The times have changed… yet evangelism still matters.
According to the Brookings Institution, over half of Americans today are millennials or younger. In July 2019, the Census Bureau revealed that nearly fifty one percent of the population can be grouped into one of the three younger generational cohorts. Gen Z (born around 1995-2010) and the emerging Gen Alpha (born around 2010 or later) are digital natives. By 2025, Gen Alpha (the name given by Australian social analyst and demographer Mark McCrindle) will number over 2 billion people globally. It will be the largest generation in history.
Gen Z and Gen Alpha aren’t identical, but they are unique similar in their relationship to technology when compared to previous generations. Millennials were digital pioneers, recalling childhoods that possess both offline and online components. Boomers and Gen X were digital immigrants. “Zalphas,” however, are coming of age fully immersed in a fully digital and interconnected world.
In seeking to understand how to reach these digitally native generations with the gospel, we need to consider two realities. First, we should assess how our practice of evangelism needs to shift. Notice I said practice, not proclamation. While the message of the gospel is timeless, we want to share it in a timely way that resonates with the hearer. Second, we should assess how people are responding to the gospel in the digital age.
I’ve said before that if the 1950s come back, some churches will be ready to go! The 1950s were actually a great decade of evangelism, but while our world and church life are dramatically different today, many churches are still equipped to evangelize as though seventy years of cultural change haven’t taken place.
We’ve seen numerous shifts in evangelism methods from then until now. And we’re at the precipice of yet another shift toward the frontiers of digital mission. And, I’m working with He Gets Us, pioneering new ground in digital mission. He Gets Us is creating compelling video content with a hope to reach digital natives with the gospel in a way that resonates with many of the questions and struggles of Gen Z and Gen Alpha.
Methods Change Over Time
What are some of the evangelism shifts we’ve seen over the past half-century? Walk back in time well over 50 years ago to the decades from the 1950s, 60s, and into the 70s. Back then most churches prioritized mass evangelism (often called crusades or revivals). This approach featured one week each year when churches or a group of churches in a region held a big meeting with a guest evangelist and maybe a music evangelist as well. Denominations had the greatest influence in church life then, and the approach to the meetings varied depending on your denomination. The Wesleyans would do this every spring and every fall, as did the Pentecostals, and Baptists typically did so as well.
Church attendance was a bit part of American culture then. In fact, from 1955-58, almost half of all Americans attended church, and the growth in church membership in the 50s was greater than the general population’s growth.
But 1970 was a turning point. The 70s brought about a rise in personal evangelism training. Evangelism Explosion International launched that year, and Southern Baptists began offering Lay Evangelism Schools across the nation. The SBC would soon follow with Continuing Witness Training, while Campus Crusade for Christ’s (Cru) Four Spiritual Laws, first published in 1965, gained a lot of traction through the influence of the evangelistic conference Explo ’72. Personal evangelism door-to-door and at beaches during spring break became common.
The 1980s and 1990s gave rise to a new evangelistic phenomenon: the entrepreneurial megachurch. These large, rapidly growing churches used what I call church evangelism as a key method: church members were encouraged to invite their unchurched friends to Sunday services and special events where the great evangelist (the pastor) could share Christ with them. Like those before them, this too was effective for many years.
The church evangelism emphasis reached a lot of baby boomers. Saddleback and Willow Creek were the best-known examples of this, and thousands of churches followed their seeker church example. Interestingly, I preached at both Willow Creek and Saddleback last summer, and neither of them do what they did that made them famous 30 years ago. Because changing times brings changing methods.
Still another shift began in the early 2000s toward church planting evangelism. The dramatic rise in resourcing and training for church planters produced an evangelistic shift toward church plants that a 2007 Christianity Today article described as “the default mode for evangelism.”