Updated: Jan 13, 2022
Church attendance, conversions, and baptisms are down. The consensus is that the church must find new and creative ways to do ministry in this postmodern, post-covid world in order to be successful. Consider, if you will, the implications behind such consensus.
Salvations are down and conversions have dropped because the church hasn’t adapted to the current culture.
If this is true, then better methodologies are needed to make the gospel more effective.
Those with better methodologies will have more conversions.
All of this is based upon the unspoken premise that the will of the individual is key to the person's conversion.
The world of the first century was unquestionably pagan, polytheistic, and void of any Christian ethic. Yet the gospel spread, and as it did the world was transformed. How was this possible in a world less informed about the gospel than our own? Was it Paul’s genius? Was it the passion of the apostles? Perhaps they had some methodology for turning the pagan heart toward Christ. How was it that the work of the gospel, which we perceive as so difficult now, flourished then?
I would postulate that our discouragement and confusion are due to a basic misunderstanding of how the gospel works. We lack a clear grasp of the nature of salvation. We have come to believe that evangelism is akin to marketing and therefore we must craft our "pitch" to suit the desires of the consumer. Sales are down so we need a new marketing strategy. Shame on us!
Perhaps the words of the apostle Paul will help give us clarity.
For He says to Moses, "I WILL HAVE MERCY ON WHOM I HAVE MERCY, AND I WILL HAVE COMPASSION ON WHOM I HAVE COMPASSION." So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH." So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires. (Rom. 9:15-18)
Allow me a distilled retelling of this text. “God is sovereign over the individual’s salvation.”
The reason evangelism is viewed as more difficult in our post-modern world is because we incorrectly believe a person's salvation is dependent upon their own will. Paul informs us that this is not the case at all. God is sovereign and He has mercy on whom He desires and hardens whom He desires. This is not a one-time reference. Paul further illustrates this as God’s nature in Romans 11.
“For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery-- so that you will not be wise in your own estimation-- that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;” (Rom. 11:25)
Salvation is not of the person’s initiative, nor their will, but God’s. If the individual must cooperate with God to receive salvation, then there is much cause for discouragement. But if God is sovereign in salvation, then the fields are just as white and ready for harvest as they were 2000 years ago when Jesus first declared it.
Please allow me one last thought. Here in Romans 9:17, Paul is quoting from the Exodus narrative to emphasize for us that the proclamation of God’s name is at the core of everything God does ... even hardening and showing mercy. John Piper is a bit off when he says, “missions exists because worship does not.” He would have been more accurate to say, “missions exist to declare God’s name.” No, it’s not as flashy but it is more accurate.
We are wrong to think that evangelism is what happens to people because then we mistakenly assume that the more baptisms a church has the more evangelistic they must be. No! This is not true, but this is exactly the reason many Christians have ceased in their efforts to evangelize. For a while they made an effort to evangelize but then, when they didn't have any "success stories," they just gave up. They likely believed the absence of results indicated they were either not doing it well, or they were not gifted. They made the mistake of thinking that evangelism was harvesting.
What thrill it is to baptize people! There is an urgency to share the gospel and passion to see souls saved. Certainly, our aim and hope are that people will be redeemed, and baptized but countable conversions are not the measurement of evangelism. When Paul went to Athens only “some” (Acts 17:34) believed. In Berea “many” (Acts 17:12) believed. Are we to conclude then that Paul was not as evangelistic in Athens as he had been in Berea?
Again, evangelism isn’t about getting measurable results. It isn’t even about counting baptisms. Evangelism about faithful obedience to tell the message of the gospel. This must be primary above all else! The other things are good, some even essential, but like Paul, we must understand the law of first things. “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” (1 Cor. 1:17) Baptizing people was not what made Paul an evangelist, it was proclaiming the good news.
Christ has commanded us to sow the seed of the gospel indiscriminately on every kind of soil, and in every situation, not with intentionality to “maximize our efforts,” but out of an intense desire to honor the Lord. And then, if God is merciful and some are saved certainly we rejoice in baptizing and discipling them. But even if no one is ever converted, we must always and in every circumstance, preach the gospel. Results are not commanded, faithfulness is. Contrary to popular opinion the worst thing is not people dying without Christ, it is people dying without Christ who never heard the gospel.