of spiritual replacement, replacing evangelism with another spiritual emphasis.

Today, we talk more about social justice or societal transformation, seeing that they clearly important and part of the mission. However, we’d be naive to think that some will lose their evangelistic focus as they gain a passion for other aspects of the mission.

“We still believe in evangelism,” we say. But saying, “We still believe in evangelism,” means you’re about a decade from not believing in evangelism, because what we neglect in one generation is often rejected in the next.

You can (and should) add important issues without subtracting a focus on evangelism.

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Source: Christianity Today