Only 52% of born-again Christians report witnessing to someone at least once in the past year. How many of those were simply a personal testimony or directions to a church? And 47% of Millennials now feel it’s wrong to share one’s religious beliefs with someone of a different faith. A Lifeway study found of eight biblical attributes, “sharing Christ” had the lowest average score among American churchgoers.
Our reluctance to talk about Jesus with non-Christians defies the Great Commission and withholds the cure for the world’s terminal illness. Our disobedience is the cause, not a result, of society becoming less receptive to the Gospel. Cynicism about Christians stems from criticizing from afar rather than engaging at close range. Yet America is still fertile soil for evangelism. Most are willing to have conversations about faith if we would bring up the topic. However, the longer we avoid those conversations, the more uncomfortable they become and the less important non-believers feel Jesus must be – to us and them.
It’s not the power of the message that has diminished but the effectiveness of its messengers. Over the past few decades, Americanized church growth models have fundamentally altered the definition, objective, approach, participants, and urgency of evangelism outlined in Scripture. Those departures from long-standing, biblical norms necessitated commensurate shifts in church priorities, budgets, responsibilities, roles, and unity related to evangelism. Over the next few posts, we’ll explore each of those tragic transitions and recommend paths back toward the example set by Jesus, His disciples, and His Church throughout most of its history. We’ll begin today with modern church’s catastrophic separation of compassion from evangelism…
Biblical Evangelism = Actions + Words
Jesus rarely told anyone who He was (the Gospel) before demonstrating the Father’s love…
- Announced from the first day of His public ministry that His mission was to help the poor, heal the sick, and share the good news of His arrival
- Opened His Beatitudes with “blessed are you who are poor”, unveiling the irony of God’s economy where (spiritual and material) poverty can bring (eternal) riches
- Addressed felt needs and solved problems (e.g. rescued Mary, blessed Peter, delivered Matthew), providing Him tremendous influence over their lives
- Performed awe-inspiring miracles and jaw-dropping acts of kindness
- Identified personally with the poor and declared caring for them isn’t optional
- Fiercely protected the weak and vulnerable like widows and orphans
- Instructed and sent His disciples out to preach and to serve, simultaneously
Jesus’ disciples, the early Church, and Christian churches until roughly 100 years ago followed His lead and preceded evangelism with compassion…
- Encouraged one another to never forget to serve the poor when evangelizing
- Refused to allow anyone in the church in Jerusalem to suffer in poverty alone
- Gave Jesus the glory for alleviation of suffering, healings, and restoration
- Took up most offerings in the New Testament to help persecuted believers
- Associated nearly all references to money in Scripture with helping the poor
- Cared for their captors in Rome, risking their own lives during the plague, even earning praise from pagan emperors and converts from polytheism
- Started the first dedicated, public hospitals a few centuries (4th) later
- Founded the first homeless shelters in Europe and the U.S. in the 1800s
- Established the world’s first food bank, launching a national hunger network
Countless other examples of how believers fueled compassion initiatives throughout history should put to rest contemporary, uninformed questioning of any “good” that has come from Christianity. Even the word “charity” was derived from Old English, meaning “Christian love of one’s fellows”. The local church was the spiritual, cultural, social, and charitable center of town across the globe for 1900 years – integral and integrated. Few disputed the Church’s right to speak up on issues of importance to the community or to society in general – in their eyes, it had earned the right to do so. The safety net in America was also far more personal until the early 20th century – not government programs but the outreach of churches and the philanthropy of Christ-centered individuals. The strength of relationships determined the effectiveness of interventions.
Modern Evangelism = Preaching – Compassion
In the late 19th century, the Social Gospel movement responded to abject poverty through initiatives and activism around education, family, and labor reform. The movement became more about policy, politics, and systems than evangelism – reactively waiting for people to ask about Jesus instead of proactively sharing about Him. In recent years, history has repeated itself – Christianity has become closely associated with parties and politicians. Since we find ourselves in familiar territory, we should learn an important lesson from the Social Gospel movement – to never separate compassion and evangelism.
A countermovement formed in the early 20th century called the “Great Reversal” in response to the Social Gospel, dramatically shifting the evangelical Church’s focus away from serving the poor. Combined with the advent and expansion of government social welfare programs, churches in America distanced from the central role in compassion they had played since our nation’s founding. Until then, churches had allocated a much larger percentage of time, resources, and dollars to ministering to both the spiritual and physical needs of the poor than they do now.
Over the past few decades, another movement has driven the wedge deeper between compassion and evangelism – Church Growth. Its hallmarks are the attraction and retention of churchgoers. Its primary proponents are some of today’s most influential pastors, seminaries, and consultants. Its formulaic principles are…
- Invite – Pastors assume responsibility for sharing the Gospel, relegating member engagement in evangelism to inviting people to next Sunday’s church service
- Involve – Make church “sticky” by plugging visitors into small groups, “church chores”, and occasional “outreach” events, which often double as advertising
- Invest – Once surrounded by new friends and working in “ministry”, churchgoers will be more likely to give to defray the high costs of Church Growth strategies
To justify adoption of Invite/Involve/Invest, ostensibly obviating the biblical imperative to serve the poor, several compromises had to be made:
- Since Jesus thought it necessary to open ears to hear what He had to say (through healing the sick and feeding the poor), decoupling compassion from evangelism insinuates pastors can “out-preach” Jesus, as if their words carry more weight
- Since establishing and sustaining Church Growth operations requires significant manpower, the words “outreach” and “ministry” had to be redefined to be church-centric, no longer conveying their intended, externally-focused meanings
- Since making disciples who truly study Jesus’ life and words will eventually see the inconsistency of “church as we know it” with Scripture, pastors had to move away from intensive, personalized discipleship toward loyalty-building small groups
- Since convenient, transactional “compassion” done occasionally to “check the box” is less effective than relational poverty work over the course of months or years, churches had to exaggerate the impact of seasonal events on poverty
What is the path back from modern “evangelism” to biblical evangelism?
Repentance = Evangelism + Compassion
The only way a church can move the needle on evangelism and poverty today is to abandon Church Growth principles. Jesus’ model for Kingdom growth is not compatible with Church Growth. One movement drives attention inward, the other outward. One defines “church” as a place, the other as people. One views members as “customers”, the other as Kingdom “employees”. One seeks to attract and retain, the other to equip and deploy. One puts the onus for evangelism on one person, the other on all congregants. One considers compassion ancillary, the other knows it’s mission critical. One conceals God’s love from the world, the other reveals it.
Restoring Christianity’s formerly good name in America requires a return to the place where that reputation was earned – on the front lines of the war on poverty. But Church Growth strategies preclude resumption of the Church’s indispensable role in helping the materially poor. A church committed to following Jesus’ Prayer/Care/Share model would have to undergo a high-risk, countercultural transformation:
- Surrender its priorities and goals to the Lord’s revealed will for reaching the city
- Challenge and train members to be neighborhood and workplace “pastors”
- Assess pressing issues in the community and develop plans to address them
- Collaborate with churches, ministries, and agencies working on those causes
- Conduct all charitable activities relationally, not as events, over the long haul
- Revisit budgets to allocate a much larger percentage to serving the community
- Raise up disciples equipped and committed to attest to the glory of King Jesus
Prayer, Care, and Share must be sequential in that order because the Lord determines the outcomes (prayer), we demonstrate His love (care), and then we reiterate the bold claims of Jesus (share). Doing only two of those three could render our efforts ineffective as well as invite ridicule from non-Christians (for sharing without caring), from Christians (for caring without sharing), or from the Lord (for words or actions without prayer).
It’s Your Turn…
Have you seen a church repent of its growth ambitions, revert to a Kingdom growth mentality, and realize growth (and impact) beyond its wildest imagination?