While American believers increasingly stress being missional, justice-minded and service-oriented, we’ve also neglected the basics of communicating the gospel message. But evangelist Rice Broocks believes we’re on the brink of a new movement that’s making the Great Commission more than just a suggestion.
While talking with students on the campus of East Carolina University last year, I had just finished a conversation with an athlete when a student named Frank approached me and introduced himself with a surprising confession. “I’m probably the biggest drug dealer on this campus,” he said bluntly. “But as I walked by you and saw you talking to that guy, something told me you could help me.”
I had spent the day with several leaders reaching out on campus and was surprised at how open and willing people were to have a gospel conversation. Frank had walked by several times and overheard some of the dialogue. He prayed and repented for his rebellion against God and put his trust in Christ. One year later he is serving in a campus group and planning to enter campus ministry when he graduates.
More and more, genuine conversions like this are taking place on university campuses in North America. Ron Lewis, who pastors congregations in North Carolina and New York and leads an international campus outreach ministry called Campus Harvest, told me: “It’s an unprecedented time of openness to share the gospel—unlike I’ve seen in the last 20 years.”
Lewis shared with me about the dramatic conversion of Joe—an atheist and a doctoral and medical student at a major university in the Northeast—who was merely sitting in class this year when a sense of the reality of God swept over him. He was invited by a friend to attend the New York church Lewis pastors, Morning Star New York, where he was saved and baptized.
“I believe my journey to faith is one that people from every background and belief system can expect in their own lives, once they scrutinize the gospel with an open mind,” Joe says of his experience with coming to Christ.
Testimonies like these are increasing today as Christian ministries seem to be awakening from a long season of evangelistic futility. The reason, Lewis believes, is simple: “The gospel is being presented in a clear, fresh way. When the gospel is preached, people have a chance to believe.”
An ‘Evangelistic Spring’?
This new movement could be described as the beginning of an “evangelistic spring” in North America. Signs of a fresh boldness in Christian witnessing are popping up everywhere. People from all walks of life are standing up for their faith in Christ.
Time magazine recently listed outspoken Christian pro athletes Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin among the top 100 most influential people in the world and described physician Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, as “a forthright Christian.” This year’s Masters Golf Tournament winner, Bubba Watson, told the world at the trophy celebration, “I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Make no mistake, though. The snow has not fully melted yet from this long winter of meager evangelistic growth in the West.
While millions have been coming to Christ in Asia, Africa and Latin America, the church in North America has been in the “doldrums,” according to LifeWay President Tom Rainer. His associate, Ed Stetzer, who leads LifeWay’s research effort, estimates that less than 3 percent of the continent’s churches have been growing through evangelism. The 17 percent that are growing are doing so primarily through the migration of believers from church to church.
Others are turning to atheism. The Easter cover story of Newsweek carried the title “Forget Church—Follow Jesus.” The article claimed that “the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young was atheism.” Appropriately, atheism was called a “belief”—in the absence of the gospel of Jesus Christ being delivered, other messages fill the vacuum.
On the positive side of this, however, a major reason that the tide of evangelism is rising in North America is the dramatic emergence of a new wave of apologists/evangelists such as philosopher William Lane Craig, mathematics professor John Lennox, astronomer Hugh Ross, cultural commentator Larry Taunton and New Testament scholar Dan Wallace.
These “new evangelists” are challenging atheists on scientific and philosophical grounds and helping to remove the thick clouds of skepticism that have settled over the U.S. and Canada in the last 25 years. Most of these Christian intellectuals present the case for Christ as well as the evidence for the existence of God.
The Search for Answers
As encouraging as these signs of hope are, there is much to be done to completely turn the tide and reverse the impact of the crippling skepticism that has plagued the church in the West. In researching the state of the North American church during my doctoral studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, I uncovered other more subtle reasons that evangelism has ground to a virtual halt in North America.
1. Christians aren’t sure what the gospel is and whether they should share it. Someone asked me, “Doesn’t the Bible say to preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words?” Those words are not from the apostle Paul or any other biblical writer, but from St. Francis of Assisi.
If the original apostles would have stopped preaching and simply done acts of kindness and served the poor, they undoubtedly would have lived longer. But they boldly proclaimed Jesus in the face of opposition and persecution. When physically threatened, they retorted, “We cannot stop speaking about what we’ve seen and heard” (Acts 4:20, NASB).
“Servant evangelism” pioneer and pastor Steve Sjogren agrees that evangelism is not just acts of charity and kindness devoid of a stated message. “If we help the poor and serve our communities and omit the bread of life [the gospel], we have failed to live up to our Lord’s command,” he says.
2. Christians lack clarity about the content of the gospel. The failure to give a clear presentation of Jesus’ message leaves many people on the doorstep of salvation. They have no real understanding of what God did for them in the life, death and resurrection of His Son, and what their response should be to Him.
Many Christians are being activated to share their faith using this definition of the gospel: “The gospel is the good news that God became man in Jesus Christ. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died—in our place. Three days later He rose from the dead, proving He is the Son of God and offering the gift of salvation to everyone who repents and believes the gospel.”
Dale Evrist, pastor of New Song Christian Fellowship in Nashville, Tenn., points out: “By simply training our people to memorize and articulate the gospel, we are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of gospel presentations each week. It’s simple math: The more the gospel is presented, the more people get saved.”
We no longer can be content just to bring people to church where the pastor will preach the gospel. We must see the millions of believers in North America equipped and empowered to do it.
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