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.

20 thoughts on “Why Evangelism Is Failing in America

  1. Thanks Dan. Excellent on so many levels, convicting through and through.

    I think the Prosperity Gospel seems to have hit a bit of a wall though. Promising individuals success can only go so long until the cat’s out of the bag and folk realize only the few really reach those prosperous levels after all. I see a shift to the magnetism of the megachurch movement where people can feel their success vicariously.

  2. Clint

    Any resources recommendations for number 7? God has been stirring my heart to evangelize recently. Honestly, I know the gospel but explaining it in helpful ways is a challenge. How do you usually interact with people about the gospel? Examples may be helpful.

  3. Juan Vega

    Evangelism is really not all that complicated. We are either concerned for friends, family, and others that we come across our daily lives or we’re not. It’s that simple. If we truly are concerned, we can start a simple conversation about where they stand with God regarding their life after death. Explaining the gospel is really not difficult. God loved us so much that He allowed Jesus Christ to die for our sins. He was then buried and three days later rose again. If we believe (rely upon or trust in) in Jesus Christ, God will give us a home in heaven based on our faith alone. No works of any kind are required to receive the salvation that God offers us. It’s that quick and that simple. Thank God!

  4. Henry

    I’d just like to pass on another way to help spread the gospel and it’s simply this:-

    Include a link to an online gospel tract (e.g. http://www.freecartoontract.com/animation) as part of your email signature.

    An email signature is a piece of customizable HTML or text that most email applications will allow you to add to all your outgoing emails. For example, it commonly contains name and contact details – but it could also (of course) contain a link to a gospel tract.

    For example, it might say something like, “p.s. you might like this gospel cartoon …” or “p.s. have you seen this?”.

      • Renee

        I agree that the initial conversion is not the biggest problem in the U.S. it’s the sanctification and daily walk where it gets muddled for most. Of course that all is rooted in HOW a person was converted in the first place. On what grounds I put my trust in my savior is the key so if a person is converted based on “Jesus will give me a great life” then their sanctification process will be a mess unless they come across someone that can truly disciple them properly. On the other hand if they’re converted with a fire and brimstone turn or burn message and never see the wonder and awesomeness for the Gospel then their sanctification process will be wrought with condemnation and guilt and they will be no use to anyone else. I see a disconnect in the church with some groups saying winning ‘the lost” is the most important while others think “attending church” is the most important. Once you win the lost if the person is not truly discipled then what have you won? You’ve left the poor soul to wonder from Sunday to Sunday not knowing what to do. If you stay in the pews always then you cut yourself off from the world and compartmentalize your life by default and the only thing you can offer is “come to church” as if Christ saved everyone at the altar on 35th street at noon on Sunday. After being in and out of churches for years either living in guilt and condemnation or throwing in the towel and wallowing in sin, I can say that I’ve only met a handful of people that would invest individual time with me, in my life, in my personal space, at my house, consistently and then paired that with the true Gospel message over and over. We cannot leave people to cell groups or home bible studies and think that will be enough. We can’t leave them to Sunday morning and mid-week service and think just because they show up they’re doing well. We have to get in the nitty gritty messiness of their lives but the problem is Americans are just too plain BUSY! Too busy with what they have going on to invest any TIME in anyone else from the leadership to the person in the back pew. It’s an epidemic. I can’t tell you how many people were too busy with their wordly lives or with their spiritual lives to even meet for coffee with me once a month. If it wasn’t at a church event they didn’t know how to function. I wanted fellowship and friendship that went beyond weekly services but I’m telling you it was the single most hardest thing for me to find IN THE CHURCH. Then there are a few who see the problem and want to engage but don’t know where to start and either end up working externally with the lost in street evangelism for the sake of doing something productive or go to another church still looking. Work needs to be done both outside AND inside the church and neither is more glorious than the other because it’s the same Spirit at work. If you don’t get the people focused inside the church then you can evangelize all you want but the body won’t be fit to support them and we’ll keep replicating broken people. God designed a well-oiled body but I have friends on the inside and those on the outside and they’re too busy on their horses to see that they need each other and not one extreme is right. I’ve met more broken people in the church than I have outside of it. People act like as soon as you get saved sanctification just comes from coming to church. Umm no it takes a whole body of Christ and his Spirit to bring you to the end and we’re losing people to the world because sorry to say the world will make time for you. Sin will make time for you you can count on it.

        • Renee

          I will add the the 1st century church met and broke bread daily. Daily. They needed each other every day and spent time in fellowship and the word together all the time. Our lives in the U.S. are so spread out and individualized that it makes it hard to meet daily so it’s of the utmost importance that we fill that handicap in another way in smaller group meetings multiple times a week or weekend fellowships in smaller groups that are easier to manage or groups of 2-3. The goal being to constantly be connected to those in the body every day of the week. I think people are desperate for it because I’m hearing conversations about communes popping up among people I never expected. We’re suffocating for the most part so it’s no wonder the power to do exploits is not there we can barely survive the week ourselves. I think that’s truly because we’re not united physically like we need to be. I do think though that persecution in America will increase and that will by necessity bring the body closer together out of sheer desperation for survival.

  5. I thank God for the earliest grand fathers(Americans) who sacrifice and set apart themselves for God in order to be used by Him, and that’s what America is today . so I would suggest that we go back to the real tender shoots(foundation), ie acquiring thirst and hungry of seeking for righteousness, total repentance and interceding for the nation, especially the youth. God help America. THENKS +256701153469

  6. Roberto Stasi

    The evangelism is failing because the rich people who join the European venture are all over the places into the United States, they are specially into the sport games. They play the hidden President game. When you did not realize that in Europe they have turned nations into states and the kept a President in each state than you have left room for them to do this game. The game they use is meant to remove a totalitarian government however if people are not aware of it they gain too much power, they try to shift your corporations into their system by using the banking system. You don’t wake up and your system is doomed to become a new Europe.

  7. Roger Metzger

    What is evangelism? Is it converting people to Christianity?

    If so, what is Christianity?

    What is the church?

    I submit that Christians need to be inclusively exclusive (or exclusively inclusive). By which I mean that we need to recognize that some people are not Christians (this includes almost everyone who doesn’t profess faith in Jesus) but that various people are Christians at various levels. Some profess faith In Jesus but nothing more. Some are involved in church activities. Some are not. Some are growing spiritually. Others probably would grow spiritually if they had not been given the impression that a profession of faith is the end of the spiritual journey.

    It is possible to be both inclusive in the sense that we treat someone as a Christian (and thus as a member of the church) until or unless we know that person isn’t a Christian AND be exclusive in the sense of having specific behavior and doctrinal criteria for voting membership in a local congregation.

    It is important to recognize–and often state–that we don’t judge who is and who isn’t a Christian on the basis of his lifestyle. In most cases, we don’t know a person isn’t a Christian unless we are given a special revelation about that person. (And we need to be careful about accepting at face value the claim of anyone to have received such a revelation.) One clue, however, is that a person who claims to be without sin should not be called a brother in the Lord.

    Behavioral and doctrinal criteria for voting membership in a congregation will vary from one congregation to another (and from one denomination to another). It is important to make it abundantly clear that behavior requisites for voting membership are not requisites for salvation. It is appropriate for a congregation to have higher standards for elected officers (and, in the case of a congregation that is part of a Christian denomination, high standards for serving as a delegate) than for voting membership while, at the same time, having no standards for fellowship except that the person not deny the faith (including the denial of the faith that is expressed by claiming to be without sin).

    Can anyone on this thread think of other ways to deny the faith?

    I submit that Christians don’t convert people to Christianity. Conversion is the miracle whereby a person’s trust is transferred from what he thought he could do to save himself from sin and its consequences to what the Lord has done, is doing and will yet do to save us. Only the Holy Spirit can perform that miracle. The best we can do is to encourage people to consider evidence that the Holy Spirit can and does perform that miracle.

    The church consists of believers. That doesn’t mean only people who believe exactly what I do. And I need to be careful that someone’s failure to believe Jesus in some particular regard doesn’t tempt me to think that person isn’t a Christian. Rather, I should think of anyone as a Christian who is making progress in his own personal spiritual journey. The steps in his journey might not be exactly what mine have been.

    Evangelism is the process of encouraging someone to take an initial step to trust the Lord OR encouraging a person to continue to take steps in his own personal spiritual journey. The first step is often to trust the Lord for forgiveness instead of trusting in what we have done to earn or deserve God’s forgiveness.

    When we see evidence that a person has, for the first time in his life, trusted God to forgive him for Jesus’ sake alone, there is nothing “wrong” with considering that to be a measure of success in evangelism.

    I submit that we, as a body of believers, would benefit from also considering to be evidence of success in evangelism that a person has taken such additional steps as:

    Depending on the written word more than or instead of depending on what you or I or the preacher say about the meaning of the word.

    Recognizing that no pastor or professional evangelist or religious organization has any spiritual authority that is not available to every Christian directly from the Lord himself.

    Recognizing that sanctification (holiness) is every bit as much a gift of God’s grace as justification (forgiveness) is.

    Recognizing that the millennial kingdom will be an heavenly kingdom–not an earthly one.

    While it is true that most people are more likely, in fellowship and Bible study with other Christians, to take such steps as those listed above, it is also true that such steps can and sometimes do occur without that context.

    It is true that, in the United States, the ORGANIZED church is in decline. I wonder, however, whether that is because people grow tired of pastors telling them what to believe and what to do and come to realize that, as important as a Christian lifestyle is, a Christian lifestyle is the RESULT of conversion and not all Christians are going to have the same lifestyle.

    If the church consists of believers, it is possible that the church in the United States is actually growing (if not in terms of percentage of the population then at least in terms of absolute numbers). Perhaps there are more and more people who are trusting in the Lord and his written word instead of trusting in religiosity.

    Our daughter attended the worship services of one congregation a few times. Then one of the members (bless her heart) said, “We’ll be praying that you mother will attend services with you.”

    Heidi came unglued! “My mother doesn’t often attend services but she is probably a better Christian than you are!” I don’t think Heidi has attended the services of that congregation again since then.

    The lady who said that may have been a Christian by any of a half-dozen definitions but, in today’s world, there are more and more people, especially young people, who are interested in a personal experience while being less and less interested in being told what to do–including being told they “should” attend formal or semi-formal worship services. And if they do attend services and the preacher is spending more time telling people how to live than promulgating the good news, is it any wonder that attendance is declining?

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