5 Reasons Churches Struggle with Evangelism
1. Evangelism Deflates
2. Sin and Disunity Weakens Evangelism
3. Churches Often Lack Evangelism Leadership
4. Evangelism in Hard
5. Weak Theology Can't Support Robust Evangelism
There's a lot of talk these days about how fun and easy evangelism is. It makes me wonder if we "doth protest too much." If it really were fun and easy, I'm not sure we'd be saying so. ("Hey kids, you really should give Disney World a try. No really, it's fun!). It's true that there are times when I'm talking with someone about the gospel and I'm thrilled to be having the conversation. But sustained, fruitful gospel outreach is more often hard than easy.
Suggesting that it's easy is neither biblical nor strategic. When Jesus sent out the twelve in pairs (Matthew 10:5-23), the majority of his instruction had to do with hardship. That included his instructions to us (verse 16 on). He didn't motivate them by telling them it would be fun. Consequently, it's not strategic to suggest that it will be easy. If we expect a party, who wants to stay around when it turns out to be a battle?
No, evangelism is hard work… at least most of the time. And this is just one of the barriers to sustained, fruitful outreach. We'd like to suggest that there are five reasons why churches struggle with outreach.
1. Evangelism deflates. The three basic ministries of a church are like three balloons:
* ministry toward God -- worship
* ministry toward one another -- edification
* ministry toward the world -- evangelism
These are the three core purposes of any true church. At our own church we say it this way: everyone worships, everyone grows, and everyone serves the mission.
If these three ministries are like three balloons, the first two -- worship and edification -- are like Mylar balloons. They stay more easily inflated. The third one is like a latex balloon. Blow them up with helium one day and the next, they're on the floor. They leak easily.
It's the same with evangelism in a local church. If you go into a church on any Sunday, you’re sure to find corporate worship in the form of music. And there will certainly be many opportunities for edification -- Sunday School classes and the sermon for starters.
But ask about active evangelism and the church leaders will probably say, "We could use some help there." That's because the third balloon deflates easily. If evangelism doesn't happen for a few months, or even years, the church will seem to function just fine. The pews will be full, the singing may be fine. But in reality, the church is only two-thirds of it's real self. And when a church loses it's mission -- to make disciples of Jesus -- it will lose its health. And eventually, if a church loses its vitality as a witness to the resurrected Christ, Christ will "snuff out" the candle of that church (Revelation 2:5). It will cease to be a true church in God's eyes.
2. Sin and disunity weakens evangelism. Sin weakens our relationship with Christ -- as we see with the pride and self-sufficiency of the Laodicean Christians in Revelation 3:14-22. Sin also puts us out of step with the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). When that happens, our outreach becomes weak. It's also true that disunity undermines our outreach. Jesus taught that our love for one another is foundational to gospel witness: John 13:34-35. So if we are living willfully with unconfessed sin, and if we're in unresolved conflict with other Christians, our evangelism will be weak.
I’m not suggesting that we need to be sinlessly perfect before we can share the good news about Jesus with a friend. Not even close. But we have to understand that there is a direct link between our heart’s relationship with God, and our hope for fruitfulness and power in our outreach. And if we are deliberately feeding sin in our hearts, then it will affect our outreach.
3. Churches often lack evangelism leadership. Churches need leaders to do the work of the gospel, and equip others to share the gospel. Without a leader who will advocate for sustained gospel outreach, most churches will find themselves focused on needs within the church. The needs within the church are just as important as those outside the church. And often, evangelism needs to happen "inside the church" too. But outreach is also just as important as edification -- both are the work of the gospel. The church is called apart from the world for holiness and edification. And the church is called into the world to declare the good news of the gospel and make new disciples. These two activities are like the in-and-out of fireplace bellows that fan the flame of a healthy church.
Often a man will plant a church with zeal for reaching the lost. The church plant will start with evangelistic Bible studies, personal outreach, all kinds of fruitful evangelism. Then, by God's grace, the church grows. In the process, the planting pastor grows with it, maturing into a pastor-shepherd. But while the church gained a maturing pastor-shepherd, it lost the energetic pastor-evangelist. This is normal and healthy. But it also means that the church should have replaced the 'evangelist" as the founding pastor shifted roles. When that doesn't happen, the church loses it's outward ministry.
In God's redemptive work through history, the role of the leader is critical. We see God use leaders like Moses (Exodus 3:7-10) and Paul (Acts 26:16-23). We see him censure leaders when they fail their task (Ezekiel 34:1-10), highlighting negatively the importance of the leader in God's plan. Leaders are servants who not only do the work (1 Timothy 4:1-5), but also equip the believers to be mature laborers with the Word of God (Eph. 4:11-12, 25).
One of the leadership roles Christ gave to the church is an "evangelist." There is not a lot to go on in understanding this role. We have three passages that mention the "evangelist:" Acts 21:8, Ephesians 4:11 and 2 Timothy 4:5. What the role consists of, isn't entirely clear. Given that Philip was was working among those who hadn't heard the gospel, and that Timothy was also a pastor-shepherd, the role of the evangelist seems to include declaring the gospel beyond the church, and within the church. And given that the role of the evangelist is mentioned in the context of Ephesians 4:11-2, it seems to include the "equipping of the saints" -- equipping them to be mature in Christ, which includes being "fishers of men" (Mark 1:17).
So we believe that local churches need leaders (perhaps the biblical role of an "evangelist") who understand three essential things: the depth of the gospel and how to proclaim it, how to equip the saints to communicate the gospel, and these barriers to the expansion of the gospel.
4. Evangelism is hard. We recently read an advertisement that said so-and-so "puts the fun in winning others to Christ. He can barely contain himself in his enthusiasm to show others just how easily it can be done." I truly appreciate the intention of this ad. My concern is that it reinforces the notion that there are a few special people out there (the "evangelists") who love this stuff, and we should leave evangelism to them. While sometimes it is "fun" and maybe even easy to talk with others about Jesus, the general trajectory of fruitful outreach is the opposite. It involves sustained prayer, faithful study of the Word (we are ambassadors of a message that we must understand), discipline, rejection, and for many, suffering. When Jesus sent out his disciple two-by-two (Matthew 10), he spend a significant part of his instruction on how to deal with the push-back. It will be hard, he told them. But the Holy Spirit would be with them -- and us -- in the face of difficulties.
Evangelism is also not "simple." It's understandable that we want to make evangelism seem simple. Here's an example: "Essentially is big plan is to hang out with people who like you and then answer their questions when God moves in their lives…. Find the people around you in whom God is already working and join God there! It's not that complicated. It really is that simple." (Mike Breen). Mike's encouragement is on track in many ways. But God the creator has made a world full of exquisite variety. And God the redeemer has given the church many, similar variety as ways of outreach. Evangelism is a complex, multi-faceted thing. And this is good news, because that means that God uses everyone, in their roles and with their personalities, to participate in the mission. He uses introverted academics to write. He uses bold extroverts to speak out. He uses Moms to disciple their children to Christ. He uses urbanites to share sensitively, while building trust with co-wokers over coffee in upscale cafes. He uses leaders like Tim Keller to reach large urban centers. He uses quiet faithful teachers to settle into country churches. And he uses missionaries to penetrate hard and dangerous places to plant the gospel and gospel-declaring churches. We must avoid reductionism in evangelism and fight the tendency to say, "Evangelism is simple. It all comes down to…." Every time we say that, we eliminate many of our gifted brothers and sister from the mission.
5. Weak theology can't support robust evangelism. In Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, Thom Rainer lists a church's theology as one of the most important factors in fruitful outreach. In other words, faithfulness to the Word precedes fruitfulness in evangelism. Here's his conclusion: …it must be said without hesitation that churches that reach the unchurched are theologically conservative. They have a high view of Scripture. And their convidations about their beliefs are obvious. A church can attempt many good contextual efforts to reach the unchurched, but if it does not have the foundations of a high view of Scripture, the efforts are either futile or transient. I have yet to discover a church that insistently reaches the unchurched over a several-year period that is not conservative in its theology" (225). We believe this is a reflection of Paul's dual exhortation to Timothy to "preach the Word" and "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Timothy 4:2,5).
There are other reasons, of course, that churches struggle with outreach. But these five surface year after year, as systemic and pervasive. The answer of course, is the gospel. The gospel re-inflates the outreach balloon as we become motivated again to herald the good news of Christ's redemptive rescue. Churches that have lost motivation should return to the Word and preach the river of redemption through Scripture. They should proclaim from the pulpit and in small groups the "master plan of the Bible" (to borrow the title of Baxter's classic). Seeking to reinvigorate evangelism will be fruitless without the preaching of the Word on the depth of sin and extraordinary power of God's grace (a fresh read of Lovelace's Dynamics of Spiritual Life might help the pastor and elders).
The gospel can bring conviction for those who are living in willful and deliberate sin. It's the only thing that has power to bring conviction to those who are stubbornly refusing to humble themselves and reconcile with another Christian. The gospel is worth dying for, and worth being ridiculed for. It's worth suffering for -- in dangerous and closed countries, and on college campuses and around the water cooler. The gospel is what leaders lead out of, and what they lead toward ("Not only does the gospel of Jesus Christ gather into itself all the trajectories of Scripture, but under the terms of the new covenant, all of Christian life and thought grow out of what Jesus has accomplished" -- Carson and Keller in The Gospel as Center, 20). And the gospel is the story we tell from every page of God's Word. It is the "power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). It is the remedy for our struggles with outreach.