Why Evangelism Is Failing in America


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.


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.

When the Bridge Is Out–How to Deal with Lost People God’s Way


They called him Farmer John, and that was OK by him. He had a farm. His name was John. He was a practical man, and the appellation made sense to him.

Farmer John was the sort that didn’t say much, but when he did, people listened. He’d been around long enough so that his voice in town meetings carried some weight. Some folks would toss around the word wise when talking about John, but he preferred practical. Folks can say lots of things, but no one ever considered practical a bad thing, so in John’s eyes, practical won out.

Practical was not what that semi driver had been when he decided to take a wrong turn off the highway and down that old gravel road a month back. The supposedly abandoned road ran past Farmer John’s house and crossed a gorge via a bridge John believed must’ve been built when Chester A. Arthur was president.Bridge out Along with Arthur, most folks had let the bridge slip into the Sea of Forget. Seems the bridge suffered a bout of amnesia, too, because the sudden application of a semi filled with ball bearings across its surface made the bridge forget its own sole purpose for being, and the whole thing collapsed into the gorge.

A knock on Farmer John’s door that morning revealed a rather sheepish truck driver who somehow escaped a 200-foot freefall into the gorge, though the man’s conveyance had not fared as well. The county took one look at the wreckage, chalked it all up to rare misfortune, and left the whole mess sitting at the bottom of the gorge to rust.

When John happened to mention the empty space where a bridge had once been, the county engineers looked at him and said, “No one comes by here anyway.” They didn’t even bother to put up a “Bridge Out” sign, which John thought was rather an impractical way of dealing with a missing roadway over a 200-foot-deep gorge. “Budget cuts,” one of the engineers said with a laugh.

John stared at the place where the bridge had been. He then trudged the half mile down the road to his barn and found the biggest sheet of plywood he had. He painted “Danger—Bridge Out” on it, lugged it back to the gorge, and propped it up on the gravel road with a couple small boulders. It wasn’t art, but then he was a farmer and not Picasso. Still, it served its purpose, and if he himself should be careless some day and in the grip of a “senior moment” forget the missing bridge, the sign might just help him too.

One day, Farmer John heard wheels spinning on gravel.

Outside his window, John saw the unmistakable plume. He walked down to his drive to where a red Camaro hunkered. In his youth, Farmer John had once owned a Camaro, but it proved less practical than a tractor for farming purposes, so he sold it. Still, he knew a Camaro when he saw it, even if it was “one of them new ones.”

A young man with tossled hair popped his head out the driver’s window and said, “I think I’m lost.”

John replied, “If you’re here, I’m certain of it.”

“But my GPS said to turn here if I wanted to get to Frederickstown,” the man said.

“Wrong is wrong,” said John as he walked up to the driver’s window, “even if a computer says otherwise.” He looked at the man and added a couple beats later, “And perhaps especially if a computer says.”

The man pulled the GPS from its suction-cupped holder, popped open the glove compartment indignantly, and tossed the device inside. He turned back to John. “So where does the road go?”

“Nowhere you want to be,” John said, “unless you don’t like yourself or your car too much. Bridge out.”

The man laughed. “Look, I’m lost. I know it. How do I get to Frederickstown?”

“Go back out to the highway.” John motioned with his good hand, drawing in the warm, summer air. “Take a left. Drive until you see the Exit 77 sign. Take that exit, then hang another left. Twenty minutes and you’re there.”

But the man kept looking down the gravel road.

“Son, I’ve lived here more decades than you’ve been breathin’,” John said, the serious creeping into the many lines on his face. “You go down that road there, and it will not end well for you. I know the way you need to go. If’n you need, I can ride with you down to that exit and you can let me off there. I’ve got no problem walkin’ back.”

The man’s countenance seemed to soften, and his head swiveled back to the highway. “That’s a kind offer, but I think I’ve got it. Thanks.”

The old farmer extended a hand. “John.”

The young man gripped it. “Steve. Thanks, John.”

“God bless you, Steve.”

The young man nodded and shifted the car into reverse, the throaty growl of the engine a familiar sound to the old farmer. John waved, stood in place, and watched his visitor shift again, make a left, and enter the highway.

A pheasant called in the distance, and by the time John’s eyes returned from where it might be hiding to the place the Camaro had been a heartbeat before, both the car and its driver were out of sight.


Most people are headed toward the gorge, and the bridge is out. Christians know this. How we respond to lost people makes all the difference in whether they listen to our warnings or not. Frankly, we’re not sharing what we know as well as Farmer John did.

Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter. If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?
—Proverbs 24:11-12 ESV

John was wise enough to know others would come down that road. He knew how it would end, even if others pretended not to. He didn’t want to see anyone end up dead at the bottom of the gorge. People mattered to him.

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
—Matthew 7:3-5 ESV

John was wise enough to know that in a weak, forgetful moment, he too might drive into the gorge unless he set up a warning. He dealt with his own failings first. This granted him the right to speak to other people’s weaknesses.

In addition, John didn’t question the preceding part of the man’s trip or how he had come to end up in his driveway. All he knew was that the man was going the wrong way, and that steering him the right way was the best approach. Then John offered that better way.

…but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…
—1 Peter 3:15 ESV

John kept to the main and the plain. He didn’t rail against the man’s head turning back to the gravel road. He was gentle, respectful, and genuinely concerned. No, he didn’t back down, but he didn’t yell,  cause a scene, or draw too much attention to himself. He shared what he knew and did it simply.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
—Philippians 2:3-4 ESV

John not only gave directions, he offered to ride with the stranger down to the proper exit to ensure he was going the right way. Even though the walk back might be considered an inconvenience to some, to John it was part of caring for this man God put in front of him.

If we Christians keep these four verses in mind whenever we deal with lost people, our interactions with them will be as God wills them to be.

This isn’t hard. Farmer John didn’t do anything impractical or wild. When dealing with lost people, we don’t need to either. John kept it simple. So should we.

Does Anyone Still Care About the Great Commission?


Over my break, I heard a young, Christian man tell an assembled crowd how he was forsaking his house, his job, and his former life to give everything for the cause that has captured his heart.

Usually, the passion of men and women on fire for a righteous cause enflames my own heart, but honestly, I was bored to tears and wanted to get up and leave.

It’s not because the cause wasn’t just and right and noble and oh so needed, but because I can no longer get fired up for any old cause within the Body of Christ—save one.

The amount of spam in my Cerulean Sanctum mailbox from Christian organizations lamenting the state/condition of this institution or that now overwhelms the legitimate email. I look at my inbox and see it as the perfect microcosm of where the Church in America is today. We’re like Don Quixote, and the  world is a vast plain strewn with windmills.

Tilt. Tilt. Tilt.

Funny thing about that young, Christian man I heard speak. At his age, I was zealous for the same cause he was. That’s not the case now. Old age is teaching me something.

Over my break, I watched a few episodes of Mythbusters. Being a science-y sort of guy, I find the show interesting and informative.

One of the phrases they used a lot in the episodes I saw was physics thought experiment, meaning that physicists had created an illustration based on scientific principles to explain a foundational concept in simple terms.

I want to attempt the same thing.

From what I can tell, there are 300,000 churches in the United States. Our population is close to 300 million. Roughly 40 percent of our population claims to attend church services on any given weekend. That’s about 120 million people who could be said to be Christians of some type. Doing the math yields an average local church size of about 400 people. That sounds like a reasonable number.

With a church of 400 people living out genuine Christian discipleship according to the Bible, how impossible would it be to think that those 400 would be used of God in a given year to lead 20 unbelievers to Christ? We’re talking a 5 percent conversion factor.

Now how is it, in reality, that in the average church of 400 people such a thing is unheard of?

Some will object and point to our children coming to Christ. Heaven help us, I hope that would be so—a given even—but I’m less concerned about the basics of a Christian husband and wife replacing themselves in the church pews via their two children (on average),  and more concerned with reaching people who would never otherwise darken the doorway of a church.

Fundamentally, I want to know why, of the myriad Christian causes of worth, the Great Commission—the one Jesus charged us with before He left this earth—has become the most neglected.

How is it that we can get whipped into a frenzy about aiding the poor, stopping same sex marriage, putting more conservatives into the halls of American power, and a million other causes, but the simple act of helping lead a lost soul to Christ is something we have neither time nor energy for?

Let’s be honest here. The Great Commission no longer compels us. The proof is right before our eyes, but we don’t want to see it.

I read ads for churches that proclaim that theirs is Spirit-filled. I hear Christians talking about charismatic gifts and soaking in the Spirit. Everyone seems to be about ushering in the Spirit during worship. We talk and talk and talk about the Spirit and being filled by Him.

But no surer sign exists for being Spirit-filled than having a burning desire to see the lost come to Christ. Being Spirit-filled awakens the Christian heart to the brutal emptiness of what it means to lack Christ. The stark division between having Christ and not having Him ends up driving the believer to share Christ with anyone who will listen.

That reality used to compel the saints of old. Christians would die to ensure that one more soul came to knowledge of Jesus. Believers gave everything they had, even their own lives, to ensure that no one would go into a Christless eternity.

Yet today, the Great Commission hardly charts on the primary cause list for most Christians.

A few years ago, I did another thought experiment in a post, wherein I computed that 4,212 people go into a Christless eternity every hour of every day. I’m sure that number is higher today.

I’m at a point in my life where I’m convinced that no cause we Christians can join trumps depopulating hell.

How is it, then, that this most important cause gets short shrift?

I see scores of people ready to radically change their lives to ensure more Republicans get into the Senate, but where are the people who forsake all so that one more person can come to know Jesus Christ?

What amazes me most of all is that many of the causes we give everything for would fix themselves if we just led more people to Jesus and trained them up to maturity.

So why don’t we do this?

My first post back from my break was going to be about freedom in Christ, and I’ll get to that soon enough. But at the very heart of freedom in Christ is dying to self. And being dead to self means no longer caring what others think of us. It’s no longer valuing what the rest of the world values. It’s realizing that eternal life is knowing Jesus, and only that matters.

That’s where we stumble in the Great Commission.

We haven’t made the choice to die to self.

We haven’t set aside the things of the world that distract us from the real work.

We don’t really know Jesus.

Don’t really know Jesus? Dan, how can you say that?

I say it because I’m increasingly aware it’s true. Most Americans Christians can’t share Jesus with another person because they don’t truly know Him. They know a few facts about Him, but that’s it. And when it comes to facts, I think average Christians would be much more likely to share their knowledge of their favorite hobby or sport than to share what little they know of Jesus.

So rather than appear to be ignorant before others of the very truth they supposedly wrap their lives around, most Christians say nothing.

I just can’t get away from that. Nothing else explains the utter lack of evangelistic fervor going on in “Christian America” 2011.

I’ve always felt my own calling was to discipling Christians to maturity, which is part of the Great Commission. But my lacks in evangelism are ever before me. I’m praying that 2011 will be the year that changes.

And that means dedicating this year to knowing Christ and making Him known.

Folks, no other cause trumps that. All others are pretenders to the throne.

God help us if we continue to fail to grasp this!

Note: I planned to include an image in this post, but every image of evangelism I could find online was clearly of evangelism occurring someplace other than in America. If that doesn’t make the point, I don’t know what can.