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“What does the future look like for traveling evangelists?”

In recent days, I have heard this question asked in many forms:

  • Last October at the “Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism” conference, the panel was asked about the role of the evangelist.
  • Baptist Press has reported that vocational evangelists lament the shrinking number of churches utilizing their services.
  • In talks about the Great Commission Resurgence in Southern Baptist life, prominent leaders are asked about the role of the evangelist in the near future.

Why so much talk about the traveling evangelist? I think there are two main reasons:

The first reason is historical. Revivalism has played a large role in Southern Baptist life.

A few decades ago, it was not uncommon to see churches packed on weeknights whenever a traveling evangelist came into town. People came out in droves for stirring messages that ended with pleas for conversion. People were likely to invite unsaved friends and relatives to such events. Because Billy Graham’s crusade-style evangelism became a staple of Southern Baptist piety, it is only natural that in discussions about the future of the SBC, people would ask questions about vocational evangelism.

The second reason is driven by a present realization. Fewer churches are scheduling revival meetings and special speakers.

In the busyness of our present age, church leaders find it difficult to bring back significant numbers of their congregation for a consecutive weeknight services. At the same time, fewer young men sense the calling to vocational evangelism. I know plenty of guys my age who sense the call to ministry, whether as pastor or missionary. I don’t know anyone who says they are called to be a vocational evangelist.

Vocational evangelism has been a big part of Southern Baptist history. Why then is it on the decline? Here are five suggestions:

1. The Church Growth Movement.

I don’t think we can underestimate the influence of the Church Growth movement on Southern Baptists. Though most churches are not officially affiliated with Willow Creek or other seeker churches, the ethos of seeker-sensitive worship and preaching is deeply embedded in Southern Baptist life.

Many aspects of the Church Growth movement are to be commended. We should indeed be sensitive to the visitors and lost people in our pews. That said, there can sometimes be a tendency to downplay a confrontational approach in preaching. Since vocational evangelists intentionally seek to confront the listener with matters of eternity, usually in a powerful and emotional way, they are not as popular in churches that have embraced a softer approach to dealing with the lost.

2. Embarrassing Evangelistic Tactics

A couple years ago, a deacon told me he wanted to invite a lost co-worker and his wife to my Sunday School class. Our conversation took place one week before we were scheduled to have a revival service. But instead of seeing the revival as an opportunity for the lost couple to hear the gospel, he saw the revival as a hindrance, and wanted the person to come and hear the gospel presented by one of the staff on a normal Sunday. “You just never know what an evangelist is going to say or do,” he said.

I’m afraid that some embarrassing evangelistic tactics have spoiled people’s appetite for revival meetings on the large scale. I remember one revival speaker who gave our music minister a script to be read before the love offering, something to the effect of: “For every hundred dollars given to this ministry, a soul is saved.” Echoes of Johann Tetzel! When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.

The majority of evangelists do not resort to tasteless tactics in their preaching or altar calls. But there are enough horror stories out there to have permanently tainted the reputation of the traveling evangelist. Many evangelists will admit that the first Sunday service serves as an opportunity to introduce themselves to the church, redeem their role, and hopefully win over the congregation to attendance later on in the week.

3. Loss of Christendom.

In the past, many (if not most) people in the South had a cursory knowledge of the Christian faith. Those who did not go to church or adopt the religious beliefs of society knew which church they were not going to and which religion they were rejecting: Christianity.

Revival meetings were effective because the Holy Spirit used God-gifted men to stir the hearts of those who had turned away from the gospel. They urged the claims of Christ on the hearer and pleaded with people to “get right with God.”

Today, the South is rapidly changing. We can no longer assume that people instinctively sense the need to be in church or have a relationship with God.

Some evangelistic sermons from a previous era – when preached today – assume too much. They assume a cohesive, cultural understanding of Christianity, in which “making a decision for Christ” makes sense. But these truths can no longer be taken for granted. Christendom is disappearing, but many evangelists continue to preach as if the cultural cohesion from two generations ago is still in place.

4. The Rise of Calvinism

It is no secret that some Calvinists do not like what the invitation/altar call system. Of course, Calvinists are not alone in this assessment. My Romanian brothers and sisters actually leaned towards full-blown Arminianism, and yet they decried the altar call system and condemned the tactics of American evangelism for appealing to the emotions instead of the mind and will.

Calvinism and Revivalism have had a checkered history. In their best days, they pull at one another and keep each other from opposite errors. Revivalists can keep Calvinists from sliding into Hyper-Calvinism, which denies the need to invite people to Christ at all. Calvinists keep Revivalists from sliding into Pelagianism, which sees sinners as bound to change their own hearts before God.

Still, as the Reformed Resurgence among the younger generation continues to move forward, it is unsurprising that methods of evangelism that are more common to a “missionally Reformed” approach would be used instead of the itinerant evangelist.

5. Evangelistic Apathy.

Evangelism takes place in many forms. Revival meetings are just one method among many. I am not arguing that it is the exclusive or even the best method to bring lost people to Jesus.

But I cannot help but conclude that at least one reason why vocational evangelism is on the decline is that personal evangelism is also on the decline. I worry that the people in our pews no longer truly believe that eternity hangs in the balance when it comes to trusting in Christ for salvation.

  • We see people as “unchurched” rather than unsaved.
  • We see people as nominal Christians who need to be reactivated, when many times, the nominals are lost and need to be regenerated.
  • Our people are practical inclusivists, regardless of what they may hear from the pulpit.
  • Our burden for lost people seems to be waning.

So what does all this mean for the future of evangelistic meetings? Tomorrow, I will offer a few ideas regarding how vocational evangelism might look in the 21st century.


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17 thoughts on “Why Is Vocational Evangelism on the Decline?”

  1. grigs says:

    Excellent points, though I am surprised that you did not mention urbanization of the United States. The SBC is strong in rural areas (where most of the old school tent revivals would take past in years past) but as the churches shrink, along with the population, there is fewer and fewer economic means to pay a guy to preach. And why pay an extra guy to preach when you already pay a pastor (either part time or full time)? Frankly, I love revival because its biblical, I just don’t think the Finny and his fundamentalist disciples own a Monopoly on ways to evangelize.

  2. Josh C says:

    Interesting thoughts. Certainly the move from a more agrarian society (where people couldn’t work once the sun was down and needed entertainment) to our current society with televisions and computers in every home has changed the overall draw of such special events in many towns.

    Is one reason for the decline in “vocational” evangelism related to the failure to see the role of evangelists in light of Ephesians 4? Most see the evangelists only as “hired guns”, rather than finding out how evangelists can not only use their gifts to share the Gospel with lost people but also equip the body of Christ for the work of the ministry?

    I also know from first-hand experience that poorly done “evangelistic” crusades can leave a church with an inflated sense of spiritual pride over its “success” while the pastors and those in charge of follow-up on the counted “decisions” see how little fruit actually exist. One such revival I was at involved the “evangelist” going almost all 5 months without mentioning the death and resurrection of Jesus once! He told good stories and a highly emotional invitation though. That would go under numbers 2 and 3 you mentioned. I look forward to reading your next post about ideas for the future!

  3. Michael says:

    Trevin,

    I think you missed one. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed a growth in the number of men planting churches that are gifted evangelists, but self-admittedly “don’t want the lifestyle of an evangelist.”

    And so they download their sermons during the week, suffer through them for 40 minutes on Sunday morning, only to shine the last five minutes during the altar call. Then Monday through Saturday, they struggle with the pastoral duties, their churches are devoid of discipleship, all the time waiting for next Sunday morning’s five minute revival.

  4. Jeff says:

    #2 is huge. Especially for people further on the Fundamentalist side of things. We have a large collection of bad evangelists.

  5. Thank you for the writeup. I think bringing up the issue goes a long way in helping solve it. From a layman’s perspective, I think a lot of it is #5: we don’t have much vision for the lost from an individual perspective. We think in terms of bringing people to church instead of bringing them to Christ. And that mindset trickle upward to the leadership.

    Which makes me wonder: how many people currently in church where raised in it versus coming to Christ from the outside?

    As less and less people are raised in the church, the responsibility to go out only increases.

    -Marshall Jones Jr.

  6. Mikey Lynch says:

    Thanks for the post. Interesting suggestions. I wonder if the growing interest in church planting also has taken the focus off evangelism as such?

  7. Brian says:

    Treven, this isn’t just an SBC issue but you raise many good possibilites as to what the problem is.

  8. clayton king says:

    I commend you for even bringing up the issue at all. Believe it or not, I sensed a calling to preach at age 14, and began preaching in 8th grade as God opened doors. Immediately, my pastor, parents, and church affirmed to me that God had gifted me as an evangelist. He has continued to open doors for 23 years, and now at age 37, I am still proclaiming the gospel, as a servant to the local church and to Christ. Ironically, I am seeing a “fresh crop” of young men who feel gifted as evangelists and will begin a year long mentoring network of 12 guys this spring. There is little to no practical or spiritual guidance available for one who does sense a gifting and calling to itinerant ministry. I pray, by God’s grace, that our ministry and my experience might turn the tide and help equip at least a dozen to do it right. Thank you for giving this issue a platform.

    Clayton King
    http://www.crossroadsworldwide.com
    http://www.claytonking.com
    http://www.newspring.cc

  9. AM says:

    Also, there has been a innovation modification for everything in the Kingdom. Instead of “Vocational Evangelist” we use names such as, but not limited to: postmodern communicator, speaker, youth strategist, communicator, etc. When in all reality, they are fulfilling a lot of the expectations of an evangelist.
    The reason for renaming may be because of the connotations applied to “evangelist”. Just a thought though.

  10. My husband surrendered to the ministry later than usual…he was 41….he quit his corporate job and jumped enthusiastically into full time ministry. He was and still is so excited to share his testimony and many come to Christ when he speaks. We have the full support of our pastor and friend, Johnny Hunt. We are quite busy here in our hometown with a door to mentor young men here locally and while I agree with all the things that you wrote…the obstacles that we have encountered are 1.There are many churches that are pushing a watered down…make everyone “feel good” type of message and they are not as interested in evangelism…certainly not all but many! 2.Even though we go only asking for love offerings…..churches feel that they can’t afford to bring someone in. 3. You are dead on with a few making a bad name for many. In our case even with the full support and personal recommendation of the President of the SBC churches and pastors are unsure of Eric because they do not know him.

    This we DO know…GOD called Eric. Our mentor and friend Bill Stafford told us early on, “be available and abandoned,” that is exactly what we will strive for!

  11. Excellent post!. Thank you for sharing.

    I´m one of those crazy guys who have a sense of calling to be a vocational evangelist. Still don´t know when, how or where, but if God is the one who called, he has the answers to those questions.

    Until everyone hears.

  12. We may also call into question whether many really know the true gospel message as preached by both Peter and Paul in the NT.

    My British website “What Is The Gospel?” attempts to recover the biblical Gospel we once knew.

  13. Jim Hale says:

    I spent most of the last decade in the PCA, where I came across exactly one bonafide evangelist, in the vocational sense. This was a guy who would go out on the Washington Mall, set up a tent, and ask people if they died whether they would go to heaven.

    He was treated as an oddity in our very Reformed church. Indeed many thought he was crazy and somewhat embarrassing.

    I soon learned that the PCA way of doing things was totally different. The emphasis is on planting churches, and doing so with great energy and success.

    When I was in Ukraine, none of the PCA-planted Ukrainain churches were involved in the Franklin Graham crusade, but just like in the states, they were quietly planting solid churches for the long haul.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the church planting model so much more, and from what I’ve seen, it appears to be working.

  14. Tammy says:

    Good thoughts but you hit home when you said that personal evangelism is on the decline. So true. Our church has an evangelistic team (http://www.galkins.org/) this week…thankfully no tactics, hype or fluff. The Gospel undefiled. You’re even invited–not that you need the evangelism part but we do have a Sacred Irish Concert this Friday…and we are in Franklin!

  15. God bless you and I pray we will pray for those still out there as vocational evangelists. It is not easy and evangelism isn’t expendable. Blessings always and thanks for your insight. NEW blog post -http://frankshelton.com/2010/08/the-expendables/

  16. Jason Betler says:

    This is an excellent post. Thank you so much!

    I am an American based in Singapore because God has called us to Asia. I am not Baptist ;-), but I am an evangelist and on the same team. Although even the title of “evangelist” may seem obscure in most areas of the church-world, it does not in any way diminish this critical role.

    My small contribution to this discussion is a consideration. There is no shortage of work, but the work is not inside the church. This is perhaps where evngelists get most “stuck.” If you are called to win the lost, then go to the lost. It is not a position for which the preacher (evangelist) always depends on the approval of the church.

    A minister recently asked me what his movement could do to encourage their evangelists. He seemed shocked when I suggested he limit their time in the churches. He never thought of that! But seriously,if you are a fisherman, you will not catch fish in the bathtub. In my estimation, churches have a right to complain about evangelists who do not evangelize to the lost. Go where the people are. Learn to communicate to lost people; not church people. THAT is the value of the evangelist. They are a valuable ministry because they march to the edge, call sinners to life in Christ and at the same time turn to the church and call her (even equip her) to move forward in God’s love for the lost. May we all learn to love the same.

  17. William Caplinger says:

    Trevin, I appreciate your post. I found a lot of helpful insight in this. I too am Southern Baptist. But it just so happens that I stumbled upon your blog while looking for opportunities for Evangelism. I guess I am one of the oddballs because I have felt the call to preach for years but never felt led to be a Pastor or Missionary. I know God has called me to be a full-time vocational evangelist. I am currently studying for a degree in theology although I have spent most of my life studying the Scriptures. Any more insight or tips you might have would be greatly appreciated. May God bless you in mighty ways.

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​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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