Sense and Nonsense of Large-scale Evangelism
by Dwight Martin and Marten Visser
Over the past decade Thai Protestant churches have been strategizing together to reach the whole nation with the gospel.
Over the past decade Thai Protestant churches have been strategizing together to reach the whole nation with the gospel. Part of the effort was a national evangelistic campaign that took place at the end of 2009. Almost half of all churches in Thailand participated. A large international organization was invited to help.
Everything was geared toward three nights in December when people would be invited to watch an evangelistic program on DVD or on national television. At the end of the presentation, people were asked to commit their lives to Jesus.
The preparation for the event was well done. Local churches enthusiastically participated. Training programs were held to equip churches that wanted to be part of this event. In the end, 40,000 Thai church members invited 200,000 of their friends and neighbors to listen. It seemed a success. Twelve thousand people indicated that they wanted to become Christians—an impressive number when you take into account there are only 340,000 Protestant Thai Christians.
In 2004, a national database of all Thai churches was created and is updated every two years. This database enables us to get a precise picture of how the Church in Thailand is growing. It is used by both the Thai Church and mission organizations to know where to plant new churches and where the need is most urgent. This database was also an important instrument in triggering the joint efforts of the Thai Protestant churches to reach their nation for Christ.
One year later, the database was put to another use: we investigated the real impact of the national evangelistic outreach. We approached over one hundred churches, both those that participated in the campaign and those that did not, to find out what had taken place in the year following.
The results were sobering. Almost all churches had new believers. This was to be expected since the Thai Church has an annual growth rate of just over four percent, mainly through new converts. However, there was no correlation whatsoever between the number of baptisms in a church and whether or not it had participated in the campaign. All efforts—preparation, training, and meetings—had no measurable outcome after one year. How was that possible?
At least five factors are important to help understand this outcome.
1. Church life is complex. It is difficult to isolate a single factor that leads a person to faith. Each aspect taken by itself seems to have little or no effect. If we were to consistently apply this line of reasoning, it could lead to apathy, which, of course, would be a bad outcome. So even though we cannot pinpoint everything exactly, we know the Spirit of God works through all the various outreaches of the Church and its members.
2. The energy expended on a big evangelistic campaign is to the detriment of other evangelistic outreaches (whether church organized or personal) that bring people to the Lord. The evangelistic campaign might have some effect, but no more than the activities it replaces.
3. Local churches were an integral part of the campaign. The people who came to the campaign event in the local church were those already in touch with the churches. The numbers seem to indicate that if the meetings helped people to become Christians, they were catalysts in a process that was already occurring, rather than the driving causes.
4. Central to this evangelistic outreach was a television program in which the main speaker was a foreigner. In my (Marten) prior research, I found that TV and video do not have the impact that personal encounters have—in fact, only ten percent of all believers mentioned media as the most important influence in their conversion.
5. The strong emphasis on the three nights leading up to a decision was counter-productive. Typically, people need time to understand the biblical message and to see the lives of Christians. Organizers of evangelistic campaigns should take this into account more often. A stronger emphasis on the complete discipleship process needs to take place both before and after the campaign in order to have a better outcome.
Although we are not ready to write off all large evangelistic campaigns, one thing became clear from our research: the big difference in the Kingdom of God is made by the ordinary person. It is not the famous evangelists, mass meetings, or big plans to win the world for Christ. It is the average church member who shares Christ with his or her relatives and friends.
Dwight Martin (top) and Marten Visser (bottom) serve as missionaries in Thailand. Dwight serves with CrossTies Asia and is involved in research and resource development for Thai churches. Marten is a church planter and regional leader for Northeast-Thailand with OMF-International. Together, they are helping develop Christian digital libraries internationally through Biblionics.
EMQ, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 136-137. Copyright © 2012 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.