by Alvin Reid
(Editor’s note: This is the 1st in a 10-part series on how our evangelistic witness looks different than it did a generation ago.)
The gospel never changes; how we proclaim the gospel in a given context must change. I heard a podcast with Seth Godin where he overviewed the economic changes over the past century serving to revolutionize business. I think he’s largely right and want to trace the relationship between major cultural forces and effective evangelistic work. It’s a brief summary and therefore a bit simple, but it shows how each generation needs to rethink the effective communication of the gospel without compromising its truth.
Over a century ago the Industrial Revolution led to mass production as large factories drew people to cities. Henry Ford and others perfected the assembly line and the capacity to make products en masse.
This reality and the rapid urbanization of the times matched perfectly the most effective tool of evangelism in the latter 19th and early 20th century: the urban mass evangelistic meeting. D. L. Moody pioneered this approach and was followed by a phalanx of evangelists such as Billy Sunday, Wilbur Chapman, Mordecai Ham, and ultimately, Billy Graham. While Ford mass produced his automobiles, the Church witnessed mass conversions in these meetings.
In the middle of the twentieth century, things began to change. Mass production continued, but now came the rise of mass media. The emerging influence of television escalated this shift, making advertisers grow in influence, and the more effective the communicator, the better the sales. “Try this product,” “use this brand,” we were told. It was the day of the Fuller Brush salesman going door-to-door with his prepackaged sales pitch.
It’s not surprising to see the rise of programmatic approaches to ministry in the Church at this time, including packaged evangelism training. From Evangelism Explosion, to LIFE classes, to the Four Spiritual Laws, every tradition and most parachurch ministries made their contribution to the proliferation of programs for evangelism, prayer, and other avenues of discipleship.
These programs fit well with the times and both grew believers and reached the lost. But they had the unintended consequence of showing believers that the way to grow as a disciple of Jesus comes by attending as many programs as possible. This also created a lowest-common-denominator, once-size-fits-all approach to spiritual growth that has led many to unintended spiritual mediocrity.
But times changed again, and they can change in the Church as well. We have moved from a mass production age to a mass media era to the information age. The Internet has changed everything. Today, ideas rule the day, while programs are often viewed with suspicion, and mass meetings have waned in their impact. We’ve moved to a point-and-click world, where connectivity is more available and more global (there are more cell phones today than people), but people still crave community. Thus, we also have the rise of the Third Place, where people can gather (as long as they have wifi!).
Add to this the ascension of social media as the dominant force on the Internet (it now outranks porn as #1 online) and in many lives today. We live in a time when the individual has been given again the opportunity to access information and to let ideas flourish. This is an amazing opportunity for believers to recover the biblical reality that each of us has been given in Christ for all we need for life and godliness.
Don’t be mistaken; the Church is still vitally involved in this process, keeping us from doctrinal error on the one hand or rampant individualism on the other. But the Church must do a better job of encouraging believers to be creative and entrepreneurial in his or her witness and spiritual growth.
It’s a fantastic time for corroboration, community, and creative ways to share the unchanging gospel in a changing world that connects people to their greatest need—Jesus.
Alvin L. Reid (@alvinreid) is professor of evangelism and student ministry and Bailey Smith chair of evangelism at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students. He loves encouraging the younger generation to live for Jesus. Learn more: www.alvinreid.com