Why ‘Professional Evangelism’ Is Hurting the Church

I don’t watch much in sports, but I once dreamed of being a professional baseball player. My father used to take me to Yankees games. I was already playing in little league, and I saw my future before me: pitcher for the Yankees.

Since that did not work out, I’m bitter and no longer watch sports.

But, most kids have a similar dream. For most it doesn’t matter that only a very small percentage of people move on to play professional sports. Love for the sport trumps any realistic future hope of attaining professional status. You play for the love of the game!

Hypothetically speaking, what would happen to youth participation and leagues if we professionalized a common practice, and only those thought to have professional potential were allowed to play?

Youth leagues would shrink, the majority of children would be heartbroken, and an elitist culture would saturate the realm of sports. As you could imagine, professionalizing a common practice would be detrimental to its existence and participation.

While there are some traveling teams, rec leagues and private schools that cultivate such talent, there will always be youth leagues in which all skill levels can play, grow and enjoy the sport.

However, I’m afraid that in the church, we have professionalized the common practice of evangelism—and it has become our detriment.

Professionalizing Evangelism

Any time you professionalize something that should be or is common among everyday people, you shrink not only the passion for that thing, but the participation as well. When it comes to evangelism in the church, there is no doubt that it has been professionalized. Professionalizing it has led to a lack of passion for it and lack of participation doing it. Few believers have ever shared their faith in Christ.

This is a shame.

This dying passion for evangelism is even reflected in publishing. Literary agent (and friend) Mark Sweeney recently confirmed this in an email:

Through our literary agency we speak with Christian publishers daily. Most of them are interested in our authors who are writing on the subject of discipleship—hardly any will seriously consider books dealing with the topic of evangelism. They openly acknowledge that “evangelism” doesn’t sell these days in the evangelical market, and that concerns them. There are some exceptions, but very few.

So how has the church professionalized evangelism? I believe there are three main ways the church has professionalized what should be the common practice of evangelism.

First, through staffing, the church has inadvertently created the façade that people are paid to evangelize. In other words, we have “clergified,” or professionalized, evangelism through the roles of pastor and evangelist.

Thus, people think one of the responsibilities of the pastor—whether it be the lead, associate, youth, children, mission, etc. pastor—is to share the gospel with others. Armed with this presumption, people bring their friends, family, co-workers and neighbors to the man or woman who can wax eloquently the gospel.

Professionalizing evangelism through roles and positions leads to an aspect of missions being dependent on a few “professionals.” When the church begins to rely on hired hands to do evangelism, other believers may stand passively on the sidelines. This scenario will never lead to a breakout harvest of revival and growth.

Something similar happened in Korea in the 1800s. Missionaries started paying Korean Christians to go and preach the gospel to everybody. This practice eventually led to the moniker “Rice Christian,” for it emphasized that people were becoming Christians because they were getting something for their services.

To counteract the “hired hand” philosophy and ineffective practice of missionaries in Korea, John Nevius instituted some principles that when implemented became a catalyst for revival and evangelistic growth.

Nevius believed nationals should evangelize from their position of vocation and influence. For instance, if he’s a shoemaker, he should stay a shoemaker and then evangelize from that position.

You might call this being “missional.” The Nevius principles decentralized the practice of evangelism from the professionals and instead equipped believers to share the gospel with those around them wherever they were.

Second, the church has undermined the universality of evangelism by suggesting some people have the gift of evangelism and others do not. Some misinterpret Ephesians 4:11–12 to suggest that only certain people have the “gift of evangelism” since it is listed with other leadership positions. They also use Paul’s exhortation to Timothy (“do the work of an evangelist,” 2 Tim. 4:5) as added ammunition to build the case for the gift of evangelism.

I’ll save the discussion—about what the title and position meant then to how it applies today—for another time. Suffice it to say, the underlying meaning of Ephesians 4 suggests that everyone on the list is called to “equip” God’s people for the work of the ministry—a work that involves the practice of evangelism.

Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzerhttps://edstetzer.com/

Ed Stetzer is the editor-in-chief of Outreach magazine, host of the Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast, and a professor and dean at the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Mariners Church in Irvine, California.

He is also regional director for Lausanne North America, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by and writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. He is the founding editor of The Gospel Project, and his national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.