I am by nature an optimist. I have seen the hand of God too often in my life to live in a state of despair and defeatism. But the state of evangelism in the American Church is such that I do have my moments when I wonder if the Church is headed down the path of many European congregations: decline and death.
The facts of a 2004 research project I led are sobering. It takes 86 church members in America one year to reach a person for Christ. Now I realize that such statistical studies are imperfect, and I make no claims of omniscience, especially in matters such as the regenerate population. But if the research is even close to accurate, the reality is that the Church is not reproducing herself. In just one or two generations, Christianity could be so marginalized that it will be deemed irrelevant by most observers.
Why has the American Church become evangelistically anemic? The research points to several possible factors.
First, the Church and many of the Christians who serve in the churches have become doctrinally ineffective. Repentance is often avoided as a key truth of the gospel. Hell is rarely mentioned, despite its abundance of references in Scripture. And regenerate church membership and church discipline are sometimes perceived as relics of an old and irrelevant era. When these and other key issues are avoided or even watered down, the Church loses her power, and the gospel is no longer the gospel.
Second, church leaders are becoming less evangelistic. A survey of pastors I led in 2005 surprised the research team. Over one-half (53 percent) of pastors have made no evangelistic efforts at all in the past six months. They have not shared the gospel. They have not attempted to engage a lost and unchurched person at any level. They have become busy doing many things, but they have chosen through their lack of actions to be disobedient to Acts 1:8, Matthew 28:19, and many other clear passages of evangelistic mandates.
Third, Christians in churches often get caught up in the minor issues and fail to become passionate about the major issue of evangelism. I served as pastor of a church that spent two hours in a business meeting debating over a 5 percent differential in the cost of two similar pieces of furniture. I wish I had seen such passion for the lost and the unchurched in our community.
The numerical evidence seems clear. The American Church is dying. We are not reproducing Christians. American Church growth is typically the transfer of members from one congregation to another, rather than the conversion of the lost. I guess I could blame the churches, her leaders, and stubborn church members. But I must confess that I too often fall short in my own evangelistic zeal. Sometimes I get so busy that I fail to do the main thing.
Perhaps the first step for all of us is the confession of our own sins of disobedience, our own failures to take the evangelistic mandate seriously. Perhaps if we determine that the problem begins with me, then we can be a part of the solution.
Will you join me in a personal evangelistic renewal? The results of our evangelistic efforts are in the hands of a Sovereign God. But we can be His instruments for this renewal. Perhaps then the American Church will see new life and new hope. Such is my prayer. I hope it is yours.
This article originally appeared on March 23, 2006.
Dr. Thom Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist.