He asked the question in all sincerity.
"What is the best program or methodology for evangelism in the local church today?" he began. "Is it a certain program or memorized approach? Or is it simply encouraging members to develop relationships with unchurched people? Or is it an incarnational approach, where Christians live and work and play among non-Christians with an intentional desire to share the Gospel with them?"
My answer was yes.
Some who knew me at that speaking engagement began to laugh with hesitation. I could tell that they thought it was another Rainer attempt at humor. A weak attempt.
But my response came with no smile. I was serious.
"Any prayerful approach to evangelism," I began, "is better than what most churches are doing, because most churches are doing little or nothing."
The Curious But Sad Trajectory
Because I have consulted with churches for over twenty years, I have been able to observe the pattern up close. Each year it seems that local churches are devoting less time, less funding, and less emphasis on equipping, encouraging, and sending people to share the good news of Christ, particularly within their own immediate communities.
At one point, I could see theological distinctions. As a rule, the more theologically conservative churches were more likely to emphasize evangelism as a critical component of the church's life. Such is not the case any more. The conservative churches are almost as anemic in evangelism as others.
And the even more troubling news is that the trajectory gets worse every year.
More Evidence of the Disappearance of Evangelism
If my anecdotal consultation observations are insufficient evidence, our recent studies support our thesis. In one study we asked senior or lead pastors how many times they had intentionally shared their faith with someone, or just developed a relationship with a non-Christian with the hope of sharing the good news. In this survey where anonymity was protected, over half of the pastors, 53% to be precise, said "zero" in the previous six months.
You read that correctly. The majority of pastors aren't doing evangelism.
Before we criticize these leaders too harshly, we see even less evidence of evangelistic efforts among the laity. And in some churches, the laity will get angry if the pastor doesn't visit them when they have a minor illness. But they have no problem if no one in the church makes an effort to tell a lost person about Jesus.
"Meet my needs," they cry. "Who cares if those people spend eternity in hell?"
I'm sorry. My cynicism is not always healthy.
Decreasing Evangelism, Greater Receptivity
The sad irony is that our evangelistic efforts are diminishing while a significant number of non-Christians are more receptive to hear about Jesus from a Christian. In one study we conducted, we found that nearly four out of ten (38%) of non-Christians would either be highly receptive or receptive to hear from Christians about their beliefs. And only five percent indicated an antagonistic attitude toward hearing the Good News.
Tens of millions of lost persons in America are waiting to hear from Christians.
The silence is deafening.
A Beginning of One
Whatever happened to evangelism? I have my thoughts and my research, but for now the question is unanswered.
I can whine. I can lament. I can point to what others are not doing.
Or I can do something myself.
I admit that I could do more. A lot more. I could specifically pray each day that the Lord would put someone in my path where I could at least begin the Gospel conversation. I could pray for more spiritually sensitive eyes to those around me. I could be consistently accountable to someone about consistently sharing my faith. And I could encourage others to join me.
It's time to do less analysis, less complaining, and less finger pointing. It's time for action.
And for me, it has to begin in my heart.