It’s probably safe to say that most every church—especially Southern Baptists—has a vision statement that includes or emphasizes evangelism. Churches decorate with crosses, talk about reaching the world for Christ, and adopt various statements and slogans (e.g., vision, mission, and purpose statements) that give the impression that the church leaders are evangelistic. However, few have a true vision for intentional evangelism.
The Evangelism Delusion
(formerly, “evangelistic delusion”)
“Of course we are evangelistic!” some many claim. “We have a vision statement that emphasizes evangelism, we have small groups, and our pastor preaches the gospel every Sunday.” That’s all well and good, but slogans, structures, and sermons do not make a church intentionally evangelistic. Rather, they often create the façade of intentional evangelism, deceiving leaders and laity into believing that the church has a specific plan to actively engage in personal evangelism. Although it may walk, talk, and look like a horse, it may be merely a man in a horse suit.
Research over the past few years reveals that American Christians are far from evangelistic. LifeWay Research reported in 2012 that 61% of Christians had not shared their faith in the previous six months; in 2014 that number rose to 78%. Furthermore, 59% of Christians have not invited an unchurched person (one who does not regularly attend church) to a church service or activity.
Despite the fact that most Christians do not evangelize or invite others to church, many church leaders and members continue to suffer from the evangelism delusion, believing their churches are intentionally evangelistic. They see the programs, hear the catch phrases, participate in small groups, and thus conclude that their churches have a vision for intentional personal evangelism. However, a statement is not a vision, a cell group is not a plan, and a structure is not the gospel. Churches need to become intentionally evangelistic, which means church leaders must adopt a vision for getting the members actively engaged in personal evangelism.
The Evangelistic Vision
What is a vision for intentional evangelism? Put simply, it is a specific strategy to move people from passive participants to engaged evangelists. A intentional evangelism vision is a plan adopted by the church specifically to train people how to share the gospel and to help them discover how to incorporate evangelism in their daily lives.
Many churches have outreach programs wherein a handful of people gather one evening per week to (1) visit those who recently attended services, (2) engage in door-to-door evangelism (you know, the Mormon and Jehovah’s Witnesses model), or (3) a combination of these two. However, this is not a vision for intentional evangelism.
First, few actually participate in these programs. A few years ago I participated in this type of ‘evangelism’ at a large church in Texas. In a church that averaged many hundreds each Sunday, only about ten members participated in the outreach. Sadly, such levels of participate are typical. When churches depend on programs that involve so few people, there is no vision for intentional personal evangelism.
The second reason weekly outreach programs are not intentional evangelism is that much of it is about church growth rather than kingdom growth. Often, those who participate in the weekly evening home visits begin with those who recently attended the church. They go to the homes of the member prospect ready to answer questions and provide information about the church, worship services, various activities, and more, and if there is an opportunity to evangelize, then that’s a great bonus! Evangelism becomes an add-on feature—a possible extra—rather than the express intent.
The final reason a weekly outreach is not a vision for intentional personal evangelism is it fails to help each member learn how to share the gospel in their daily lives. Jesus called each believer to be a disciple-making witness (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). When understood correctly, Jesus’ commission to “go” means that one is to live with the purpose of sharing Christ as part of that life; we are to share Jesus with others in our daily lives. Weekly outreach programs do not help people have evangelistic lives, but merely affirm programmatic church promotion by a select few.
Churches today face declining church attendance. Thom Rainer argues that the leading cause is members who fail to attend, and he does raise a critical issue in churches today regarding member involvement. Two of his recommendations are especially noteworthy:
Raise the expectations of membership. You may be surprised how many church members don’t really think it’s that important to be an active part of the church. . . . Encourage ministry involvement. Many members become less frequent attendees because they have no ministry roles in the church.
What Rainer calls for is a church with greater vitality and member engagement. Churches should discover ways to help members become part of the life of the church. However, many see this as a call for more programs or more services, when neither may be necessary. Rather, a vision for intentional personal evangelism helps resolve many of the issues churches face:
- It helps members discover ways they can participate in God’s ministry. Many members don’t know how they can serve Jesus in their lives. When churches teach members how to engage in personal evangelism in their daily lives, members begin to realize their abilities and to discover opportunities for other ministries.
- It unifies the church body in gospel-centered ministry. As I previously argued, Jesus established his church for the purpose of evangelistic gospel ministry. We are to be disciple makers, not church growers. A vision for intentional personal evangelism establishes the gospel as the mission of the church and unites the body for that mission.
- It creates flexible ministry involvement opportunities. While churches cannot require members participate in ministries (though some do, I’m sure), they can inhibit participation by not providing opportunities to serve. Sadly, many churches depend on only two participation methods: positional ministry and volunteer ministry. Southern Baptist churches annually vote on who will fill specific positions (e.g., ministry directors and teachers). Once those positions are filled, others who desire to serve in those capacities feel left out. That leaves only the volunteer ministry opportunities such as food bank volunteers and worship service volunteers. However, when a person’s schedule conflicts with the ministry’s operation schedule, or when the ministry is already fully staffed with volunteers, people are left out unable to serve. An intentional evangelism vision helps people serve on their own schedules anywhere and everywhere they go.
- It fulfills the Great Commission. Many ministries are designed to meet social needs and intentionally or unintentionally relegate the primary mission—making disciples—to a secondary or tertiary concern. A vision for intentional personal evangelism makes gospel proclamation and disciple making the primary mission. It helps local churches become gospel-centered rather than self-centered.
Overall, Christians today do not share the gospel and do not invite people to church. While blame can be cast on those individuals, the churches bear much of the fault. Many churches have become institutions of social service, self-promotional, or both. Whatever the cause, many churches suffer from the evangelism delusion, believing they are evangelistic when the reality is they are not. Having small group studies, worship services, relevant sermons, and a vision statement do not mean a church has a true vision for intentional personal evangelism; it only means the church has a dynamic institution. Churches need to be healed from the delusion and see the truth that is Christ. Churches today needs to make personal evangelism a priority. Churches today needs to develop a vision for intentional personal evangelism.