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:
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.
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.
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.
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.