We might be practicing social distancing, but that just gives us an opportunity to get creative about evangelism.
Many churches have found effective and creative ways to be on mission and to engage in evangelism during the coronavirus crisis. At the same time, some evangelism approaches have been affected just like church life (and, let’s face it, all of life) has been disrupted.
If you aren’t a scholar or researcher in the field of evangelism you may not realize the many ways it is carried out. On the one hand, we all understand that evangelism involves the proclamation of the good news of the gospel and an invitation for women and men to respond by grace, through faith, to that invitation of the gospel. There is biblical, gospel content involved: “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom. 10:14).
On the other hand, there are different ways actually to practice this by different people and groups in diverse contexts. For example, many people are familiar with the category of mass evangelism. I direct the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center; the most famous evangelist in history was Mr. Graham. Masses of people in large arenas hearing the gospel illustrates a form of mass evangelism. Evangelism remains as long as somebody is telling others about Jesus and how to respond and receive.
But there are other means of mass evangelism like open air evangelism. That’s also a kind of evangelism, in the category of mass evangelism.
SMALL GROUP EVANGELISM
Small group evangelism has become an increasingly used tool today even as small groups have become an important part of culture both inside and outside the church. Alpha is probably the best known; another example is Christianity Explored.
Small group evangelism existed in earlier forms. John Wesley’s Societies gathered small groups of people hoping to flee the coming wrath of God in the 18th century Great Awakening. Sunday school evangelism was a very effective approach for generations, gathering people in groups to learn the Bible and hear the gospel.
There’s also ministry or service evangelism, where people are served or helped in Jesus’ name. This ranges from disaster relief to “servant evangelism” popularized in the book Conspiracy of Kindness. There’s also literature evangelism where people pass out tracts or Bibles. These are all parts of what evangelism can and should be. I don’t want to leave anybody out—door-to-door evangelism can be a thing as well. I’m for everything.
For a time, one could argue that the most commonly engaged form of evangelism in the Western world was church evangelism, focused on the whole church being engaged in reaching their community, often employing a variety of other types.
What we have primarily done in the Western world for the last decades is a form of church evangelism, where the church became central in evangelism.
Whole systems have been created over the past generation to involve churched people in reaching unchurched neighbors and friends.
The seeker movement, which had both strengths and weaknesses, emphasized church evangelism. Go back earlier to the ’50s before the seeker movement and you saw a big focus on bringing a friend to church or to Sunday school.
A common practice in church evangelism during the seeker movement was to encourage believers to invest and invite: Invest in your unchurched friends, co-workers and neighbors, and then invite them to church. There, a well-crafted message by an articulate pastor shared the good news of the gospel. It was effective in reaching many; but an unintended consequence was to focus the actual gospel proclamation to a small number of gifted people.
THE COVID-19 CURVE
But here’s the thing I don’t want you to miss. So many of these common ways of evangelism, like literature evangelism, church evangelism or mass evangelism, aren’t working the same in a pandemic.
People are generally not going to take a piece of literature from somebody today in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Or in the case of mass evangelism—people aren’t going to rush to a meeting today. Church evangelism, in particular bringing in your friends to a big outreach day is probably not going to be engaged today.
So, here’s the thing I want you to hear: While it’s true that some doors we often use have been closed, this is not the first time that doors have been closed for different reasons. In a lot of countries Christians couldn’t do mass evangelism because they’d get arrested.
Opportunities change during certain eras and historic moments in the church. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic I want to recognize that new kinds of evangelism, or more precisely returning to older ways have now become the front and center evangelistic approaches for us.
I think it is true that people are more open now than they have ever been before. And yet we can’t invite them to church in most places. LifeWay Research data found that perhaps over 60% of churches are meeting in some capacity, with many of those seeing limited crowds compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Thus, some typical approaches used just a few months ago are not as effective now.
People are not as open to come visit a church right now. Most people coming back to services are those who were there before. We missed the big Easter crowds we were used to having this spring. Your big Christmas Eve outreach isn’t going to happen this year, in all likelihood.
A RESURGENCE OF PERSONAL EVANGELISM
But here’s the thing: We’re still seeing our neighbors. Coffee shops are open in many places. We are talking to people over Zoom. We are seeing neighbors taking walks in our communities.
Personal and small group evangelism are going to be the key tools to sharing the gospel for at least during the history of this pandemic.* For too long we depended on the pastor and the evangelist; we’ve deemphasized personal evangelism and overemphasized church evangelism to the point where people can’t share the gospel unless their pastor is involved, and if they bring somebody to church.
In other words, the pandemic may take us back to the early church’s practice. Michael Green in Evangelism in the Early Church observed laypeople were the “informal evangelists” who spread the gospel widely:
“In contrast to the present day, when Christianity is highly intellectualized and dispensed by professional clergy to a constituency increasingly confined to the middle class, in the early days the faith was spontaneously spread by informal evangelists and had its greatest appeal among the working classes.”1
It’s time to return to the Great Commission, to make disciples of all peoples, for all of Jesus’ disciples our Lord called to fulfill this mission. .
* I should also mention that personal evangelism includes the internet, but that’s not my focus today. We’re actually working up some pretty exciting plans about that with the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. More to come on that soon.
1. Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, Revised Edition, 2004), 175.