Effective Evangelism?

I have been in Evangelical circles for several decades, and to a lesser or greater extent there has always been an encouragement to “witness” or “share the Gospel” with others. What I have found, however, is that it is very rare for anyone who is not already a Christian and regular church-goer to exhibit the slightest interest in the Gospel. In past years, members of my current church have gone door to door in the neighborhood or walked around meeting people in local parks, but results were nil. Results were equally nil when my previous churches did those things.

In more recent years, my pastor has done open-air preaching and members have handed out flyers every week at the local university. Going into it, I think he was expecting something like the experience of the Apostle Paul – a mixture of hostility and interest. It turns out he met with less opposition than expected and even less interest. Apparently, the students are single-mindedly focused on getting good grades and good jobs and don’t care to discuss, debate, or even think about spiritual and philosophical matters. I think this discouraged him at the beginning, but he continues to persevere. American students have had zero interest in the Gospel, but his preaching has brought some international students to our church, a couple of whom came to faith, praise God.

One part of the problem, at least in the past, seems to have been lack of awareness among Christian leaders of the on-the-ground reality faced by the person in the pew. For example, back in the 1990s, the widely-praised Evangelism Explosion program came to my church, which was in the urban Pacific Northwest. As soon as I saw what EE was about, I knew it was not going to work, humanly speaking, which indeed turned out to be the case. The EE program presupposed that people believed in a personal God, Heaven and Hell, and the coming Judgment, and then directed them to rest upon the righteousness of Christ rather than their own righteousness. Perhaps these presuppositions were widespread within the population in EE’s region of origin, but no one I knew in the urban Pacific Northwest believed those things unless they were already church-going Christians. And that was 25 years ago, so I expect things are even worse now.

A couple years ago my wife felt a burden on her heart to begin a neighborhood evangelistic Bible study for women. So she prayed for months, got the Christianity Explored curriculum, personally invited women on our block, advertised on Nextdoor, and put up flyers in every coffeeshop in our gentrifying urban working class “neighborhood” (population: 80,000). Only one woman came — a professing Christian who had moved to the area shortly before and who moved away shortly after.

Of course, people who don’t believe in an eternal state of rewards or punishments won’t care about the offer of salvation in Christ, but even more so, people don’t feel guilt, so even those who do believe in some sort of heaven see no need for a Savior. C. S. Lewis wrote about this many decades ago in his essay, “God in the Dock”. According to Lewis, the ancients felt accountable to the gods, but moderns instead try to hold God to account. Thus, a “Four Spiritual Laws” evangelism approach falls flat because people lack a sense of sin. But perhaps my experience is not general. Has anyone else here seen traditional evangelism bear much fruit?

One strategy churches have adopted is to run with “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” and draw people into the church by making them feel good about themselves. This does seem to have brought much more numerical growth than my church has seen, but I have doubts about whether those seeds are planted in good soil. And I am inclined to view such a strategy as a long-term loser as Christianity loses cultural popularity and churches must either compromise more and more or undergo persecution. The former route will lead to abandonment of fundamental Christian doctrines, thus reducing the church to a social club and jettisoning the motivation for people to join. The latter route will entail suffering, however mild, which is incompatible with feel-good religion.

The church should continue to preach God’s law and Man’s accountability, but with the strong cultural conditioning against a sense of sin, we should not be surprised by the lack of response, humanly speaking. And I think the traditional Evangelical “witnessing” approach has come to the end of its fruitfulness now (if not decades ago), at least in the places I’ve lived in. Cultural Christianity has disappeared. Last December, one of the neighborhood teenage girls was over at our house and saw a little crèche we had displayed and asked about it. It turns out this ordinary American girl had not only never seen a crèche before, she also had never heard the story of Jesus’ birth before.

Whither evangelism? The only thing I’ve seen that has brought American non-believers to church and to faith is a lengthy and relatively close relationship with a Christian. The non-believer sees that his life is broken and empty and that the Christian’s life is joyful and full and begins to consider the Gospel. This doesn’t always happen, of course – often the non-believer will prefer to remain miserable rather than repent. But it seems to be the only thing that has a chance of working, humanly speaking. Going door-to-door, talking to strangers in the park, mailing out flyers, invitations to co-worker and neighbor acquaintances, open air preaching – none of those bring non-believers to church and to faith, in my experience.

I’d like to hear what other people think about evangelism and what other people have experienced, but here are the conclusions I have come to:

  1. Seeing the joyful and full life that Christians have is going to be the main draw for unbelievers. This means Christians need to be more serious about their faith and how they live, and it means churches need to become more serious about discipleship.

  2. The primary source of new believers for the future church will be our own children. Having lost all outside cultural support for the Christian faith, we need to be very intentional about building in our children a strong foundation of faith and living.

  3. The ongoing decline of society and commensurate loss of social capital means fewer people will live an outwardly decent life as non-believers. The contrast between serious Christians and non-believers will become brighter over time. The church will come to be seen as a lifeboat by those non-believers who are seeking an exit from the craziness and moral corruption of secular society.

  4. Being a seeker-sensitive church will no longer work because the loss of cultural Christianity will create a gap too large to bridge. We must reconcile ourselves to the fact that non-believers will find Christian worship and teaching difficult and bewildering at the beginning, even as we try to make the transition easier. We should not feel embarrassed about this but instead view it as a necessary part of taking off the old and putting on the new.

Your thoughts?

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Fascinating topic.

Our Church has seen some small success in evangelism by building contacts in the community through playgroups (mothers and pre-schoolers), children’s programs, men’s activities (very little to no preaching), etc. The minister then periodically runs a Christianity Explored program for anyone, and both non-Christians and barely Christians attend with some deciding to follow Jesus.

This is in pagan Australia :).

The minister is keen to make Christianity ‘normal’, i.e., avoid unnecessary weirdness, but also constantly makes the gospel central in Church services, and just drops in quick comments or explanations in other contexts. This is reflected in the comparison my daughter made between our Presbyterian Youth Group and the local Baptist Youth Group (where very good friends attend). She said the Bapos sang Christian songs, each one over and over again; the Pressy Youth don’t sing at all (because it’s seen as odd, let alone repeating a song over and over). Instead, they do Bible study and have fun. (My daughter thought the Bapo singing was weird).

Of course there’s singing on Sunday.

I know Tim Keller is not popular here, but I think he has done a good job of analysing the culture and identifying bridging points for the gospel for the University-educated pagan. And he did this by asking them what they thought about various topics and what they found unbelievable about the gospel, and then he addressed those things.

Why not do the same in other demographics?

You’re right that the break down of Judeo-Christian values provides an in for evangelism by counter-cultural living. I think strong, male-led families will be one such witnessing tool, especially as those families reach out to include others.

Perhaps, too, a focus on shame as the fear of political correctness haunts people.

And I’m fairly sure I’ll cop it here for suggesting it, but praying for supernatural signs is biblical, too. Can’t say I’ve had a lot of experience in that area, though.

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No disagreement here. Nothing is more supernatural than the Holy Spirit transforming a God-hater into a God-lover. :wink:

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Personal evangelism is inseparable from the process of befriending a unique human being. It is demanding and slow. As Francis Schaeffer said, if we are going to push a man off his platform, he has to know we are there to catch him. The Gospel is confrontational and usually people are better confronted when they already know you have their good at heart.

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Thanks for your honest assessment. I am in agreement with most of what you said. And I do believe that the primary way God brings people into the Church is through the family ‘… you and your house’. Solid Church Worhip, solid catechizing (a lost part of today’s church), and fruitful living will also be used of the Lord.But, it is essential that every Godly minister be laser focused on sharing the Gospel in his messages. Not helpful tips with gospel sprinkles on top. What we are really seeing, I think, is the breakdown of the Finney/Sunday/Torrey/Moody/Graham model of mass factory evangelism. Thank the Lord. This false kind of evangelism and focus on success-as-a-sign-of-God’s-blessing has almost destroyed the church. The false gospel of ‘you choose Jesus’ has inoculated generations against the ‘God chooses you and you are vile’ message of the Gospel robbing it of its power. I am so glad the Lord is purging the church. Don’t be surprised if you see massive numbers of people leaving the Church. The shepherd is clearing out the goats - and we need to warn each other and exhort each other constantly to be on our guard. It is a great time to be a believer, but it will also be hard and full of trials, fake Christianity has run its course and the Lord is moving to bring in the sheep.

Interesting aside, I was rummaging through one of the back rooms of my church (a prerogative of mine as our church’s elected Treasurer and unelected historian) and found an old wooden pulpit signed by Billy Sunday. There was a framed newspaper clipping nearby from our local paper about his gracing our small town with an evangelistic campaign. That both this pulpit and newspaper clipping had been preserved since the early 1930s speaks to how important someone thought this was way back then. But I was overcome by the sheer arrogance of autographing a pulpit after preaching from it, the way a rock-star might sign a groupie’s midriff. And I think that exact comparison is apt.

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Thank you, thank you, thank you! Addressing this issue on Sanity is long overdue IMHO, and I agree completely with what you have said. Some more thoughts, coming from someone whose home culture is very like the PNW:

  • You do have to build community with people before you start preaching - what Francis Schaeffer called ‘pre-evangelism’. Years ago on the old Baylyblog, Tim very kindly published a thinkpiece of mine which proposed that churches could get some traction in the community by running a course for fathers, which would have ticked a number of other boxes as well, as a way of doing that.

  • Don’t be afraid of looking to address felt needs - Jesus did that with the ten lepers He healed, one of whom did come to faith (Lk 17). These things are not the Gospel; but they often accompany its preaching, and the historical record of mercy ministries shows this, as long as the mercy ministries cart is not put in front of the Gospel horse. The thing is that in a lot of cases, the Gospel needs to be lived out with people before it is preached to them - or at least alongside. The point is that one in one church I was in, the most effective way we had of building community with the wider community, was a mothers-of-preschoolers group.

  • Courses like Christianity Explored and Alpha work in no small part by assuming that people know nothing at all about the Gospel. Alpha’s tagline is the intriguing, “A chance to talk about the meaning of life”. Why? Because people may not be asking questions about guilt, but they will ask questions about meaning - so let’s start there.

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Agreed. Australia is slightly ahead of the curve for much of America, but even the old Bible Belt isn’t far behind.

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Did the Apostle Paul labor to build context beforehand before proclaiming the gospel though? I don’t want to try to categorically muzzle those who proclaim first and give context afterwards. It has a lot of biblical precedent.

Love,

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Sir, we are in agreement. God bless the street corner preachers and tract-hander-outers. I am only saying that in the area of personal evangelism, I have found that people are more willing to be receptive and keep communication channels open, when they realize you really actually like them and have demonstrated it by being a friend. This is in contrast to following a method to get them in the door, and [often] neglected as we move on to the next scalp.

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I would get that puppy up on E Bay. While I may disagree with the theology and the theatrics, its probably worth some money that can be put to good purpose. Or if you know anyone associated with the Moody Bible Institute they might want it in their museum. I hear they also like Finney memorabilia. I suspect there will be plenty in Hell right next to the Fosdick display, just sayn

Randy

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Other than the Chinese students coming to faith in Trinity Reformed over the years, the principal evangelism we’ve seen (and we’ve seen a bunch of it) has always been children of Evangelicals who came to Bloomington as half-Christians and left (or stayed) men and women of true faith in Jesus Christ. Tim Keller is an interesting question. Lots of people say he knows how to do evangelism but what evidence do we have of fruitfulness of Redeemer and its copycat churches? And discipleship? I’m guessing Redeemer and its clones are as bad as Willow Creek has been. How can preaching and writing devoid of authority produce the fruit of repentance and faith, let alone sanctification? Love,

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I think Paul beginning in the synagogues speaks to speaking into context. From there the God-fearers and years of local Jewish contacts would have a significant impact. This is also where supernatural signs would have provided some short-cuts, though how that would look today… Praying for non-christians and seeing amazing answers?

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I appreciate this topic. Couple thoughts I’d like to interact with.

As believers, we know that fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore are found only in Christ (Psalm 16:11). They are found nowhere else. And having put on Christ, we should certainly be found to demonstrate an otherworldly kind of joy that the world knows nothing about. We also know that Jesus came that we might have life abundant (John 10:10). While the world promises an abundant life, all its promises will fall short. The world won’t satisfy The world has only broken cisterns, but we have the fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13). And I do expect that Christ does draw some people to himself by opening their eyes to the utter vanity and emptiness of world’s idols, as contrasted the the contentedness found in Christians.

Every human being seeks happiness and fullness (I am reminded of Pascal), and we know that these will never be found outside of Christ.

However, I hesitate to conclude that “seeing the joyful and full lives of Christians” has ever or will ever be the initial appeal to draw anyone to true saving faith. I say this with a few reasons in view.

First, while all men seek after joy and fullness, the unregenerate man does not find joy and fullness in the things Christians find joy and fullness in. In his depravity, a sinner may very well be fully content (insofar that he is able to discern and see his own heart) walking in his sinful things. Many an unbeliever have noted that I appear quite joyful and content in my monogamy and my refrain from debauchery, but this has done nothing to dissuade them from being content in their pursuit of the opposite. “Whatever floats your boat,” says our existential nihilist culture. “To each his own.”

Second, when persecution becomes real, the Christian’s life – to the unbelieving world – only becomes that much more foolish. All the unregenerate man will see is a fool clinging to his silly religion, suffering as a self-proclaimed martyr, and only walking in joy because he’s so deluded himself into thinking his Jesus is real.

Third, while a person may well be brought to see some glimpse of the vanity and unfulfilling nature of their life, and be attracted to the joyfulness that they see exhibited in their Christian friends, this attraction still does nothing to reach repentance and salvation. It still has only to do with the desire to feel good about one’s life. What’s attracting them is not the fact that the Christian has a clean conscience before God and the hope of eternal life. What’s attracting them is the mere thought of being happy. I’ve had a couple coworkers in my life who began to interact with me in this way. They gave testimony to a sense of aimlessness and joylessness in their lives, and sought me out because of the apparent sense of joy, and put-togetherness (I mean, lol) that they saw in my life. But as soon as we cracked open the book of Romans and began discussing the human condition, they lost interest. What they wanted was my happiness. They didn’t want my gospel.

At the end of the day, the fullness of joy found in the Christian life will still only be visible to those whom Christ has regenerated. Only when God mercifully brings a man to the end of himself see the vanity and destruction of his own sin – but more than that, to bring him to acknowledge the weight of guilt for his sin before a holy and just God – will he ever see the Christian’s life as genuinely joyful. Until then, while Christians may appear joyful, our joy will be a foolish and self-deceived joy in their eyes. It’s a joy they will never understand.

I certainly don’t dismiss the fact that our joy is part of our testimony to the world. “Come be a Christian so you can be as miserable as we are,” doesn’t sound very appealing, after all. And our joy in the midst of persecution is and will definitely be part of Christ’s testimony against the unbelieving world. But joy is not our principle message. Our principle message is the good news that God has provided a way of forgiveness toward those who have sinned against him, and he calls all men everywhere to repent of their sin and turn to Christ.

No one ever entered into the joy of the Christian life by simply wanting joy, otherwise would not all men find their way here? And yet, narrow is the gate. We entered into this joy because Christ awakened us to our sin, to our need for repentance and forgiveness. Christian joy can never be understood or experienced except on the other side of repentance and faith in Christ.

So yes, let unbelievers see that your life is full of joy. But I would assert that your joy, insofar as the world’s view of you is concerned, is only valuable in that it demonstrates a life consistent with what you profess to believe. It’s only fitting that Christians appear to be happy and joyful. An unhappy Christian makes a pretty terrible evangelist. But I don’t believe your joy is an evangelistic expression in and of itself. It is still the word of the gospel that evangelizes. It is the knowledge of sin and judgment, and the forgiveness found in Christ.

I agree with you. I think about Paul in Athens, reasoning in the marketplace with anyone who would listen.

The only thing I think Paul had going for him in his day that we don’t have going for us in our day is that people in the Greco-Roman world at least understood the world in overtly religious terms. While they were pagans, they at least acknowledged the reality of what Lewis referred to as the numinous. This gave Paul a context to speak into that we don’t have today. What I mean is, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious…” is not something we can say today without some extensive explanation (Acts 17:22).

Of course, I acknowledge that men in our day and culture are still equally religious. We just have different gods and different priests. But we have labored very hard to suppress any “godward” thought in our culture, which I think is what Joel is getting it.

Great topic, Joel. I have a few thoughts on the subject:

  1. No farmer ever sowed three grains of wheat and expected a large wheat harvest. If we want to see a great harvest, we must sow seeds broadly.
  2. The best evangelism “intro method” I’ve seen is quite simple: ask people if they want to read the Bible with you. If the Spirit of God is working in that person for salvation, then they will likely say yes. If the Spirit isn’t working now but begins to work later, then they know where to find you.
  3. If people want to look at the Bible with you, there are lots of simple methods. I’ve used the Discipleship Bible Study method—which I’m using with my teenage kids right now—which you can Google.
  4. There’s a lot of freedom in evangelism. Lots of processes get set against each other, even in this thread. If it’s not unbiblical, it’s probably not worth getting worked up about. Do what works for you, and if what you’re doing isn’t working, try something different.
  5. There is a lot of benefit to being conspicuously spiritual without being annoyingly religious. How can you present yourself to others in a way that makes it clear that you follow Jesus without being self-righteous? Again, if the Spirit of God is moving in someone, who else would they reach out to but the neighbor or coworker they know to trust Christ?
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My daft laddie question for the day. Remembering that my background is not Reformed, what is the issue in the Reformed community with Charles Finney (and perhaps Wesley, for that matter?)

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Short answer, he started out Presbyterian and ended up something else. He rejected forensic justification, the doctrines of grace, etc.

There are some good (bad) quotes from him here:
https://www.monergism.com/disturbing-legacy-charles-finney

As Horton summarizes:

Thus, in Finney’s theology, God is not sovereign, man is not a sinner by nature, the atonement is not a true payment for sin, justification by imputation is insulting to reason and morality, the new birth is simply the effect of successful techniques, and revival is a natural result of clever campaigns.

I should add that Horton is a good example of how reformed students of history basically blame Finney for many of the worst problems in modern Evangelicalism.

For a more thorough treatment, read the excellent Revival and Revivalism.

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Thanks, that’s helpful. Ray Comfort owes something of a debt to Finney - perhaps more to Wesley - I was trying to tease out if the differences were a Calvinist/non-Calvinist sort of thing. I know Wesley might be faulted as an Arminian (and there’s an interesting contrast to be made at this point with George Whitefield), but he does not seem to have shared Finney’s errors nearly as extensively. More here: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/meet-a-reformed-arminian/

Thanks to everyone who offered comments.

Yes, there is a lot of shame and guilt out there, but what is pernicious about it is that it is entirely about the sins and failings of others, not one’s own sins and failings. All the moaning over the sins of racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. concerns the actions and attitudes of the deplorables rather than the politically correct. And checking privilege seems to never involve personal repentance.

Glad to hear it.

Yes, that’s along the lines of what I’ve been thinking.

Yes, that’s generally true for us, too, and not just students but also young couples. But I wasn’t considering your latter category in my discussion of evangelism since they started halfway in the church.

This is a strong statement. I never claimed that everyone would be drawn by “seeing the joyful and full lives of Christians,” but here you claim that it will never draw anyone.

Sure, and I noted that many prefer misery over repentance.

This I think is not true. There are historical accounts of people, and even persecutors, coming to faith after seeing the joy Christians exhibited amid great suffering.

Sure, merely seeing the joyfulness of Christians will not bring someone to repentance and salvation. But it will give the opportunity to share the Gospel. That is obvious in your own example. Would you have had an opportunity to crack open the Bible and discuss the human condition with your coworkers if they had not already sought you out to find out why you were happy?

What I am arguing is that joyful lives of Christians may open the door to sharing the Gospel. Starting with sin and judgment works when speaking to people who have a sense of sin and feel condemned – but that’s not our society. Christianity and the Bible have low social status in our culture, so no one is going to listen without additional motivation. However, people might recognize they have made a wreck of their lives or feel empty and see that Christians are different, and on that basis give the Gospel a hearing.

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Maybe this will sound old-fashioned, but if people aren’t going to listen to the gospel because they have no sense of sin and a feeling of condemnation, then it seems to me that our goal should be to get them to feel sin and condemnation.

I guess I just don’t see any model in Scripture that makes Christian joy the front banner for evangelism, where we just sort of live quietly until people notice how doggone happy we are and ask us about it. Instead, what I see is believers taking an urgent message of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8) to a dying world. As @danielmeyer alluded to, the evangelism we saw Paul and the early church engaged in was not predicated upon the prior work of relationship building. Paul was in Athens for but a few days, and he used his free time there to engage strangers in the marketplace.

I don’t deny the merit of “friendship evangelism,” where rubbing shoulders with the unbelieving world may – Lord-willing – result in some people, for whatever reason, seeing “something different about us.” God can certainly use that as a means to launch into explicit conversations about the gospel. Granted. But I guess what I am hearing you say is that you’ve concluded that the public proclamation of the gospel has somehow gone out of style, or has out-lived its efficacy, as if the power of the word of God has been nullified by our culture’s godlessness. I just don’t see that being the case. Scripture records far too many glorious things concerning the efficacy of the word of God for me to believe that we should somehow give up on red-blooded, evangelistic preaching, and I guess I’d just want to encourage you to remember that, and not despair.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it."
Isaiah 55:10-11

It may very well be that we preach the word and no one seems to respond. Though Jesus said the fields are white for harvest, maybe we will see little to no grain in our day. But shall we not find solace in the fact that this places us in the company of the prophets of old, who were sent to the people and kings of Israel and Judah, though they would not listen (Jeremiah 7:27)? Could it simply be that God has ordained a period of seemingly fruitless preaching as an eventual testimony against this generation, that “whether they hear or refuse to hear they will know that a prophet has been among them?” (Ezekiel 2:5). I pray that we won’t grow weary when the word seems to bear no fruit – when the Jehoiakims of the world are just burning our scrolls (Jeremiah 36).

I appreciate @FaithAlone’s comments. Let’s resolve to sow broadly. Throw seeds everywhere. If it be true gospel seed, then it is good seed, and we can trust God for the soil. As a man in my church is fond of saying, “The only time our evangelism fails is when we fail to evangelize.”

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