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.