Studies confirm what’s readily observable – a growing reluctance on the part of Christians to share the Gospel with non-believers. It’s convenient to blame our reticence on media and progressives who no longer acknowledge sin. Delivering a message of deliverance is challenging when those in imminent danger don’t acknowledge the need to be rescued. “Salvation, from what?” Without “bad news” (of judgment for sin) there can’t be any “good news” (of salvation from sin).
Modern Evangelism = Pastors as Ministers
However, our reluctance (to convey that message) predated and precipitated society’s intolerance (of the message). Yes, our current stage in American history, the Age of Decadence, was certain to follow the Ages of Commerce, Affluence, and Intellect that led to the demise of most “empires” throughout history. Yet the current stage in the history of the Church in America, the Age of Church Growth, accelerated the transition from Intellect to Decadence. Our focus on attracting and retaining churchgoers (addition) rather than making disciples who make disciples (multiplication) is the cause, not a result, of society becoming less receptive to the Gospel. The Church Growth movement has created a distance that makes Christians appear judgmental and not very concerned about the eternal fate of those they claim are destined for Hell. In fact, Church Growth principles practiced, taught, and exported (to other countries) for decades have gone so far as to essentially remove churchgoers from the evangelism equation altogether:
- Fosters dependence on pastors/staff, leading to perception of “church” as a place
- Emphasizes on-site opportunities and activities to draw in rather than send out
- Trains and equips for internal ministry, not for evangelism outside the “4 walls”
- Recruits and fundraises to sustain a highly labor intensive and expensive model
- Achieves the dual purposes of centralization and member retention by letting pastors/staff handle discipleship, absolving churchgoers of that responsibility
- Reduces the “ask” to inviting friends who don’t worship Jesus to a worship service
- Makes compassion initiatives convenient and transactional, not alleviating poverty or following Jesus’ example of demonstrating His love before disclosing who He is
- Tithes to compensate pastors for doing jobs members were meant to perform
Giving members a free pass from evangelism, discipleship, and compassion has played into the hands of those looking to remove Christianity from our nation’s heritage. Treating members like “consumers” makes us guilty of what we accuse the world of doing. We bemoan America’s consumeristic culture yet appear equally self-absorbed when we make church about what we get out of it – pastors lightening the burden on members to grow a congregation and members shopping for a church that meets their “needs”.
Americas’ fastest growing religion, Selfism, has capitalized on our self-centeredness, promising an enlightened awakening from biblical thinking that has constrained our understanding (Age of Intellect) and freedom from the shackles of Christian mores that have restrained our behaviors (Age of Decadence). Because human nature is inherently evil, moral independence (i.e. depravity) always follows from intellectual independence (i.e. Postmodernism). Selfism proclaims the liberty to define your own truth so you can be true to yourself and live “your truth”. To dissuade interference or (re)imposition of Christian values, Selfism labels believers “haters”, intolerant, and hypocritical (for claiming the existence of an absolute standard for truth). Hollywood depicts Christians on TV shows as mean, stiff, and/or irrational – conveying the foolishness of belief in an imaginary God and unnecessarily missing out on all life has to offer. Those characterizations make it more challenging to be lights in a dark world, but don’t relieve us of that responsibility – nor do they obviate Jesus’ command for each of His followers to make disciples.
We can lament the lambasting of Christians as unfair or undeserved, but it was brought about by our adoption of Church Growth doctrine partitioning secular from sacred, ministers from pastors, and “kings” from “priests”. We’ve made it easy for culture to write off Christianity as “religion” (i.e. man-made) and Christians as “religious” (i.e. a little weird) by associating the practice of our faith with a place we (have to) go and things we (have to) do there. The Church Growth movement fostered and continues to perpetuate those perceptions by centering our “religious” activities around church buildings and Sundays rather than wherever we spend the rest of our weeks. If the lives of Christians were fully integrated (i.e. beliefs aligned with lifestyles) Monday through Saturday, there would be less mystery about what goes on in church buildings on Sundays.
Breaking through those walls and (mis)conceptions to have evangelistic conversations is harder now than ever – and members are less equipped than ever for that task. The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how unprepared churchgoers were to embody “church” when the buildings’ doors were closed. Not training members for evangelism has meant fewer non-believers understand God’s grace and get cogent answers to their tough questions. With discipleship reduced to sermons and small groups, few Christians understand that Jesus opened ears to hear His message through loving acts of kindness – “no one cares what we know until they know we care”. Instead, we simply extend invitations to attend a church service so the pastor can do a better Gospel presentation and respond to their objections. Yet most of us aren’t ready to make the case for why it’s worth showing up on Sunday. Given the declining level of trust in institutions, particularly churches, fewer non-believers will accept our invitations.
Biblical Evangelism = Members as Ministers
By the power of the Holy Spirit, there is hope. Through Him, Selfism’s momentum could be slowed, the Age of Decadence could be paused, and revival could be sparked. However, that would require decentralization, empowerment, and commissioning of all church members – in other words, abandoning Church Growth principles. Each Christ-follower would need to live out Jesus’ prayer, care, and share lifestyles in their families, neighborhoods, and workplaces. The average local church has 65 people in its congregation, but the average (employed) Christian has a circle of influence of 250 – nearly 4 times larger. Since many of those 250 won’t venture into a church, we may be the only representation of Jesus they see or only messenger of God’s Word they hear.
Church leaders should revert to the biblical framework where a “church” is its people, members are Kingdom employees, and those who don’t know Jesus are the “customers” all should be pursuing. Today’s prevailing Church Growth model largely ignores those “customers” because the “sales force” consists primarily of pastors accessible only within the confines of a building. Until all hands are on deck, with every individual actively engaging those within their respective spheres of influence, we can expect the unchurched to react as any customer would to poor customer service – impatient, intolerant, and inattentive to future sales pitches.
A disclaimer is warranted here. Rejecting Church Growth paradigms and reengaging an entire congregation is a risky proposition. Other churches down the road will still be focused on providing excellent customer service to the wrong “customer” (members). For pastors courageous, faithful and obedient enough to risk all they’ve worked so hard to build, several steps are necessary to fully activate everyone in a church body in GC3 (the Great Commandment, Great Commission, and Great Calling):
- Provide intensive, personalized discipleship, multiplying to several generations
- View the community as the mission field and train all “workers” for the harvest
- Request more volunteers for evangelistic efforts than internal church “chores”
- Reclaim the biblical, externally-focused definitions of “outreach” and “ministry”
- Not see business leaders as “Kings” to strategize and underwrite church operations
- Not allow pastors to be the only “Priests”, leaving “Kings” out of that equation
- Flip expectations from pastors to members for “performance”, reducing burnout
- Provide opportunities to witness by serving the homeless, students, and elderly
- Ensure compassion initiatives actually move the needle on poverty, not seasonal events that make members feel good but harm the poor (i.e. build dependency)
- No longer turn non-members in need away at the door, referring them elsewhere, but empower teams to surround them with circles of loving support
- Fully leverage underutilized assets (e.g. buildings) at the church’s disposal to provide ongoing services to the community (e.g. child care, counseling, classes)
- Measure the degree of transformation in the lives of members and “customers”, letting attendance and financial metrics (“butts & bucks”) take care of themselves
Those characteristics were commonplace in churches several decades ago but are a rarity today. Entrusting members with full “ownership” of their rightful, biblical roles as the living, breathing embodiment of “church” is highly countercultural. Ironically, there’s greater growth potential in churches equipping members for prayer, care, share than in those subscribing to the Church Growth model’s adage of “genius with a thousand helpers”.
It’s Your Turn…
If the historical sequence was an abdication of evangelism by churchgoers that reduced society’s tolerance for evangelism, will reclaiming responsibility for the Great Commission make our culture more open to conversations about Jesus?