The State of Evangelism in America
A few months ago I was asked to write a paper for a prestigious organization that gives money to parachurch organizations. The title of the paper was “The State of Evangelism in America.” It’s not the first time I’ve written for this organization. I’ve also written on such topics as “The Boundaries of Stewardship” and “A Biblical Rationale for Financially Supporting Parachurch Ministries.” I am such a nerd.
Normally, I approach these kinds of projects with a kind of cool detachment – much like a brain surgeon approaches a patient. Don’t get too attached. Don’t let your emotion get in the way of performing your duty. Better to stay objective and at least a little bit removed.
But this topic got under my skin and refuses to leave me alone. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know that the state of evangelism in America is...well...poor.
We’ve got churches on nearly every corner (324,000 Protestant and 20,000 Roman Catholic congregations in America). But those churches are shrinking and dying at an alarming rate. The average size of the average church in America has dropped 10 people in the last 25 years. During that same time period, the combined membership of all Protestant denominations declined by more than 10 percent, while the national population has grown by more than 30 percent. Every year in America, 3,500 churches close their doors for the last time; fewer than 1,500 new churches are planted in their place.
In an average year, fewer than half of all existing churches fail to gain a single new member through evangelistic conversion. In the average church, there is usually one convert per year for every 80 members.
Something’s wrong with that picture. We’re failing at evangelism at a monumental level, and we have to change it. But how?
It’s not as if people don’t know the Christian story. That was the case in the pre-Christian era – when the disciples were going into all the world and telling people about Jesus. And it was the case in a lot of places during the Christian era when missionaries traveled far and wide, taking the message of hope into the darkest corners of the world.
But in today’s post-Christian America, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone out there who doesn’t know at least the gist of the story. Jesus. Son of God. Crucifixion. Resurrection. Christmas. Easter. They know it already.
I’m not saying they’ve really heard the gospel or understood any of its implications. I’m just saying they know the gist of the story.
And they’ve chosen to reject it. They are simply not interested in what we have to offer them at this point.
We don’t like to talk about this much, but it’s true: Americans may very well constitute the largest unchurched people group outside of India and China. As many as 240 million Americans are unsaved, unchurched and unevangelized, and that number is growing.
What does that say about the Church and evangelism?