by C. Peter Wagner
Mission leaders are aware that contemporary attitudes toward evangelism are currently undergoing some very basic changes. Furthermore, these changes will undoubtedly become more and more prominent in the decade to come.
Mission leaders are aware that contemporary attitudes toward evangelism are currently undergoing some very basic changes. Furthermore, these changes will undoubtedly become more and more prominent in the decade to come. They flow indirectly from two streams of evangelism that have gained significance since World War II, and which are continuing in varying degrees today. As a background for analyzing today’s changing mood of evangelism, then, we need to go back to the two streams of the past.
The name most frequently associated with crusade evangelism, as it gained force during the 1950’s, was Billy Graham. Ibis widely-publicized Los Angeles tent meeting revival of 1949 set the style for the future development of crusade evangelism. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association was formed the following year as requests for evangelistic crusades poured in from all over the nation. City-wide trans denominational committees organized the crusades on the local level. Advertising agencies, radio and television, motion pictures, book publishing and Decision magazine were all marshalled to produce the greatest possible impact for the evangelistic crusade. It was usually held in some large public meeting place, and attendance figures climbed to unprecedented levels.
Graham’s own personal integrity combined with his clear articulation of biblical principles from every platform he could gain led observers to conclude that his style of crusade evangelism, ipso facto, must be an effective instrument for bringing people to Christ. It was simply regarded as the way to evangelize.
Like many American products, crusade evangelism was widely exported and many missionaries spent considerable effort in teaching nationals how to do it. Some missions even began billing their own favorite national evangelist as "the Billy Graham of Mamba Bamba," or what have you. However, much sooner than in America, evangelicals in the Third World started asking some hard questions about crusade evangelism. The hardest one involved what I call the "follow-up gap." While every crusade seemed to produce a healthy number of decisions, it was not certain that it had helped produce a proportionate number of disciples. General observation and some research began to indicate that crusade evangelism might really not be a very effective tool at all in bringing unbelievers to Christ and into responsible membership in the local churches.
The defense was typically, "The problem is not with the evangelism, but with the follow-up. Our evangelist does his job well, but the pastors are not doing their follow-up job after the evangelist leaves." Throwing the blame on followup satisfied some people, but not all. One of the dissatisfied individuals who first began asking the hard questions about crusade evangelism was Kenneth Strachan of the Latin America Mission. His questions led to the second stream of post-war evangelism.
When Kenneth Strachan began questioning crusade evangelism in the late 1950’s, he knew what he was dealing with. His father, Harry Strachan, had for years been considered as one of the top crusade evangelists all through Latin America. Kenneth Strachan was realistic. He was not content with great activity, international celebrities, costly budgets, huge crowds and widespread publicity – unless they were really and truly helping to make disciples. So without calling it that, Strachan went to work on the followup gap.
Strachan’s studies led him to conclude that the basic defect of crusade evangelism was in the area of mobilization. Crusade evangelism depended too much on the outside evangelist and not enough on the man in the pew. The key had to be mobilizing the laymen of the church for effective evangelism. But in order to mobilize the laymen, the pastors and other leaders had to be mobilized first. This could not be done properly in a week or a month. So Strachan designed a year-long evangelistic effort called Evangelism-in-Depth, and trained a team from his Latin America Mission to execute it.
While the crusade evangelism stream continued flowing strongly in America during the 1960’s, even spilling over into Great Britain and Europe, the new stream was beginning in Latin America. As a result of the publicity from the pioneer Nicaragua effort of 1960, requests poured in from other republics in Latin America, then quickly from Africa and Asia as well. Someone came up with the label "saturation evangelism," and it stuck. Perhaps this second stream of evangelism crested at a top-level international consultation on saturation evangelism held in Leysin, Switzerland, in 1969. The consultation was chaired by George Peters, who had just authored a book entitled Saturation Evangelism.
By the time of the Leysin consultation, another group of researchers had begun asking some of the same questions about saturation evangelism that Kenneth Strachan had asked about crusade evangelism a decade previously. Study after study showed that, despite strenuous efforts to avoid it, the follow-up gap was still present. Of course, thousands of individuals testify to their conversion through crusade and saturation evangelism efforts, and for this all thoughtful Christians are deeply grateful. But one step further than the individual cases is overall evangelistic strategy. Careful research on several Latin American republics could not come up with any cause and effect relationship between year-long Evangelism-in-Depth efforts and increased rates of growth in the churches. In fact, some indicated that just the opposite might be the case. Prominent among this new group of inquisitive people were disciples of Donald McGavran, who by then was becoming recognized as the father of the third major stream of evangelism.
Unlike Billy Graham and Kenneth Strachan, Donald McGavran did not organize an evangelistic association or a missionary team. He instead organized a school and a research center. He called it the Institute of Church Growth, purposely avoiding the word "evangelism" because in his opinion the term had been watered down, twisted and redefined so much by well-meaning people that it was meaningless. He coined the phrase "church growth," made it a technical term, and determined to fill it with the meaning he thought it should carry.
In order to fit this into the historical sequence I have been describing, I would like to resurrect the word "evangelism," but modify it by the adjective "body." "Body evangelism," thus, describes the third major post-World War II stream of evangelism.
Notice the subtle shift in terminology. The adjectives "crusade" and "saturation" stress methods, whereas "body" places the emphasis on the goal. The goal is nothing short of the growth of the body of Christ.
Do not confuse the new term "body evangelism" with a similar term coined some years ago by Pastor Ray Stedman, "body life." They go together, but in sequence. Body evangelism stresses winning people from the world, baptizing them into the body (Matthew 28:19-20). Body life stresses developing the spiritual gifts once they are members of the body. Both are vitally important. One is evangelism, one is Christian nurture.
McGavran, like Strachan, could not be content with evangelistic activities that should make disciples, but don’t. He was goal-oriented to the core. He dealt with principles, not methods. Methods were accepted or rejected by McGavran on the basis of what he called "fierce pragmatism." Research became his chief tool. If on the basis of the facts, not on promotional phrases, a particular evangelistic method was known to bring unbelievers to Christ and into responsible membership in the local body, McGavran was for it. If crusade evangelism in a certain place was helping churches grow and multiply, he was anxious to discover which of those methods could be applied effectively elsewhere. If it was not helping the body to grow, he wanted to know what the problem was so the same mistake would not be repeated. If research could show that saturation evangelism was making disciples, fine; if not, why not?
The body evangelism stream has not yet crested. The most significant tool for its implementation as we move into the decade to come might prove to be the little book recently written by Vergil Gerber called A Manual for Evangelism/Church Growth. This manual was written to meet needs arising from the first evangelism/church growth workshop held in Venezuela in 1972, which Gerber helped organize. Since Venezuela 1972, requests for workshops have flooded Gerber’s Evangelical Missions Information Service office in a way reminiscent of requests for crusade evangelism and saturation evangelism in previous years.
One of the major emphases of body evangelism is that it stresses what is being called "extension growth" as well as "expansion growth." Expansion growth means to make existing churches bigger, which is fine. But extension growth involves planting new churches. Church growth experts are convinced that the most effective evangelism in the future will come more through multiplying churches among the different peoples of the world, than through fattening already existing churches. We not only need bigger churches, they say, but we desperately need more of them. This principle does not only apply out there in Mamba Bamba, but it is most relevant also here in America.
THE DECADE TO COME
As we look forward to the decade to come, the older streams of crusade evangelism and saturation evangelism will undoubtedly continue, but perhaps with fewer assumptions that fervent evangelistic activity per se effectively makes disciples. Expansion church growth will continue to be stressed as it rightly should. Great national and international congresses on evangelization will stimulate creativity and perhaps help evaluate these streams.
But current signs indicate that body evangelism will gain in influence world wide. "Canned" approaches to evangelism will be shunned. Evangelistic effectiveness will be objectively evaluated on the basis of careful diagnostic research. Goals will be more clearly articulated and instruments for measuring the success or failure of a given strategy will be more widely developed and employed. Teaching on body life and spiritual gifts will be more directly applied to evangelism as we move into what some are calling the "age of the layman."
As this happens, Christian people will become less and less satisfied with sowing without reaping or fishing without catching. They will demand involvement in evangelistic efforts that bear fruit for life eternal, not by ones or twos, but thirty, sixty and one hundred fold. Evangelistic barrenness will be seen as a disease, but a curable disease. Specialists in the area will perhaps gain the stature of church physicians, and be called in for consultation, diagnosis and prescriptions to cure the disease.
The total result will be according to all indications, a decade of the most significant growth of the body of Christ since the day of Pentecost. Given these prospects for abundant and fruitful evangelism, I cannot think of a time when it has been more exciting to be a Christian and in the service of the King.
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