What is E·van·ge·lism today?
/ə vanjə lizəm/ • noun
The spreading of the Christian gospel by public preaching or personal witness.
It’s a familiar word, but what exactly does it mean today? The first New Testament “evangelists” were the shepherds and angels who announced the birth of Jesus Christ to the world. During His earthly ministry, Jesus ordered His disciples to go and make other disciples.
But do Christians follow that command in today’s pluralistic and post–Christian society? Studies seem to suggest that today’s Christians, especially the younger generations, are reluctant to do so.
Some modern evangelism seems to have moved to social media (see interview with YouVersion Executive Director Brian Russell, and comments by author Joe Battaglia, in this article). Believers share Christian–themed material on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but there is still the need to personally share Christ with family, friends, and co–workers, face–to–face. The 18th century itinerant preacher George Whitefield once said, “God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter of an hour without speaking of Christ to them.”
The Salvation Army was at the forefront of evangelism efforts in the 19th century. Colorful saints such as Joe the Turk conducted open–air meetings on the streets. The Army’s former “Glory Shop” Corps in Times Square brought the gospel message to thousands, a tradition the Manhattan Citadel Corps in Harlem is keeping alive (see Evangelism on Display).
Every year, The Salvation Army sends officer delegates to the National Seminar on Evangelism to learn and practice new skills. Salvationists also participate in the Pier Ministry at the Old Orchard Beach Camp Meetings in Maine where they share the gospel with thousands of vacationers.
Yet, younger Christians seem unwilling to share their faith. A new report from the Barna Research Group called “Reviving Evangelism,” reveals that 47 percent of practicing Christian Millennials agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to evangelize people of another faith. That compares to 27 percent of Gen Xers, 19 percent of Baby Boomers and 20 percent of Elders.
Majors Angelo and Virginia Bermeo, who serve as territorial evangelists in the Eastern Territory, agree that younger people are often reluctant to share Christ.
“Sometimes I think they’re just intimidated, and they’re shy about it,” Major Virginia said. “Other times, I think once they testify about their faith, others will know they are Christians and will judge them accordingly, even though we know we’re not perfect. I think sometimes the younger generation does not want to be judged.
“I think we need to encourage our youth that God can use them, no matter where they are and what they think of themselves.”
Envoys Steve and Sharon Bussey, who lead The Salvation Factory and the Pier Ministry at the OOB Camp Meetings each year, are passionate advocates of sharing the gospel and agree with Bermeo. Envoy Steve believes the Church needs a “Josiah moment,” referring to the Old Testament king of Judah who called for a time of national repentance after the Book of the Law was discovered during temple renovations.
“A Salvationist who is not doing evangelism is like a fish out of water,” Bussey said. “Being engaged in evangelism is our natural habitat. As Salvationists, who we are only makes sense when we are engaged in mission and sharing the gospel with a lost and dying world.”
Bussey said Salvation Army co–founder Catherine Booth once said there is no improving the future without disturbing the present and he believes that must happen when it comes to evangelism.
“My concern is we’re not willing to be disturbed,” he said. “We have become complacent as the Church. As a result, we have to stir ourselves out of this lethargy and this complacency. We have to disturb ourselves. Every single Salvationist has to say once again, ‘Why am I here?’ We are created for the glory of God and the salvation of this world. Everything else is just the details.
MORE THAN A METAPHOR
“I think we sometimes think being a soldier in God’s army is a figure of speech. But if we are metaphorical soldiers fighting in a metaphorical army, are we fighting in a metaphorical war to save people from a metaphorical hell and battling against a metaphorical enemy? If it’s just a play on words, then what’s the point?
“But if it’s real, and Satan and hell are real, then that should alter how we share the gospel with our family and our friends. We often allow people to stroll casually into hell without any concern that they are heading toward ultimate separation from God and an eternity of suffering.”
Bussey said while some believe God has not called them to evangelize, the truth is, we are all co–participants in reaching the lost.
“The Great Commission and the call to go out and proclaim the good news—it defines in many ways the essence of who we are called to be, not only as the Church, but it’s an essential moral responsibility we have as human beings to help people live the fullest life,” Bussey said. “There is this indifference to the lost that has numbed us from the very purpose for which we were created as a Church.
“I think there is nothing more damning to a generation than to think they don’t have a role to play in the gospel going out in this world. I think, as the Church, we’re going to have to answer for that.”
Envoy Sharon agreed, saying “apathy is the killer of the Church.”
“We’ve got to do more than we’re doing now,” she said. “If we as Christians think Christ came for us and we keep Him to ourselves and we go about our merry parades and activities on Sunday, of what worth is that?
“Christ came for the whole world and it is our job to make sure that message of salvation and the gospel gets beyond our doors. If we’re not doing that, we’re failing as the Church.”
A PROVEN STRATEGY
Changed lives—redeemed lives—have always been the goal of Salvation Army evangelism from its earliest days.
A homeless man extends his cold, shivering hands to receive a hot bowl of soup; an abused mother and her three children enjoy warm baths and clean clothes at a shelter; a young man at a camp in the woods puts down his brass horn, kneels at a rustic altar, and accepts Christ into his life forever. These examples of “Soup, soap, and salvation,” a motto coined years ago, continues to be a simple but proven strategy for evangelism in The Salvation Army. For that reason, among others, management guru Peter Drucker called it “the most effective organization in the United States.”
However, most people in the west fail to realize that The Salvation Army is also an active member of the Evangelical Christian Church. Instead, they see it exclusively as an iconic social service and disaster relief provider.
BACK TO THE BASICS
Phil Needham, author of Christ at the Door: Biblical Keys to our Salvationist Future, writes, “Membership decline in the Western world has been going on for so long, it should concern us. Maybe God is trying to call us back to things we have forgotten.”
In a recent article, Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today magazine, revealed what many Christians probably agree is a personal crisis of evangelism, that is to say, a feeling of indifference toward the subject rather than a sense of passion or urgency about it, which would be expected of one’s calling as a Christian. In Galli’s case, he says such hunger and resolve to tell souls about Christ has been insidiously replaced by a feeling of professional competency and efficiency in doing God’s work.
WHAT ARE THE QUESTIONS?
In the 1970s, Evangelist Tom Skinner would frequently ask, “If Jesus is the answer, then what are the questions?” Today, people ask, is there a crisis? Are Christians in an age of “post–evangelicalism” or a “crisis of traditional Christianity?” Still others ask if believers are mired in a “spirit of modernity” or “theological rigidity?” Are they more interested in talking about solutions rather than in living them?”
Other people question evangelistic strategies: are believers simply pursuing evangelicalism differently in an increasingly technological world? Should Christians more aggressively shift to new paradigms that involve virtual realities on social media platforms? Should avatars and artificial intelligence replace face–to–face engagement?
Galli says that American evangelicalism is in trouble on multiple fronts—politically, socially, theologically, and morally because paradigms are shifting all over the place. Internally, attitudes toward pastoral care, discipleship, and social justice are also fluctuating.
Even more alarming is the trend for churches, traditionally known as havens for prayer, reconciliation, and revival, to actually become soft targets for racial or political retaliation, religious retribution, and even acts of global terrorism.
A NEW PARADIGM
Given this changing world, how then must Christians live? Joe Battaglia, author of the book Unfriended, believes people need to leave behind the anonymity of the internet and get back to one–on–one encounters. He says Christians need to go beyond the satisfaction of getting “likes” on Facebook to establishing meaningful relationships.
In an interview with SAconnects magazine, Battaglia described how evangelicals can get out from behind their computer screens and enjoy God’s creation. “I think the major thing believers can do,” says Battaglia, “is to do what Jesus did when He spoke to the woman at the well. The principle I draw from that is, when we go out of our way to be with people unlike us, they will go out of their way to tell other people about us.”
Battaglia says Christian righteousness expressed in the absence of compassionate tears is seen by the world as arrogance. “If they saw tears and sacrifice, then they would see true community within us and would not battle against us.”
Battaglia says Christians need to be extra careful to avoid what he calls “the community of cowardice,” which is found on the internet where Christians “friend” or “follow” only people with whom they agree. “As I cower behind this wall of anonymity, I am more likely to disparage you, not care about you, and say things about you. I would not say those things if I had to look right in your eyes.”
Showing up in the real world rather than in a virtual one, Battaglia says, positions believers to be “Good Samaritans” to people in need. “It’s not so much that the Samaritan stopped to help the guy,” says Battaglia, “the biggest point is that the Samaritan was on the road in the first place. If he hadn’t been on the road, there would be no ‘good Samaritan’ to talk about.”
TRAINING TO EVANGELIZE
Corps Sergeant–Major Cotton Presley, a Salvation Army evangelist and leader of the Army’s National Seminar on Evangelism (NSE), says Christians benefit from training themselves to be effective evangelists. That happens annually at NSE, held in Glen Eyrie, Colorado. “It’s an incredible opportunity for soldiers from all over the country to come together and learn more about what it means to fulfill the first part of The Salvation Army’s mission, which is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ,” said Presley.
For an entire week, an eclectic mix of ages, experiences, races, and cultures convene to participate in workshops, seminars, and ultimately on the streets of Glen Eyrie. Seminar delegates learn the practical skills of evangelistic outreach. They will courageously walk across a room to tell their story; authentically listen to a woman in tears as she shares her story; and greet a man in Spanish to begin a compassionate conversation about the gospel.
A recent Salvation Army Annual Command Review report described how there’s a concerted effort on the corps (local church) level to ensure that worship and related programs are responsive, inclusive, and sensitive to the diversity within communities. For example, many people who come to the Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Centers attend church for the first time. Therefore, the worship services are designed to be simple yet meaningful. Rehabilitation programs are built to help transform lives on a foundation of biblical principles. Participants learn how to live Christlike and holy. Some corps (church) centers conduct prayer walks through communities.
TIME TO ‘COME OUT’
In Christ at the Door, Needham says Jesus “stands and knocks” so that He can come in and sup with people, but there’s more. He also wants them to come out into the world with Him. Believers must come out of their virtual havens where they’ve found their comfort zones.
Needham describes this invitation in three phases: 1.) “The Journey,” Christ invites people to be His disciples; 2.) “The Community,” Christ invites new believers out to be in His Church; and 3.) “The Mission,” Christ invites evangelicals out to fulfill His mission. Finally, Needham strongly suggests that Salvation Army corps (local churches) grow like a movement. “The Church ought to represent a dynamic cultural expression of the people of God in any given place,” he writes.
In this age of the avatar, it’s more important than ever for believers to understand that Christ is inviting them out from behind their phones, computer screens, and brick–and–mortar citadels so as to engage with actual people in a literal world. Yes, such an endeavor has its inherent risks and sacrifices, but it also promises exciting rewards.
A NEW BIRTH
Envoy Steve Bussey points out that evangelism is so important it’s included in Chapter 1, Section 1 of “Chosen to be a Soldier: Orders and Regulations for Soldiers of The Salvation Army.”
“The Salvation Army is a fellowship of people who have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Lord and whose common aim is to induce others to subject themselves to the lordship of Christ.”
“Our job is to find ways to induce the new birth process and to show people how to be born again,” Bussey says. “That’s what drives everything we do in The Salvation Army. If we miss that, we’ve missed the whole thing.”
Bussey believes Salvationists are missing that point in their reluctance to evangelize. Bussey said one reason is because Christians sometimes see it as someone else’s responsibility. He says they also tend to believe God only wants them to feel good and to enjoy this life rather than acknowledge the price Christ paid for their souls.
“We approach things therapeutically rather than saying, ‘You need to be justified by grace through faith in Christ Jesus and you need to be sanctified by baptism of the Holy Spirit.’ Most people don’t speak that language today,” Bussey says.
A CHANGED MINDSET
Younger people, in particular, don’t want to be offensive in today’s pluralistic society, Bussey says.
“That mindset is a result of the Church not doing its job.” He continued, “I don’t blame people; I blame us as the Church. We should be transforming the world, not the other way around. The fact that the Church can be so influenced by the culture means the Church is not being transformed by the gospel itself.”
Bussey says Founder William Booth and the early Salvationists invented creative ways to spread the gospel. Some of those models are used today during the Pier Ministry. For example, “free and easy” social events were popular in Booth’s time. He held his own meetings but changed the bar tune lyrics to reflect the gospel message. Now at OOB, Bussey and his team frequently modify lyrics of popular songs to carry evangelistic messages.
“As we go out and engage people who are lost, we’re trying to attract their attention in a way that makes sense to them,” Bussey says. “That strategy, which is part of our DNA as Salvationists, is what we’re trying to do at Old Orchard Beach.”
A VISUAL LANGUAGE
The Bermeos, territorial evangelists, have held nearly 500 meetings since 2013 with 2,867 converts. The couple ministers in both English and Spanish.
“We’re bilingual and we’re visual so we transcend all language barriers,” Major Angelo says. “People who come to our meetings see something different from just someone holding a Bible.”
The couple uses illusions, drama, puppetry, balloon sculpting, and face painting. Major Angelo also presents a drama based on the life of “Joe the Turk,” an iconic Salvation Army evangelist. That presentation is popular with Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) beneficiaries and corps (church) members.
Major Angelo says a university study on mental retention reports that people will only retain about 20 percent of what a preacher says, but that percentage doubles if the presentation is visual. If an audience is involved in a show, the retention rate jumps to 80 percent.
“Everything is visual,” Major Angelo says. “Adults and kids are distracted by cell phones, video games, and TVs. To reach them, we need to be more visual. The competition from the devil is fierce and we must be out there.
“We let them know we’re not there just to entertain. We have a message. I get their attention and trust. We always do an altar call and usually people respond, especially new people who haven’t been to church. Our passion is really to reach the unchurched. God has taken this ministry and made it beautiful.”
FINDING WHAT WORKS
While evangelism methods may change from time to time, Major Virginia says the key is finding what works in the moment.
“I have seen a change, but everyone is different,” she says. “Some people will respond to in–your–face evangelism, depending on where they are spiritually. Some people will only respond to friendship evangelism; getting to know someone and having that fellowship and bond grow. I believe we should use every method at our disposal. There is an audience for every method. You just have to ask the Holy Spirit what method will work in a situation. I believe there’s nothing new under the sun. You just have to know your population.”
For the Bermeos, evangelism has become their life and mission.
“My passion has always been evangelism, even as a corps officer and soldier,” Major Angelo says. “It’s always been our desire to share the good news. For us, it became second nature.”
Major Virginia calls evangelism “the heart of Jesus.”
“I gave my heart to the Lord and ever since that moment, all I’ve ever wanted was to share what God has done in my life; where He took me from, and His love. Sharing the love of God should be every Christian’s desire,” she says.
“That’s why we’re saved. We’re saved to help others to become saved and to see Jesus. That is our motivation.”
by Robert Mitchell and Warren L. Maye
illustrations by Joe Marino