Maths was never my strong point. But if (as Christian Research says) the church in the UK is in decline, it must be because there are fewer people born again each year than are leaving. Surely this is not good news for evangelicals, for whom the gospel is the ‘stuff of life’.
I can remember sitting under ‘faithful gospel preaching’ for years, and wondering why there were no unbelievers to hear it. We were told, “it is good for the saints to be reminded of the gospel”. I still agree with that, but I think it misses the point. Surely the primary target for the good news is the hell-bound sinner who needs to be convicted and converted.
While there is a fleet of associated factors that contribute to the current evangelical inertia, the coalface problem is a lack of biblically-credible evangelism. So why is it that many, if not most, believers in the UK have never engaged in evangelism, let alone led anyone to the Saviour?
Perhaps, many simply do not understand the meaning of the word.
Evangelism is to proclaim the gospel with sufficient information, clarity and persuasion that someone may be convinced in their minds and convicted in their hearts. The former is the work of proclamation and the latter is the sovereign work of God: both together achieve the objectives of evangelism, which is the repentance and conversion of sinners.
There are at least 12 ways in which we can miss the point of evangelism.
Reports of revival from one corner of the globe appear to encourage gospel diversions. I have observed that evangelicals are addicted to movements! It seems that many evangelicals feel so insecure that they have to latch on to a bandwagon. Somehow, in order to feel able to stand up for Jesus, we have to be recognised as being a part of something big. Or we have to get other people to join with us so that everybody can see that ‘the gospel is working’. Is this not a rather worldly idea?
Every five years or so since the Billy Graham reaping era of the 1950s and 60s, there has been a spiritual diversion. Tongues, prophecies, ‘the prophetic’, special blessing, revival fever, spiritual warfare and prayer-walking have lured many Christians into believing that there are special alternatives to true evangelism, which provide an easy short cut from the world to the kingdom. Of course, it is wrong to dismiss every unfamiliar spiritual movement as unbiblical, but the fact remains that where verbal proclamation is not central to mission, a whole generation will not know how to evangelise.
Alpha, Christianity Explored and other systematic approaches to evangelism have been acclaimed as the answer. Sadly, despite all their success in the UK, the statistics of church decline have generally not been reversed. Perhaps part of the problem is the assumption that when the ‘experts’ in the church are running a course, that somehow fulfils the personal responsibility of each believer to evangelise. Such people hide behind others and never learn how to be ‘hands on’ in evangelism.
3 Misplaced sensitivity
‘But we have to be so careful we don’t put them off’ is a popular cry. We all know of the brash insensitive approach that is a caricature of true evangelism. But the fact remains that they are already ‘off’ and will remain ‘off’ until they hear the gospel and the Lord graciously switches the lights on.
4 Distorted Calvinism
Strangely, it is sometimes the emphasis on God’s sovereign work that deflects us from the royal commission. Because we know that God’s action is decisive, we can be seduced by church, flesh and devil into a proclamation-avoidance policy. We somehow expect people to be so convinced by the ‘soft signals’ of gracious living and holy worship given by the well-taught Christian, that we fail to give the ‘hard signals’ of a clearly-spoken gospel. Even pastors may be reluctant to call people to respond to a gospel that the Scriptures both commend and command.
In an effort to be spiritually pure, some have so cut themselves off from the dying world that there is little risk of the unsaved even hearing the gospel. This separatism often results in a joyless encounter with the local community which has little of the New Testament vitality and sits uneasily with a kingdom that cannot fail. Of course, we cannot evangelise without a clear understanding of what the message is, but if we live in isolation from the world, occasionally popping our heads out of our fellowship burrows like frightened rabbits, we can neither demonstrate the evangel to a dying world nor communicate its winning message.
6 Fear of oppression
This is often preceded by a history of past evangelistic discouragement. It is true that up to 15 years ago any attempt to explain the gospel was greeted by hoots of derision, but the times have changed. I have never found people more willing to listen and discuss in our age of ‘spiritual awareness’. This is a new age, and there are great evangelistic opportunities if only we dare to forget our past bruises and try again.
7 Fear of failure
This is difficult to counter except by looking the problem in the face. The truth is that we minister best in weakness and depend on the Lord most in failure. So it is better to keep going in faith than to stop!
8 Inadequate training
Here is a real problem. The solution is not to avoid evangelistic encounter but to arrange training that is simple, practical, and, above all, biblical. Interestingly, a BeaconLight course entitled ‘Personal Evangelism’ was poorly attended, but many more applied when it was re-named ‘Sharing Jesus’. Perhaps evangelism has become so frightening to evangelicals that even the word has to be disguised to attract trainees!
9 Inadequate understanding
I am surprised by how many who have sat under good teaching seem to have understood so little. All too often it is the evangelistic course (put on for unbelievers) that first enables believers (some with a long history of stunted growth), to understand the life into which they have been born. So evangelism gets turned into discipleship classes! When this happens it just shows how much ground is yet to be covered.
10 A conviction that evangelism is not for them
This is deeper rooted than many might wish to believe and sometimes it is encouraged by ministers who parade their own lack of evangelistic gift instead of doing the work of an evangelist. The need to be able to give a ready verbal reason for our Christian hope is base-line evangelism.
11 A belief that evangelism is not ‘right’ for others
This puts social priorities above our Christian responsibility and needs biblical correction. Not only is it always right to speak of the Saviour but there is no other way through which salvation comes.
12 A lack of expectation that God can use me
It is said that sales people cannot survive in the job if they do not believe the customer will buy. Whether
or not this analogy is transferable to evangelism, it seems that those who expect that the Lord will use them are more effective than those who do not. Clear pulpit teaching, effective ministry-modelling, effective disciple-making, and testimonies of those who have dared to share their faith, all contribute to navigating the church away from this disastrous rock.
Whatever the reason for missing the point, there is little biblical credibility behind it. The fact remains that faith comes through hearing the Word of God and this is our responsibility alone!
So what is needed?
Firstly, recognition that whatever may accompany evangelism, evangelism itself is a clear verbal proclamation of the gospel, which is intended to result in divine conviction and salvation. We need to keep hearing it, saying it and believing it!
Secondly, a commitment by evangelical ministers that it is important to ‘do the work of an evangelist’ as a priority activity in their ministry, even if there are doubts or debates about evangelistic gifting. This moves mission up the local church agenda to the point at which decision-making always includes the question, ‘How will this help us to reach our community with the gospel?’
Thirdly, a commitment to teach believers how to evangelise practically, in an authentically biblical and persuasive manner. Practical training is essential and is best caught from those who dare to model it.
Fourthly, a commitment that evangelistic mission is a priority function of the church which will inevitably lead to recognition and appointment of those who are the most gifted to do more and go further with the gospel. A church that intentionally proclaims Christ in the community in this way will also become a global mission sending church.
The work of evangelism is an ‘every minister’ and ‘every believer’ task.