By George W. Sarris
During the last 50 years, the evangelical church grew in size at a tremendous rate to the point where we have mega-churches and mega-ministries. Unprecedented numbers of people have attended seminars, crusades, concerts and large arena events. We’ve built publishing companies and broadcast organizations to get our messages out to an ever increasing public. In 1960, there were less than 100 churches in this country that had over 1,000 members. Today, more than 10,000 churches have congregations of that size and much, much larger.
However, during that same half century, the values of our society have moved rapidly away from Biblical standards. There is rampant immorality. Cases of abuse have proliferated, even in the church. And, we see a headlong quest for wealth, power, and sensual pleasure all around us. What is most disturbing is the fact that Biblical values and ideas have been relegated to the arena of private discussion. They have become the values of a “fringe element.”
What did we do wrong? We have grown tremendously in size, but smaller in influence. There are many reasons, of course, but I’d like to suggest two that are at the heart of the matter.
The first thing we did wrong was to misinterpret the Great Commission.
Instead of focusing on making disciples, we focused on making converts. We told ourselves we were saving people from Hell, but we didn’t take the time or put forth the effort to build them up in their faith. As a result, our churches were quickly filled with infant Christians who stayed infants for most of their lives.
We remained stuck in the 1950’s when it came to evangelism. The late 1940’s and early 1950’s saw the establishment of a number of significant evangelical Christian ministries. It was at that time that Billy Graham began to see people coming to faith in unprecedented numbers. It was then that Bill Bright founded Campus Crusade for Christ which has now become the largest sending Protestant missionary organization in the world. Bible camps, radio ministries, and a host of other very prominent organizations began at that time and experienced tremendous growth and success in their outreach efforts.
They were successful, in part, because society in the 1950’s was well prepared for hearing the clear, Biblical messages that these ministries presented.
America had just come out of World War II. Most Americans had experienced a relative or close friend who had died in the war and were mindful of the fact that life on this earth is short and fragile. People were very much aware of their mortality and were generally open to hearing more about the realm of eternity.
People of that generation were also “Christianized.” They were not Christians, but they were generally familiar with the terms of Christianity and the moral imperatives that undergirded it. When someone said God loved them and had a wonderful plan for their lives, they understood that God was good in His nature, and His plan would be something desirable. People knew what sin was, even if they chose to indulge in it. All the ministries needed to do to be successful was “connect the dots.”
But, the culture didn’t remain in the 50’s. As the decades rolled on, the “dots” became harder to find until they were not there to connect. People became all wrapped up in the moment and decided that life is composed of “things.” After all, death comes to “old people,” and usually occurs behind closed doors in a hospital or nursing home. As a result, people forgot they were mortal, and no longer saw their need for God.
They also became increasingly unfamiliar with the terms of Christianity. For many, God was and is “The Force.” We need to be careful not to get caught up with the “Dark side of The Force.” For others, Allah is “God,” and he commands his followers to blow themselves up in suicide bombings – along with as many innocent civilians as possible. Depending on my definition of God, His plan for my life is not necessarily something I want. Engaging in immoral behavior has become acceptable. “It isn’t 'sin.' We live together to make sure we’re compatible!” “I don’t have an anger problem – I’m being harassed and oppressed!”
The “converts” we made didn’t grow to understand their faith. Nor did they grow in their love for God. In fact, they didn’t really grow.
The second thing we did wrong was fail to truly love our neighbors – without a hidden agenda.
People inherently know if your interest in them is genuine. Unfortunately, much of the “love” that we showed to the non-believers we came in contact with always had a hidden agenda. We were like the proverbial multi-level marketers who love you as long as you are a potential sale, but leave you high and dry when they realize that you aren’t going to buy their products.
Why should a non-Christian neighbor or friend come with us to an event at church where they will hear a gospel presentation when we’ve never invited them to our home for dinner? Or, played a round of golf with them? Or, took them out for coffee? Are we really interested in them as people, or are we just trying to build up brownie points with our church?
In our zeal to make converts, we tended to focus on winning arguments instead of building relationships. One of the major problems in the evangelical world is that Christians think they need to express dissatisfaction and outrage at every misstatement others make about God and the Bible. But, people are not the problem. They are the ones who need to be loved. They are the ones who need to be rescued. We should expect non-Christians to talk and act like non-Christians. They don’t claim to embrace our value system, so why should we be angry with them when they talk and act like who they really are?
The gospel is more than simply a message of salvation. Biblical truth relates to all areas of life – marriage, family, work, health, finances, government and many other areas. It’s God’s perspective on life. If we truly love our neighbors without a hidden agenda, we will want to help them in any way we can.
True disciples know their faith and love their neighbors. When people who were hungry came to Jesus, He fed them. When they were sick, He healed them. When they had a spiritual need, He met that spiritual need.
We should go and do likewise.