As Americans become less interested in church, showing our neighbors sincere love and genuine friendship can offer opportunities to share the gospel.
The American Christian church seems to be unraveling.
According to Gallup, in 1947, 76 percent of Americans were members of a church. In 1998, it was 70 percent. But by 2018, it dropped to 50 percent. So, church membership declined only 6 percent in a half-century, but then dropped 26 percent in the last two decades.
Much of this is due to the differing religious views of various generations. Take the Silent Generation, those born between 1928 and 1945: 84 percent identify as Christian. With Generation X (1965 to 1980), that number drops to 67 percent. With Millennials (1981 to 1996), it drops to 49 percent. What about Generation Z, the youngest generation? Atheism is twice as high among these young Americans than any previous generation.
What happened? Some experts cite the influence of postmodernist thought, which believes that truth is a relative concept. Others point to the rise of secular humanism, which says that humankind can live a moral and meaningful life apart from any belief in God. Others point to the unraveling of the nuclear family. A recent study found that 67 percent of single parents do not attend church. Still others cite the growing distrust of institutions: government, the media, and higher education. Finally some suggest that the church’s message has become vague and indistinguishable. It is no longer unique.
As Christians, we might also attribute this decline to divine discipline. Martin Luther compared the gospel to a passing rainstorm. God blesses a group of people—the Jews, the Greeks of Asia Minor, the Germans —with that life-giving rain. Eventually, the people grow apathetic toward the gospel. Apathy descends into scorn. So, the Lord allows his gospel shower to move on and water someplace new. Thus, the congregations St. Paul founded are only a memory today. In the land of the Reformation, German cathedrals have plenty of tourists but very few worshipers. Maybe America will be the next nation to possess the gospel only to let it slip through her fingers.
A shift toward personal evangelism
So what does that mean for our churches’ mission? I believe that in our efforts to reach the lost and the unchurched, personal evangelism is going to be increasingly more important than congregational programs. I also believe that we must make sure the message we share continues to be the unique gospel of God’s love for fallen humanity.
Imagine you are at your congregation’s open forum talking about possible outreach efforts. Some advocate mass mailings or Facebook ads, inviting the community to come to worship. Others suggest tactical changes at church. Jim suggests renovating the entry foyer to make it more inviting. Karen proposes adding another worship service, one where hymns are led by keyboard and guitar.
These suggestions assume that people have a positive view of church, but that may not be the case. If you did not have many visitors attend your Easter service, the reason simply may be that many in your community do not care about Easter. Facebook ads and mailings are probably not going to change that. If you cannot get young people to join your church, the issue may not be that they find your worship outdated, but that they find organized religion outdated. As America becomes less interested in church, it seems likely that corporate outreach efforts will become less impactful.
So, how will we attempt to reach the lost in a post-Christian country? I believe it will take personal, relational interaction to share the gospel’s good news of forgiveness and life.
Winning souls for Christ
About a decade ago, my mom started using essential oils. I was extremely skeptical. She encouraged me to give them a try. For example, she knew I get insomnia. “Dab some lavender on your temples,” she said. I declined and joked about the Bible prohibiting the practice of witchcraft. The thought that an oil could help me sleep seemed silly. Yet, now you will find a bottle of lavender oil on my nightstand. Why? I eventually did try it, but not because of any ad or slick packaging or a celebrity endorsement. It was become someone I love, respect, and trust said, more than once, “This has helped me. I think it might help you.” Now when insomnia hits, after a touch of lavender and some prayer, I get my z’s.
Likewise, your next-door neighbor might think that organized religion is just another type of snake oil. What might convince him otherwise? If your neighbor is ever going to learn more about Christ, most likely it is because you made the investment of time to go beyond being acquaintances; you befriended him. You became someone that he respected and trusted. Then when you turned conversations to Jesus and his truth, he didn’t dismiss you as crazy. He listened. Maybe over time the Holy Spirit will use the gospel that you share to do what only the Spirit can do—make your new friend’s spiritually dead heart start to beat. If that happens, you will have the joy of knowing God used you to change someone’s eternity. If it does not happen, you will still have joy, knowing that you glorified Christ by serving as his witness.
We must show our neighbors that they can trust us.
It isn’t going to be easy. Sharing your faith one-on-one can be a scary concept. But here’s the good news. Every time Christ asks his people to do something, he always gives the ability. Jesus is always faithful! If he brings unchurched and unbelieving people into our lives, he certainly will give us the courage, the wisdom, the time, and the resources to do relational evangelism.
Picture two churches. Church A has a massive evangelism budget. It purchases an expensive LED sign and invites the community to come to all sorts of events. It put ads in the newspaper and even purchases billboard space. The members at Church A hope these corporate outreach efforts convince people to give them a try. However, they do not really think much about personally sharing their faith. Church B is the exact opposite. It does not spend a cent on advertising, but personal evangelism is part of the congregational culture. It’s talked about regularly. It’s modeled by leadership. People are trained to do it. Members know that if they bring a neighbor to church, that neighbor will be warmly welcomed and the pastor will follow up. I believe that as America continues to slide into post-Christian culture, Church B has a sounder approach to winning souls for Christ.
This past year has exposed all sorts of raw nerves—fear, distrust, anger—but we have the answer. By our sincere love and genuine friendship, we will show our neighbors that they can trust us.
Then we can be what Christ has declared us to be: his witnesses.
Author: Jonathan Hein
Volume 108, Number 2
Issue: February 2021