Why Evangelism Is Failing in America

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EvangelismOne 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.

THE  VERSES:

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.

Various Spring Thursday Musings

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A variety of thoughts on this sunny April Thursday:

+ I was thinking how power is the modern equivalent of will. We want to have power over all aspects of our lives, with powerlessness one of the most hated of all hateful ideas. But if we take Christ’s “not my will, but yours, be done” and do the word swap, how would it impact the way we live? What does it mean to surrender power to a higher authority in a society where individualism reigns and each person demands the right to control his or her life?

+ In keeping with that thought, whatever happened in the Church to the concept of corporate sin? And how are we worse off for its loss?

+ There is something odd happening in the Church when thousands (or even millions) of American Christians are lamenting Rick Santorum’s leaving the presidential race. A few months ago, not one person was clamoring for Santorum to be president, and yet when it appears he will not be, people are disappointed. As for Mitt Romney, one can say the same thing. I mean, who was screaming for him to occupy the White House? All this becomes even more puzzling when one considers my previous thoughts on power.

+ Not a day goes by when I don’t consider that the general emotional outlook of this country is nowhere near as healthy as it was when I was younger. Yes, yes, yes, “the olden days were better” someone will quote at me with a wink, but still.

+ I get the feeling also that in the rush to be good Christians, we have forgotten Jesus.

+ Now that everyone is on Facebook (and a few lonely souls inhabit Google +), can any of us say our interpersonal relationships are better?

+ Along those lines, the last of my small groups stopped meeting. I used to be part of four or five at a time. Now, none. That makes me sad. Looks like I’ll be bowling alone.

+ So far, 2012 has been a lovely year weatherwise. But here in SW Ohio, we were in the 80s in February, 70s in March, and now 60s in April. Should we expect snow in July?

+ Why is it that so few people seem to be able to commit to anything anymore? What happened to a person’s word? Does that concept mean anything today?

+ It’s sad, but the people who seem to do the most Bible study are often the ones who miss the most obvious portions of the Bible. Or they try like the dickens to explain away the hard parts (or the parts they are failing to live up to) by going all systematic theology on us. Anymore, I don’t have a lot of interest in what the self-labeled scholars are saying. And when someone recommends a recently written book on Christian subjects, my reaction is meh, since I rarely read any that make any astute points that challenge the status quo (or they fail to provide workable solutions when they do post a challenge). In short, people just aren’t using Holy Spirit sense, which is the only kind of spiritual insight that matters.

+ Right now, Alan Knox at The Assembling of the Church is writing one of the best Christian blogs on the Internet. He should be a regular read for everyone, because he is not afraid to touch verboten subjects and question the crazy way we Christians practice the Faith.

+ At The Voice of One Crying Out in Suburbia, Arthur Sido is regularly writing some insightful posts in the same vein as Knox’s.

An Appearance of Godliness, but Denying Its Power

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Please read the following verses. Do not skip over them.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
—Acts 1:8

“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”
—Acts 2:17-21

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
—Acts 6:8

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience–by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God–so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ….
—Romans 15:18-19

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
—1 Corinthians 2:1-5

For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.
—1 Corinthians 4:20

For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
—2 Corinthians 10:4

…for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
—2 Timothy 1:7

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
—James 5:16

For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
—Hebrews 2:2-4

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.
—2 Timothy 3:1-5

Thank you for reading those verses. I pray that they blessed you.

My son and I have been reading through Acts together. What continues to strike me about the Church was the power that operated through it. Healings, resurrections, miracles—they are part and parcel of what defined the Church and what made it a threat to those who opposed it.

Today, my son and I  read how the Holy Spirit instructed a normal Christian named Ananias to go to a certain street, to a certain house, to lay hands on a certain persecutor of the Church, so that man might receive his sight again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.

I read that true account with awe. Sadly, that awe had more to do with the disbelief I see among so many who call themselves Christians but who readily dismiss anything miraculous in the Christian life. Theirs is a weakened, powerless Gospel.

I’m tired of reading blogs that tell me what a weak sinner I am but fail to tell me what  a Spirit-empowered saint Christ has made me because I am a new creation who sits with Christ in the heavenly places.

I’m tired of hearing people who say that all “that stuff” has passed away when the Bible tells me that I will receive power to be Christ’s witness to the ends of the earth, noting that the “ends of the earth” are still unreached in some places today. Those same people blithely ignore that the prophecy of Joel of the Last Days, filled as they were with signs and wonders, was to persist till the Great Day of the Lord.

I don’t get how people can leave out that the Bible teaches that the Gospel is accompanied by power, by signs and wonders, that these things attest to its truthfulness.

I don’t understand how people can read the Bible and come away thinking that raising the dead is just a figurative spiritual expression.  Or how people can turn off God’s voice so that He can’t give specific instructions to Christians to do this or that in ways that can’t be gleaned from  the pages of Scripture. So that Ananias does not know where to go to find Paul or that he should even lay hands on anyone in the first place. Or that Philip never hears from God to go over to that specific chariot and speak to that specific eunuch.

I’m sick and tired of a Church that walks away from its birthright of power because it is afraid, badly taught, foolish, or deceived.

You can’t read the Bible and not believe in the kind of power we see demonstrated so readily in the Church in the Book of Acts. You just can’t.

“No one ever just picked up the Bible, started reading, and then came to the conclusion that God was not doing signs and wonders anymore and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had passed away … If you were to lock a brand new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what the Scriptures have to say about healing and miracles, he would never come out of the room a cessationist … The doctrine of cessationism did not originate from a careful study of the scriptures … [but] … originated in experience.”

– Jack Deere, former cessationist

And what is the experience Deere speaks of ?

[Jesus] went away from there and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.
—Mark 6:1-6a

It is the same unbelief we see in the pious people who told a certain blind man to be content in his blindness and suffering:

As [Jesus] drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.
—Luke 18:35-43

It is the experience of rationalization and excuses, of misplaced familiarity, simple unbelief, and faithlessness.

It is the kind of mentality that Paul warns of when he talks about people who have a form of godliness but deny its power. Certainly the people of Jesus’ hometown attended their synagogue and seemed pious. They had a form of godliness. The only problem was that they denied its power. And the mighty works were diminished, even at the hand of the Lord, because of their dismissive unbelief.

Those dismissive people anger me. And they are everywhere in the Western Church, a Western Church born of the Enlightenment that denies anything and everything supernatual.

On my wall is a picture of a missionary. His name is Rachapalli, and he labors in India, his homeland. He is a Christian today because a pastor came to his home and laid hands on Rachapalli’s paralyzed father and did what all the witchdoctors could not do: healed him by the power of God. The words of God were confirmed to that family because of this healing, and they gave their lives to Christ.

The Gospel is going forth in power in nations that are not ours because those people in those nations still believe. We, however, have our best Bible teachers telling us that all that stuff passed away.

This explains much about the destitution in the American Church.

What about you? Do you believe the Bible? Or do you believe people who have a form of godliness but deny its power?

And when the men had come to [Jesus], they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
—Luke 7:20-23