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Repercussions of Removing the Urgency from Evangelism

Repercussions of Removing the Urgency from Evangelism

In America, personal evangelism has taken a back seat to more pressing concerns.  Only 52% of born-again Christians report witnessing to someone at least once in the past year.  And 47% of Millennials feel it’s wrong to share one’s religious beliefs with someone of a different faith.  A Lifeway study found of eight biblical attributes most evident in the lives of American churchgoers, “Sharing Christ” had the lowest average score.

Decades ago, Invite/Involve/Invest replaced Prayer/Care/Share as the prevailing church growth model.  That transition reallocated budgets, resources, staff, programs, member engagement, and messages toward the attraction and retention of churchgoers – and away from intensive discipleship and equipping believers to share the Gospel.

Society has noticed the shift of our emphasis from reaching out to them to catering to the needs of “our own”.  Non-believers care less now about what we know because most no longer believe we care (about them).  How important could what we have to say be anyway if we’re so reluctant to talk about it?

The tyranny of the urgent within most churches has shifted from disciple multiplication and personal evangelism within our circles of influence to:

1. Weekends

There was a time when the average American spent far more than an hour per week at church.  Over recent decades, the Church Growth Movement shortened worship services, eliminated Sunday schools, and cancelled church lunches to satisfy our short attention spans and busy schedules.  During that same period, the proportion of energy and budgets poured into church services increased dramatically.  The Great Commission and the biblical definition of church as its members paint a picture of a church that never sleeps, operating in earnest all week long.  Yet church investments in ongoing discipleship and local community missions have dropped precipitously.

The days where preaching is a performance, the sanctuary is a theater, the congregation is an audience, music is entertainment, and size is success are coming to an end.  Mistrust in institutions (particularly churches), the growing ranks of “Dones” (with church), and declining attendance threaten obsolescence of a rapidly aging model.  Competitive advantages like state-of-the-art facilities and children’s ministries lured church “shoppers” and “hoppers”, but most didn’t engage beyond weekends and eventually slipped out the revolving (back) door.  With 40 million adult Americans, 15 million of whom are evangelicals, no longer attending church, even Christians are questioning the value of traveling to listen to a message they could access online and interact briefly with people they’ll only see for a few minutes less than once a week.  Now is the time to equip and deploy disciples to tell their coworkers, neighbors, friends, and family about Jesus.

2. Leaders

There was a time in our nation’s history when pastors were among the most educated individuals in a city.  Other information sources and commentary on spiritual matters and world events weren’t widely available.  People would go to great lengths to attend church because it was the only way to hear what an acclaimed teacher had to say.  Of course, those circumstances have changed.  We can conveniently access the latest news and insights by leading authorities on any biblical or secular topic.  “Church as we’ve known it” no longer makes sense.  We can’t make facilities accommodating enough, volunteers welcoming enough, sermons educational enough, or services short enough to overcome an outdated model – expecting throngs to travel several miles once a week to hear a half hour message when talks by more seasoned “educators” are readily accessible at our fingertips.  In other words, increasing fixed costs and incurring debt will become increasingly unlikely to convince Americans to drive to a nicer building to hear from a “better” teacher.

Yet seminaries, consultants, coaches, and publications continue to stress that leadership and not a flawed model is the root cause and cure for lower attendance. The decline of the Church in growth, impact, influence, and public perception is due to the centralization of “church” around a place and pastors, so further centralizing or improving (the place or pastors) won’t reverse the downward trajectory.  The realities of modern society dictate that we revert to the biblical church growth model where leaders make disciples willing to share the Gospel with their friends and family (those unlikely to come to church to hear about Jesus from a “teacher”).  Likewise, pastors shouldn’t be accused of “dereliction of duty” for venturing outside their assigned church growth roles (i.e. preaching, meeting member needs, and overseeing operations) to evangelize and make disciples in the community.

3. This Life

There was a time when pastors and churchgoers openly discussed the consequences of sin and rejection of God’s grace.  The sense of urgency for evangelism was clear – some members of our family were outside of our Father’s family and destined for Hell.  The next opportunity to explain to our loved ones what Jesus did for them and urge repentance could be our last.  How would we feel if we missed that chance and they passed away soon thereafter?

However, churches and Christians rarely bring up Satan or Hell today.  Most sermons and discussions about God focus on the benefits of following Him in this life, not the eternal implications of not following Him in the afterlife.  Congregations have become desensitized to the fate awaiting non-believers because pastors worry the topics of Satan and Hell will make members uncomfortable.  In fact, while nearly 75% of U.S. adults say they believe in Heaven, only 62% believe in Hell (with mainline Protestants just slightly higher at 69%).  Even those numbers seem inflated considering the low percentage of Christians who’ve witnessed to someone in the past year.  Many who don’t recognize the urgency and ignore the imperative to share Christ don’t acknowledge the existence of His enemy or Satan’s residence (where our friends and family who never come to faith will spend eternity).

4. Growth

There was a time when personal, not congregational growth was the measure of a church’s success.  Not small group participation, but the number engaged in discipling relationships.  Not baptisms alone, but evidence-based commitments to following Christ.  Not outreach events, but moving the needle on causes like poverty and literacy.  Not church attendance alone, but personal practice of spiritual disciplines. Not new members (from other churches), but new believers entering the Kingdom.  Not square footage of buildings, but maximizing utilization of each foot all week.  Not how many adults the children’s ministry attracts, but how many lives are changed, not entertained.  Not diversity as a virtue signal, but unity by welcoming those served and engaging with other churches.  Not headcount of guests invited, but the number led to the Lord by members.

Once the Church Growth Movement redefined “church” as a place and not people, organizational viability supplanted larger Kingdom goals as the primary objective.  Indicators of church “health” began to approximate those companies use to gauge performance – customers, facilities, staff, budget, and reputation.  Repositioning members as “customers” rather than employees downplayed the urgency of their commission to pursue the real “customer” (the “lost“ in the community).  Church survival became the priority, requiring a less demanding and more accommodating environment.  The focus on business metrics was justified by overestimating the importance of a single church’s “unique” contribution to the community (when few would mourn the demise of another Church Growth Movement casualty).

5. Loyalty

There was a time when our allegiance wasn’t divided.  Strategies weren’t devised to breed loyalty to a church or pastor.  The Church Growth Movement encourages differentiation and comparisons, not just theological but consumeristic distinctions – stifling unity.  “I love my church” bumper stickers won’t bring congregations together to reach a community for Christ.  Ensuring “sticky” relationships form between members by pushing small groups doesn’t typically make disciples who make more disciples.  Invite/Involve/Invest may keep the machine running but rarely transforms lives inside or outside the “4 walls”.

In contrast, the Church’s sense of urgency should be around preparing congregants to boldly profess their love for Jesus, live out the Great Commission daily, and share the Gospel directly with those in their sphere of influence.  Instead, our witness suffers as the world looks to see if Christians are any less divided than they are, which is unfortunately not the case today.  What they see too often are churches that operate independently and seemingly competitively, just as concerned about customer satisfaction as any secular institution.  The only difference is that the individuals making those observations were supposed to be the “customers” that churches serve – breeding resentment, not loyalty.

It’s Your Turn…

How else has the tyranny of the urgent within churches transitioned from disciple multiplication and personal evangelism to more pressing (yet less consequential) concerns?

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