Each person leading just one to Christ can reach more than big events with “celebrity” evangelists.
Even within the local context, most evangelical churches still rely primarily on a local, head-based model for evangelism. The seeker approach draws people to the head—big events. This worked in the 1900s, because of the somewhat-Christian culture that many Americans had grown up in. It will work less and less in a post-baby boomer 21st century, because fewer Americans will have any sort of Christian lens. Missions expert Ed Stetzer identifies this change in culture—and the church’s failure to notice it—as one of the most important issues facing United States evangelicalism today.
Evangelicals must learn to navigate what I call a “post-seeker context” … churches that once targeted seekers from the Boomer generation are finding that large portions of subsequent generations do not have the same religious memory. … For evangelicals to reach [genuine spiritual] seekers in the decade ahead, they will need to develop new models and other means of communication to deliver our message into the cultural destination of an increasingly post-seeker context. When religious memory is gone, we can no longer rely on those outside of the faith to be interested in what it means to be inside of the faith.
In broad terms, the American seeker model (expecting an unbeliever to attend a church or evangelistic event) started well before the 1900s, in the earlier American revivals. This “head” or event-based evangelism worked great in a culture where businesses shut down on Sundays, where students prayed in public schools, where church buildings hosted civic events and where adults remembered a church-centric childhood. Seeker, event-based evangelism probably culminated in the late 1900s. While it still serves a purpose in some communities, it is a cultural relic that will prove less and less fruitful as the 21st century zips along.
Like the thriving, forward thinking businesses of the 21st century, our ministries must shift away from the 20th-century, big-hit model and embrace the 21st-century, individual-focused model. We could call this The Long Tail of evangelism—millions of individual believers functioning as evangelists in their own lives. Each individual evangelical will not be winning hundreds or thousands to Christ. But if each one wins just one—then the 22 million of us in The Long Tail can win more than any one evangelist.
As proof of the power in The Long Tail, consider this. The Institute For American Church Growth has asked 10,000 people, “What was responsible for your coming to Christ and this church?” The answers were:
a. I had a special need—3 percent
b. I just walked in—3 percent
c. I liked the minister—6 percent
d. I visited there—1 percent
e. I liked the Bible classes—5 percent
f. I attended a gospel meeting—0.5 percent
g. I liked the programs—3 percent
h. A friend or relative invited me—79 percent
The vast majority of unbelieving Americans do not come to Christ—or to a church—because of a big hitter. They come because of a friend or relative. They come because of their own unique connection to The Long Tail.
Embracing The Long Tail does not require us to decapitate the head. Indeed, Netflix, Amazon and iTunes have excelled by offering the best-sellers in the head, as well as all the small sellers in the Tail.
We need gifted evangelists and big event outreaches more than ever. But those alone cannot turn the seized cylinders in the engine of evangelism. We need more than big names and big events in the 21st century. We need the entire body of Christ to take evangelism seriously, as it did in the first century. Acts 8:4 tells us, “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” Note that this was not just the apostles. It was all of them. This is how the church exploded exponentially—because The Long Tail was directly and personally proclaiming. They were not silently modeling or occasionally inviting. Individuals in The Long Tail “preached the word wherever they went.”
To successfully convert unbelievers in the 21st century, the church must capitalize on the untapped potential of individual “noncelebrity” Christians. This Long Tail of “normal” believers is the secret to restarting our evangelism engine. It is, incidentally, also what Jesus prescribed.
This excerpt is taken from The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare by John S. Dickerson. © 2013 by John S. Dickerson. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.