The Death of Evangelism: Seven Unacceptable Responses

The look on the pastor’s face said it all. He was shocked.

Our team at Church Answers sent him the results of a survey of the members of his church. We use a tool called Know Your Church™ It’s a robust tool with 160 questions. It is a powerful way to see how your church members perceive the health of the church.

But this pastor went to the lowest score. It was in evangelism. The report indicated that the members perceived the church to be “very unhealthy” in evangelism. “Ugh,” he muttered. “We are sick in evangelism and our members know it.”

I give this pastor a lot of credit. He wanted the truth. He wanted to face reality. He knew his church could not get healthy until the members and the leaders admitted the church was sick. This wake-up call to reality was the first step toward health.

The Southern Baptist Convention as a Case Study

Because of the years I spent in leadership positions in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), I watch closely the numbers the SBC reports each year through a report called the Annual Church Profile. The results for 2021 were recently reported. They were not a pretty picture.

Baptisms are seen as a close proxy for evangelism in the SBC. Note the following numbers for baptisms for selected years in the convention:

  • 1972: 445,725 (peak)
  • 2001: 395,900
  • 2019: 235,748 (last pre-COVID year)
  • 2020: 123,160 (COVID)
  • 2021: 154,701 (first post-COVID year)

The numbers reflect a saddening trend. In 2021, baptisms were down 65% from their peak in 1972. While some people may take solace that the 2021 numbers were better than the previous year, there really is not much good news there. Many churches were not meeting in 2020, so baptisms could not take place. The better comparison is 2021 (first post-COVID year) to 2019 (last pre-COVID year). Using that comparison, baptisms are down 34%.

The trend is bad, and it is getting worse.

This death of evangelism is not limited to the SBC, though. We are seeing it across denominational lines and in non-denominational churches.

Seven Unacceptable Responses

Some church leaders and church members can get defensive about these disturbing trends. Here are seven responses that will only make matters worse.

1. It’s the denomination’s fault. No, it’s not. It’s disobedience among Christians in local churches. While denominations may provide some helpful resources, evangelism is really simple at its core. It’s a Christian telling a non-believer the good news of Christ.

2. Things are really not that bad. Yes, they are, at least in most churches. Until we accept the difficult reality of our anemic evangelistic state, we will do nothing about it.

3. Evangelism is not my gift. Jesus directed the Great Commission to all believers. He did not say, “If you have the spiritual gift of evangelism, go and make disciples.” The only word for non-evangelistic Christians is “disobedience.”

4. I don’t have time to do evangelism. In other words, telling someone how they can have eternal life is just not a priority in your life.

5. I don’t know what to say. You can learn what to say. You can even download an app and let a non-Christian read it. My favorite is the “Life on Mission” app that uses the illustration of “Three Circles.”

6. I don’t know any non-Christians. That means you don’t go shopping. You don’t get a haircut. You never go out to eat. You have no neighbors. You never go to the dry cleaner. Get the point? People who don’t know Christ as their Savior cross our paths every day.

7. If I tell someone Jesus is the only way of salvation, they might be offended. The cross can be offensive. The narrow way can seem narrow minded. But the exclusivity of salvation through Christ is an unequivocal biblical truth. You can’t compromise it.

The Biblical Problem

Perhaps one of the major reasons evangelism is dying is that many of our church members don’t really believe Jesus is the only way of salvation. In the Know Your Church ™ report, we ask several biblical questions. Sadly, we see an increasing number of church members deny that Christ is the only way of salvation when we get the results of the report.

There will be zero motivation and conviction to share the gospel if you don’t really believe people need to hear it to be saved.

Evangelism is dying in many churches. Evangelism is dying in most churches in North America.

I pray I will be an obedient Christian, not a disobedient Christian. I pray I will share the gospel with discipline, hope, and conviction. I want to be able to say the words of Peter and John in Acts 4:20: “We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard” (NLT).

Posted on May 30, 2022

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Paul Voudrach says on

    Churches of our Lord Jesus Christ is moving away from teachings from the pulpit. Why? Do any members remember the Revelation of Jesus Christ? John was cast out and placed in the Ilse of Patmos because he ministered about Jesus Christ. John teached about the death of Jesus on the Cross and the shedding of Jesus’ Blood. I believe that Johm was cast out of the regions of Jerusalem and surroundings of churches because, his teachings and ministery was directly from Jesus by the promised Holy Spirit.
    March 0f 1992, I woke up that morning because I was going to make breakfast for the family before going to the catholic church in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. From waking up I went directly to the washroom to relieve myself. Soon as I shut the bathroom door, My mind was immediately filled with the Word Division. I didn’t have any clue why? When I was done in washroom, I lefy the washroom and immediately my mind became empty with no thoughts of division. I made breakfast and woke family telling them we are going to have breakfast and go to church. In the midst of having our breakfast, Holy Spirit showed me two church buildling. The Holy Spirit began to speak, He said, what you have to do is combine the two churches and make One Church, so that there is no confusion. I did reply by saying; it’s a tough job, how do You expect to do that? Holy Spirit then said; you won’t be doing it, I will be doing it, you will only be my instrument. Because of this you will be persecuted. I got up from the table and began dancing with joy.

  • Thom, I so much appreciate your insights and wisdom, especially as a peer in SBC work. I now find myself “in the messy middle”, as Andy Stanley proclaims. And I am painfully aware of our beloved SBC implosion, now from the vantage point of one who has been ‘uninvited’ by so many peers — over a vote.

    I love the middle. Because Jesus hung out there. I grieve over the past two to three decades of miserable decline in baptisms across evangelical congregations — but, we all had to know — this was imminent. And, more bewildering to me, from personal experiences, we simply refused to look ‘inward’ at our own secret sins, and now we are found out.

    Small town Bible Belt America is quickly becoming de-churched. The Dones in my small town are proof positive, the voice of evangelicals here is now easily detected as Hateful, Prideful, Arrogant, and Irrelevant. I am praying for continual and open confession, repentance, and change among us. That we might once again be a “light in the darkness”, and easily, even mockingly known, for our “gospel of peace”. That we might be unified as One — as Jesus hoped we would.

  • Monte T. Brown says on

    My experience is that some of our very own pastors and leaders don’t want to post baptism in the associational report, because it makes dieing churches look bad. When the churches I pastored started to see baptism in the church the other churches resented this growth. It is not about building your church, but adding to the kingdom of God. We have lost need to be involved in the community. Witnessing through off campus Bible studies reach a lot of people and add to not just your church but other churches in the community.

  • Gracias por tan valiosa información sobre evangelismo es una gra preocupación, soy pastor de una iglesia bautista en Guatemala. Dios les bendiga!!!

  • Brint Keyes says on

    Thom —

    Thank you for your (as always) to-the-point analysis. I’ve saved your seven answers to use in my next class on evangelism.

    in Christ, Brint

    PS – I introduced myself at the end of your breakout room talk at Nat’l Pres – you said to give you a shout-out, so this is it. 😉 Blessings —

  • John Emanuelson says on

    Evangelism has been dead for at least 40 years. It was one of the first things I noticed when I became a
    Christian in 1979. At the time I wondered why no one had ever told me what it means to be a Christian. No one! As a new Christian I experienced a 180 degree change in my direction, which was absolutely marvelous, but when I looked around in the church I attended I could not understand why these Christians did not tell people what happens when you accept Christ. Why would they deny telling their friends and neighbors about this awesome miracle?

    Upon learning that I had the Spiritual Gift of Evangelism and seven years after I became a Christian I regularly visited or joined thirty churches. I think this took about ten years. I had learned how to teach Willow Creek’s evangelism class, “Becoming a Contagious Christian,” and I offered to teach it to the churches of these pastors. Three accepted. Twenty seven did not. It was of interest that two of the three pastors had PhD’s.

    I have found that the problem is with the pastors. They neither encourage nor instruct their church members to reach out. I believe Bill Hybels at Willow Creek was the most proficient at influencing his members to evangelize. I understood fifty percent of his folks had taken the evangelism class, he frequently included in his weekend messages stories about unchurched folks he’d talked to, and he was always super-quick to respond to a community that needed help. For instance, Willow sent five semi trucks loaded with food and daily items they would need to the folks in a city in the South that had just experienced a disastrous storm. These trucks were sent within two or three days of the event, and I believe all of the merchandise had been purchased by the church members and dropped off at the church.

    I would encourage any reader here to scan the Websites of random churches on the Internet to see how many churches have vibrant outreach ministries. I should note that the churches with “relationships” with the local Gospel Mission and that send some of their members to a local elementary school to read with the students don’t count on the positive side.

    I submit that it’s imperative that we begin to reach out to the unchurched with a commitment and a passion. The reasons are obvious if we will only take the responsibility for them.

  • Sadly, the church I attend sees little value in reaching others, unless of course the pastors do it. From all I’ve been able to gather we have a grand total of TWO individuals in our church who make it a practice to frequently invite others to church.
    The overriding attitude is one of keeping things as they have been, and that includes keeping the same people, who btw must sit in the exact same seat every Sunday. Can you say “Dying Church”?

  • Have you the data to study if churches with healthy evangelism also correlate with functioning Elders in the church in addition to Pastors and paid staff, strong weekly programs in 6th – 10th grades in addition to “youth group,” this age group on the church campus on Sunday morning worships with their families, attends a Bible class, and serves somewhere in a ministry? Strong young adult and single, single-again communities that are accessible and visible? Communities where adults can build relationships? If churches are healthy on-mission or failing off-mission, first place to look is the leadership and ask are we meeting needs of the people who walk through our doors?

  • Don L McCutcheon says on

    Thank you for pointing out the elephant in the room with honesty and concern. The declining number of baptisms and the unacceptable excuses prevailing in our churches and denominations saddens my heart. You continue to be one of my heroes and I appreciate you greatly.

  • Ivan Solero says on

    “Because of the years I spent in leadership positions in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), I watch closely the numbers the SBC reports each year through a report called the Annual Church Profile.”

    Since you spent so many years, in leadership positions maybr, just maybe, church abuse played a larger role than evangelism. Especially sexual abuse among certain church members within SBC. let me guess, that’s not very Christian of me to point out the truth of the organisation, considering it seems you are,proud of your affiliation.

    I have tried to follow your advice, methodology and doctrine, but the truth is… Its all the about the numbers.

    I don’t see a difference here as a ministry or any corporate / TedX function.
    Ivan Solero

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Ivan –

      No, I am not proud of what happened in the churches where sex abuse took place. And, no, it’s not all about the numbers.

    • Nathan Morales says on

      Each number represents a person made in God’s image. We should be concerned with numbers and the people behind them.

    • Wow. I mean, wow. The sex abuse revelation has absolutely put a chink in my love for the leadership of the SBC, but Jesus got ahold of me before the SBC did anyway. My pride in my denomination has been shook, but my love for Christ is unshaken. My love for His Bride is still intact, but I’m struggling to wrap my mind around what has taken place to all the victims of CSA. The abuse scandal doesn’t affect or change the soul saving message of the Gospel or the believers responsibility of evangelism. My call to ministry is still in intact, too. Horrible things happened to women and children by some seriously sick people in ministry and, as a pastor, I’m mad as hell that it occurred. Something is broke in the convention, but the Gospel is still the only way people are saved. The SBC isn’t perfect and the current sh!t show bears that fact out. However, The Church of Jesus Christ is gonna be just fine and those called into ministry (at least for me) weren’t called to a denomination, but to a God-given mantle. I’m still wanting to see the lost, found and sinners repent from sin and believe. The numbers are how I chart the progress of how well the church members I serve are; reaching the lost in our community, serving in church ministries, joining together for worship, and teaching. My denomination isn’t God, but even in spite of all the denominational trouble, God has used it for His glory. I’m a soul that was saved at a SBC church. Not by a Southern Baptist Gospel, but by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We count people because people count.