Editor’s note: The church needs to know the attitude of people toward religion and church in order to fulfill its mission. The author focuses on sobering trends in one part of the world, although readers need to realize that these are not isolated trends. The author recognizes the challenges but also points out the relevance of evangelism based on the biblical message.
Most people involved in direct evangelistic activity today know that people are not easily reached with the gospel. Those involved in evangelism full time find it harder every year to attract people to evangelistic meetings. And when people do come to Bible meetings, many choose not to make life-transforming decisions. America is fast becoming a post- Christian nation, while the need for a Savior fades in the minds of many.
According to Barry Kosmin, coresearcher for the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), this secularizing trend is not because people are secularized, per se. “They are not thinking about religion and rejecting it; they are not thinking about it at all,” he says.1 How do you, then, reach those who are not interested?
The growth of “no religion”
Since the United States Census does not ask about religion, the ARIS became the comprehensive datagathering instrument used to learn about religion in America. Research began in 1990 and was based on more than 113,000 interviews. In 2001, 50,000 more were conducted, and recently 54,000 more. This last year’s results show alarming trends for those concerned with the effectiveness of the Christian faith in our society.
For the first time in American history, the number of citizens claiming no religion is becoming a significant segment of the population—almost double the number from 1990. While one in four Americans claim Catholicism as their religion (25.1 percent), the Baptists, who are the largest Protestant faith, barely surpass the No Religion category (15.8 to 15 percent). More people say No to religion than Generic Christians (14.2 percent), mainline Protestants (12.9 percent), Pentecostal/Charismatic (3.5 percent), or other Protestants (3.1 percent). In fact, the survey shows the only religious groups that have grown considerably in the last 18 years have been Eastern religions (125 percent), Islam (100 percent), and new religious movements such as Wiccan, pagans, or Spiritualists (50 percent), although all these remain a relatively small percentage of the total population (about 1.2 percent).2
Thirty-four percent of the Vermont population, for example, claim no religion, significantly outnumbering every other group in the state. But this trend is not only seen in New England. In South Carolina, the number of “Nones” has more than tripled since 1990, while the number of Protestants has dropped by 15 percent.
In 1992, Harold Bloom warned that American religion was already becoming “gnostic” in nature. That is, experience was replacing truth as the pivotal center on which to make spiritual decisions; a religion with “strong antinomian impulses.”3 Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten called it “ ‘this American neopagan religion,’ ” asserting that “Gallup-style findings show that the American believers are religious in a general sense with scarcely no correlation to the specific beliefs of historic Christianity. They become church members without believing in the biblical sense.”4
Even among so-called committed Christians, there are clear signs of concern. “Mark Silk, director of the Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, sees in the [ARIS] numbers ‘an emergence of a soft evangelicalism—E-lite—that owes a lot to evangelical styles of worship and basic approach to church.’ ”5
The rise of evangelistic atheism
But experience-only religion, or the intentional avoidance of religion, is not the only challenge for those seeking to reach others with the gospel. A new atheism has surfaced, and although not directly responsible for making atheists out of Christians, significant inroads are being made in the minds of secular people who may have once been open to the benefits and logic of a Christian worldview.
Atheists and intellectuals subscribing to scientific naturalism as the end-all explanation for life and meaning were once quiet and long-suffering, clearly outnumbered in a “Christian” society. That was yesterday. Today, writers like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have become the bold apostles of a very aggressive atheistic agenda, having sold millions of copies of their books to mainstream American society and making many converts.6 They contend that the source of all trouble in the world can be identified as faith, that is, an innate desire to believe in God when the whole notion of God cannot be proven. For example, religious faith causes suicide bombings, they say. Thus, only science can be trusted as the compass to reliably verify or falsify human propositions. Of course, the new atheists define faith as “belief without evidence,” something that thoughtful Christians have never endorsed. But the damage is being done. So many secular Americans have such a minimal understanding of what the Bible teaches or claims, that the superficial assessment of Christian claims made by the new atheists appears plausible to millions.7
How do you reach out to a society increasingly confused about truth and inherently distrustful of organized religion? The answer to this question must avoid simplistic sound bytes, such as share one’s personal journey, engage with the community, or develop a proper apologetic. Although these may be part of the answer, they ignore some of the complexities already alluded to above.8 Nevertheless, the answer is simpler than one thinks, and it stems from the two-pronged articulation of God’s principles for life, as seen in His law. That is, love for God, and love for one another (Matt. 22:37–40).
The God of the Bible
When Billy Graham wrote in 1997 that it was imperative to rediscover “the full biblical message” in order to bring back evangelism in America, he was right. His argument, though, was primarily because people no longer knew what Christians believe in anymore.9 But the problem has become more basic than that, for people don’t know who God is anymore. The influence of Eastern mysticism and postmodern thinking, coupled with a surprising ignorance of Scripture and the additional aberration of Christian traditions, have made many believe in a God not found in the Bible.
Many people in and out of the church believe, for instance, that God burns people in hell for eternity as a holy vengeance for having spurned the grace of God. The teaching of eternal punishing versus annihilation is so pervasive that this is not only taught as fact, but also preached as an “incentive” for people to get right with the Lord in order to avoid the “hot place.” Doesn’t the Bible say that the goodness of God, not the fear of hell, will lead us to repentance? (See Rom. 4:2.) This is just one example where the actual teaching of Scripture is sorely needed. More and more thoughtful theologians have come full circle on this issue, giving credence to the teaching of Scripture over an abomination of medieval theology.10 The nature of God is at stake here. And the Bible clearly teaches God will take the initiative in the final and complete destruction of the wicked (Rev. 20) versus watching with delight the eternal torment of unrepentant sinners.
Other biblical teachings could be added, such as the biblical worldview of the controversy between good and evil, helping people wrestle with theodicy, or the full impact of the atonement of Jesus on the cross. The whole point here is that the recovery of biblical truth will be the only way to help sinners learn about the true character of God and find the Savior. But this is not due to knowledge of biblical dogma, as such, but because only by knowing Scripture can we have a big enough, and an accurate enough, picture of God that it will be nigh impossible not to fall in love with such a God.
This is something no other literary source or commendable evangelistic activity can come close to achieving.
It also means, at the very least, that public evangelistic Bible meetings remain a must for the sake of evangelism. Public meetings remain the most effective way to help people decide for Christ.11 Unless people are exposed to direct and clear Bible teaching, how else will they know to be free from false systems that misrepresent the true nature of God and His plans for us? Historically, every major Christian reformation movement in history has been anchored in the renewal of biblical preaching. Small groups, prayer, and world events have all been factors in evangelism. But what has truly led people to make decisions of eternal import for their lives was the hearing of God’s Word (see Rom. 10:13–18). When truth is shared, it liberates the one receiving it (see John 8:31, 32). We must keep finding ways to tell the story of the Bible, to teach it and preach it, and give people a chance to hear it.
Love for the lost
The other principle that, when practiced, will inevitably make an impact for evangelism, is a genuine love for others. Jesus made this a critical command on the night of His betrayal when He told His disciples that all would know they belonged to Jesus if they exercised love for one another (see John 13:34, 35). This transcends cultural challenges or even knowledge of the true God. This is God at work through you in your daily life. This is being salt and light in a world with warped tastes and blinded by darkness (Matt. 5:13–16).
When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, the Lord answered him with a recitation of the last six commandments: how to love his neighbor (Luke 18:18–21). He wanted the young leader to think about the failure of external law-abidingness. For even though he had kept the law from his youth, his heart was still so empty that he despaired at his current condition. Then, Jesus told him the rest of the story: if you give of what you have to others, you will not only have treasure in heaven, you’ll be unhindered to follow Me (v. 22).
What the rich young ruler wanted was to follow Jesus. Like a child counting on his hero, he instinctively knew Jesus could fill the gaping hole in his heart.12 But what Jesus knew the man needed was to make love a reality. Giving of himself to others would finally allow him to keep the spirit of the law, not merely its letter. Thus, he could be saved and help others find salvation as well.
Today, that is known as servant evangelism, and practitioners like Steve Sjogren and Dave Ping have done it successfully for years.13 The basic premise is to set out and bless your community with no strings attached; to demonstrate the love of God in some practical way. That’s exactly what Jesus asked the young ruler to do. A sincere love for others, seeking to genuinely bless them just because the love of God cannot be contained in your own heart, becomes the most powerful way to reach out to others. It transcends socioeconomic, age, and educational differences. It is applicable anywhere you live. And love is a language everyone understands when you speak it as a native, when it flows out of you unhindered.
Evangelistic methods will vary with the times, and times may not get easier for those seeking to share Jesus with the world. But these biblical principles will remain true every time: preach and teach the love of God as seen in the Bible, and share the love of God with your neighbor. Love never fails.
1 Quoted in Cathy Lynn Grossman, “ ‘Nones’ Now 15% of
Population,” USA Today, March 9, 2009, 6A.
2 See cover story by Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Almost All
Denominations Losing Ground, Survey Finds,” USA Today,
March 9, 2009, 1A, 6A.
3 Harold Bloom, The American Religion: The Emergence of the
Post-Christian Nation (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).
4 Jeremy Lott, “American Gnostic,” review of The American
Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, by
Harold Bloom, Christianity Today, Nov. 1, 2002 , http://www.
5 Grossman, “All Denominations Losing Ground,” 6A.
6 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton
Miffl in Harcourt, 2006); Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion,
Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.,
2004); Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006); and
Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons
Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007).
7 For a helpful theological assessment of new atheism’s
claims, see John F. Hought, God and the New Atheism:
A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens
(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
8 Mark E. Dever, in his insightful book The Gospel and
Personal Evangelism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007),
expands on what evangelism isn’t on pages 69–82.
9 Billy Graham, “Recovering the Primacy of Evangelism,”
Christianity Today 41, no. 14, (1997), http://www
10 Over the last 30 years, distinguished evangelical scholars have
questioned the traditional view, settling for annihilationism
and conditional immortality. Among them are F. F. Bruce,
in Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: A Global Ministry; A
Biography of the Later Years (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,
2001); David L. Edwards and John R. W. Stott, Essentials: A
Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity,
1988); John Wenham, The Goodness of God (Downers Grove,
IL: InterVarsity, 1974); Facing Hell: An Autobiography (London:
Paternoster, 1998); Clark H. Pinnock, “The Destruction of the
Finally Impenitent,” Criswell Theological Review 4 (1990); and
Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and
Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment (Houston:
Providential Press, 1982).
11 For some evidence on this point, see Russell Burrill, Reaping
the Harvest (Fallbrook, CA: Hart Books, 2007), 27–38.
12 Note the story follows the free acceptance of children by
Jesus (Luke 18:15–17). This must have made an impression
on the young man.
13 Steve Sjogren, Conspiracy of Kindness: A Unique Approach to
Sharing the Love of Jesus, rev. ed. (Ventura, CA: Regal Books,
2003); 101 Ways to Reach Your Community (Colorado Springs,
CO: NavPress, 2000); Steve Sjogren and Dave Ping, OutFlow:
Outward-Focused Living in a Self-Focused World (Loveland,
CO: Group Publishing, 2007); Steve Sjogren, Dave Ping, and
Doug Pollock, Irresistible Evangelism: Natural Ways to Open
Others to Jesus (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2003). See
also an excellent Adventist version of the concept, chock-full
of practical suggestions and inspiration, in Ruthie Jacobsen,
Bridges 101: The Kingdom Advances Among Friends (Selfpublished,