One of the measures I have used over the years to check the pulse of the Church is a simple one: Are strangers, unaware that I am already a believer, trying to convert me to Christianity?
In the last 20 years or so, the answer has been a resounding no.
Prior to that, though, I would regularly encounter zealous evangelists who approached me and tried to start a conversation with a Christian bent, hand me a tract, or present a spiritual spiel intended at converting me.
But not anymore.
Some of that is because some churches abandoned a hit or miss “street” style of evangelism for what is euphemistically called “friendship” evangelism. This type of Gospel presentation involves more of a personal approach intended to invest more time in the actual relationship between the evangelizer and the evangelized. That’s probably a good change, but…
The proof is in the pudding, they say, and anyone who has read widely regarding the condition of the Church today will tell you the grim truth: The Church is not growing in America. Period.
And “not growing” is being generous. Many polls show a slight percentage drop of a couple points from the long-accepted figure (45%) for church attendance on Sundays. Other polls and studies show a bigger drop, as much as 15%, with attendance by those under 35 or by men to be particularly troubling.
I don’t know about drops; they may be real. I suspect they are. That we’re even talking about them says something.
And then there’s the dirty little reality that what we label “growth” in a church comes mostly at the expense of other churches. A couple used to attend Church A, but now they attend Church B, often because Church B enacted some cleverly designed marketing program. This is how “flock rustling” occurs—and we label it “growth.” All we’re doing, though, is swapping existing believers. We’re not adding to the number in the herd.
Here’s reality: Given all the supposed Christians in the United States, if even one Christian helped lead one non-Christian to Christ in a year, the Church would nearly double in size.
Just one person.
That we may not even be at a sustaining level paints only one picture: Evangelism as a matter of Christian practice is not happening in America.
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” —Matthew 28:18-20 ESV
Those three verses close the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. God inspired Matthew to end his Gospel with what is called The Great Commission.
In other words, this is important stuff, so important that men and women through the ages have died to ensure what Jesus asks in those three verses happens.
So why isn’t it happening here?
I can answer why with one word: success.
Everything that we are as Americans comes down to success. By most measures, we are the most successful nation of the last 100 years. The good ol’ American Dream promulgates the idea that anyone here can be a success because America is a giant laboratory for creating success.
We love our successes, too, with successful people guaranteed their 15 minutes of fame. Oddly, we even award people who are ignoble failures some modicum of success for flaming out spectacularly. Go big or go home, right?
Success in America is built on four elements: Money, Power, Sex, and Fame.
One of those elements, a couple in conjunction, or all four—it doesn’t matter, just so long as one is present in the mix, and you will have success.
Money is simple. You’re a success in America if you’ve got multiple commas in your bank account bottom line. Because ours is a consumer society, money—and the material possessions it buys—becomes the ultimate marker for whether someone has achieved success or not.
Power is a bit more complex, since few people without money have power. Power often comes after someone gains money, but it can’t grow without connections to wealthy and powerful people. The powerful in America are usually the connected. Or they control some unique idea no one else can synthesize or own. Or they have a strong presence in academic or governmental podiums.
Sex is on the downturn. Sex used to mean something, but in an era of porn, promiscuity, and same-sex marriage, its worth has gone downhill like no other element in the success formula. Sure, a few people can still use sex to be successful, but it ain’t the force it used to be.
Fame is the odd one. The wealthy, powerful, and sexy usually attract fame. But fame is the buy-in element in success that even the poorest nobody can attain. The rise of media has assured that fame can be had by anyone who does anything worthy of the news. This explains why we keep hearing more and more cases of crazy people going on killing sprees. Their goal in many cases? Fame.
Money, Power, Sex, and Fame send a message. That message is drilled into the psyche of every American. That message that success matters more than anything else in life exists at the very core of the American Dream.
Where it starts turning even darker is that we believe the flip-side of success too: Failure is NOT an option. Anyone who sends a message of failure, even subconsciously or over a course of time, can’t be a success.
We live in an era where the value of any message is directly related to the success it generates. And the proof of that success is found in the bearer of the message. If the bearer is successful, then the message has validity.
This formula not only drives success but is used to substantiate truth claims.
Why is the American obsession with success so detrimental to evangelism?
You’ve heard the phrase “scum of the earth”? It comes from the Bible:
“We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.”
—1 Corinthians 4:13b
Paul the Apostle was referring to what the apostles became to get the Gospel out to everyone. He later warns that the hearers can become arrogant if they don’t consider what must be lost so as to gain Christ. He asks the hearers to imitate him. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for success, does it?
Paul also writes:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
—1 Corinthians 1:25-31 ESV
We as a Church in America no longer believe that passage, though. For us, success by worldly standards matters more. And because not many of us are of “noble birth” or can flash a wad of Franklins on demand, we do not see ourselves as successful. So of what importance is our message to other people if it can’t be assured of generating the American definition of success? If you and I can’t measure up to that standard of success, then why embarrass ourselves with sharing a faith that may involve becoming the scum of the earth?
Because the heart of the Christian message is at odds with success. The Gospel is a message of denial, of the death of the self. It means becoming overlooked by the “people who matter” so as to become noticed in the eyes of God.
I think that one of the prime reasons why Christians are not evangelizing others is that they feel they can’t point to their own lives and say, “I’m a success.” And that’s an understandable way of thinking IF one has bought the definition of success on constant display in America today. But from a biblical perspective, that thinking is poison.
The American success model is toxic to just about every aspect of Christian doctrine.
When we start talking about sin and the need for a savior, the success model mentality translates that talk of sin into one of self-improvement for the sake of achieving worldly success. And you don’t need to be a Christian to go to Amazon and buy a Kindle version of some bestselling self-help book that will help you rid yourself of “bad habits” and “lousy thinking.”
And there’s not a step in the direction of justification that isn’t pulled off the Roman Road by the American success model.
What’s truly horrifying is that the success model not only interferes with the Gospel presentation, it’s syncretizing it. Prosperity gospel anyone? If you want to watch the mutation in action, watch Asia and Africa for penetration of the prosperity gospel. All those inroads made by the Church are coming undone thanks to the false gospel of prosperity overwhelming the real Gospel. That’s just one pressing problem for the Church.
Here’s what must be done if the American Church is to improve evangelism:
1. Churches must drill into people that we live in an age of lies. And the American Dream is one of those lies because it is based on a success model that runs entirely counter to the Gospel.
2. We must understand that the message of the Gospel is true regardless of an individual’s or church’s success as measured by the world. This will NEVER be a popular message, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Pastors, preachers, and teachers who believe this need to model it more effectively and deal with the fallout in their own lives if their flocks are to believe it and live it too.
3. The measure of success in a Christian’s life is the intimacy and knowledge of God that each believer possesses. That’s its own reward, and churches must revalue that spiritual capital.
4. Churches must start talking about jobs and employment. Because in the minds of most Christians, their work is their direct line to success. If the Church cannot break that mentality and substitute a godly one, we will make no inroads into combating a success message.
5. Church leaders must speak against the cult of celebrity, even Christian celebrity. There can be no change unless Christians embrace humility over celebrity.
6. Churches must come to terms with failure, because in the eyes of God, strength is found in weakness. To Americans, weakness smacks of failure, and we American Christians must overcome that thinking.
7. Church leaders must train people to evangelize—and not just memorize some verses on the Romans Road. People need a comprehensive view of the Bible so they understand how all the themes work together within the character of God and the salvation story He is still writing.
American Christians will not share the Gospel message if their understanding of what it means to be a success in America is skewed. It’s that simple.