Recently I posted to the PCA Historical Center’s web site the content of THE EVANGELICAL STUDENT, a small magazine published by the League of Evangelical Students from 1926 until dissolution in 1939. More about the League next week. But this effort of scanning and posting that magazine has prompted some looking around other viable candidates for posting.
So this past week I’ve busied myself putting up the content of newsletters published by two organizations that were formative for the organization of the Presbyterian Church in America. The first of these organizations, Concerned Presbyterians Inc., published its newsletter, THE CONCERNED PRESBYTERIAN, beginning in March of 1965 and ending sometime in 1976. (For some reason the last several issues were undated and so it is difficult to date them precisely.)
The second organization, Presbyterian Churchmen United, formed a few years later and its newsletter, CONTACT, ran from May 1970 until September 1973. Once plans for the organization of the “Continuing Presbyterian Church” were well underway, the PCU organization was quick to disband.
Of this last newsletter, CONTACT, there were four short messages that caught my eye. Reproduced here, to familiarize you with some of the content of this newsletter, is the first of these four messages. Here the Rev. Ben Wilkinson brings an address on “The Crisis in Evangelism”. He is speaking to the situation in the Presbyterian Church in the United States at that time in the late 1960s and early 1970s, just prior to the formation of the PCA.
Two final notes: First, please keep in mind that this transcription is being reproduced as it was originally printed. If any of our readers might have copies of those issues that we currently are missing, please contact me at the PCA Historical Center. Second, please keep in mind that this article was written in 1970 and that the author’s words reflect that time period.
CRISIS IN EVANGELISM
An address delivered by the Rev. Ben Wilkinson to the Georgia meeting of Presbyterian Churchmen United.
[circa late spring, early summer, 1970]
At no point is the crisis in the Church quite so critical as in the area of evangelism. At no point is the crisis in the Church quite so damaging and damning to the lives and souls of men as in the area of evangelism. And at no point is the crisis in the Church so evident, clear, plain as in the area of evangelism. This is easily seen in the net gain membership statistics that I list below.
You will be aware that we get the annuual net gain by adding the number who are received by profession of faith, and those reactivated from the inactive roll. Subtract from that total the number lost to other churches by transfer of letter, the number dismissed to the inactive roll, and those deceased. This gives the net gain membership. We shall list the last 15 years since most of us have been living and active in this period. You will notice the tragic decline.
Net Gain Membership
1955 – 26,771
1956 – 22,051
1957 – 19,000
1958 – 20,766
1959 – 16,023
1960 – 13,592
1961 – 14,066
1962 – 10,522
1963 – 9,430
1964 – 7,100
1965 – 5,369
1966 – 5,179
1967 – 1,084
1968 – 944
1969 – 4,256
Understand that each statistic represents a life, a soul of a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a neighbor, a friend. They are not empty numbers. But perhaps more tragic are those who have not made the statistics because they have not been evangelized—a father, a mother, a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a neighbor, a friend, a stranger—real, live people who live in misery and who die condemned eternally.
You would be interested too in churches established in the same period. You will notice the apex and the decline.
Number of Churches
1955 – 3,852
1956 – 3,875
1957 – 3,928
1958 – 3,948
1959 – 3,978
1960 – 3,995
1961 – 3,998
1962 – 3,997
1963 – 4,004
1964 – 4,007
1965 – 4,008 (apex)
1966 – 4,003
1967 – 3,960
1968 – 3,926
1969 – 3,926
These statistics can be better understood against the backdrop of our national population explosion. Our Church serves the most rapidly growing section of our nation. Only the state of California exceeds us. While the population soars, the number of churches subsides.
Join me in an analysis of the source of this tragic situation.
The basic problem is theological. The two totally divergent beliefs already explored—historic Reformed faith and Neo-orthodoxy and points further out began with different suppositions and move in different directions. The beliefs of the new theologies undercut evangelistic concern.
Let me illustrate. If a person is not convinced that all men apart from Jesus Christ are eternally lost, he will never be zealous in sharing Him. Why bother with the demanding strain and emotion draining efforts of evangelism if all your message is “Man, you are a child of God. Begin living like it”. The urgency is lost! Participation in our prime mission dies.
A second obstacle is that controversy in the Church has created confusion in the minds of many. And a confused person loses his desire to confront people with Jesus Christ. To do this consistently, conviction of the truth of Christ is necessary; the confusion of controversy is undermining this needed conviction. Weird experimentations replace Biblical and proven methods of evangelism. This Biblical evangelism is by most ignored in the confusion.
As our analysis continues the third difficulty is that most ministers are not prepared to do evangelism nor to train their people to do the same. It is my conclusion that this responsibility has to be laid at the doorstep of the seminaries for they are not preparing men to introduce a person to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
In the last over four years as an evangelist with the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, it has been my joy to serve about 125 churches. It is appalling to discover the number of ministers who are admittedly unable to talk with a person and confidently present the gospel. A young minister wrote “when you get here, I want you to take me out and show me how to personally present Jesus Christ.” The minister I was last serving with said that the thing he should best be prepared at seminary to do, he is least prepared to do. He has never received training and has never felt at ease trying to talk to people about the Lord. He is regretfully typical. And if a minister cannot do evangelism, he certainly cannot lead his people to do so.
No man should ever be graduated from one of our seminaries who cannot and has not been used of God to lead others to know Christ. Nor should men ever be ordained as pastor, teacher, evangelist, or gr aduate student who are not being so used. Yet we are flagrantly doing this every year.
The fourth problem hindering our prime mission is that we have lost the atmosphere for doing evangelism. Though difficult to do, let me explain. Man is a social creature who likes to do what others are doing. Whereas the Christian should be willing to stand against the tide and do His work, many do not have what it takes. He is receiving little encouragement from his fellows to bear his witness. If he persists in doing so, he is looked on as suspect by some. The literature of our Church seldom speaks to this prime responsibility. The courts of our Church rarely pass actions directed to encourage our prime mission. The boards of our Church are busy “doing their own thing” and their thing is not encouraging evangelism. Special seasons are promoted, like Stewardship, Christian Education, Witness, etc., but never is there the promotion of a joint season to traiin people to go out and seek to guide others to Jesus Christ. Workshops are held on varied subjects, but not on why and how a human can share Christ with others. Too little preaching and teaching are done on the subject in the local church. Special revival/evangelistic series have been ridiculed.
For years presbyteries sent overtures to the General Assembly requesting the appointment of full-time evangelists. The negative reply was always the same—there is no need for usch in our Church. Then in 1958 Rev. William E. Hill of Hopewell, Virginia began a full-time evangelistic ministry alone. He found the need and the interest were there. Yet he was the only full-time evangelist in our Church. This white Southern Baptist had over 200. Then we wonder aloud, “Why is it those Baptists across the street are always growing and we are drying up? I can’t undestand it!” Can’t we?
Today Rev. Hill’s ministry has grown into the Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship with nine full-time evangelists, 4 associate evangelists, one affililate, and a host of laymen who are prepared to assist voluntarily in evangelistic thrusts. Our emphasis of preaching-teaching-personal evangelism has found tremendous need and interest.
Outstanding successful evangelistic churches are officially prejudged and ignored–[churches such] as Coral Ridge in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Briarwood in Birmingham, Alabama. Some of our most zealous ministers and laymen have gone outside the Church to support the evangelistic ministries of Campus Crusade, Inter-Varsity, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and others. Their gain has been our loss.
The atmosphere to encourage Presbyterians to do any type of evangelism in our Church is woefully thin. And worse, little is being done to remedy this.
The fifth point of heartbreak is that ministers and laymen who do believe in Biblical evangelism, as the prime mission of Christians here on earth, are lacking in commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord, and the unction of the Holy Spirit that will motivate them to consistent witnessing. It is a great deal easier to be for evangelism than to do it. It is easier to promote evangelism than to present Christ to another. It is easier to cry, “Why doesn’t somebody do something than to do evangelism ourselves.”.
Let me bring this down as close as I can. Now I talk to none but you, dear one. How long has it been since you sat down and premeditatively sought to introduce someone to Jesus as Savior and Lord? Have you ever done it? Our Board of Church Extension published a book some years ago stating that surveys showed that out of every 100 Presbyterians only 5 ever in their lives had sought to lead someone to Christ. Have you? We have no right to criticize the failure of others until we are ready to pay the price of evangelism ourselves. “To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not to him it is sin.” . . . James 4:17.
This is my brief analysis of the crisis in evangelism. “What in the world can one person do?” you cry. Let me list several things that are being done over our Church. If you want more information on any of these, contact me.
- Gather together those in your church who are concerned for evangelism to begin to pray for openings to evangelistic involvement in your church and community. Let me warn you. Be ready! He is!
- Your church can conduct a revival/evangelistic crusade. Such crusades when properly prepared for and earnestly prayed over are yielding good results in Christians awakened and the lost converted. There are evangelists available to assist churches in these efforts. PEF evangelists have assisted in efforts in the inner city with no members to churches of about 2000. Ask your Session to lead in this.
- Your church can bring in a Personal Evangelism Institute to train and encourage your people in personal evangelism. There are evangelists and teams of laymen available to lead in this training period. Approach your Session to sponsor such training.
- Your church can begin any of a variety of outreaching ministries in your area. Evangelistic Home Bible Studies can be begun among “the up and outers” of suburbia, teenagers, and the downtrodden. Boys and girls can be reached through the Good News Club approach (Bible Study, singtime, fun groups). Child Evangelism reminds us that nearly 70% of the boys and girls of the United States never are in Church Schools. Many public schools are still open to an evangelistic Bible teacher supported by local churches. Negroes are still open in numerous communities to have Bible studies presenting the gospel. And I might add that we have a major responsibility there. The most unevangelized group in our country is the Negro. It would be easier for the average Negro to hear the true gospel in the Congo than it is for him here. Let us repent of our failure and share the gospel with them. Get your creativity to work as to how you can under the Holy Spirit’s guidance get the gospel to more people. Condemned persons wait the “good news” you can bring.
- Pastors, begin to preach an evangelistic sermon on Sunday Morning when the most lost people come. Preach clear, personal, and under the power of the Holy Spirit. Do not hesitate at giving an invitation for people to respond in faith to the Lord Jesus Christ. God still especially uses the preaching of the Word to the effectual calling of His elect.
- At any point that you have influence in the committees of our Church, call for a re-directing of our efforts to Biblical evangelism. Offer and be ready to implement practical suggestions as to how this can be done.
- You, as a born-again Christian, must begin to do personal evangelism if on one else does. The time is now for those who will do God’s first work in spite of what the majority do. And when a magnificent minority does their work, others will be drawn to join with them.
- You can pray! Pray for revival of Christian experience in our Church and over our nation. Pray for reformation of Biblical theology. Pray for a return to the prime mission by the church—to evangelize. We are desperately in need of Christians with camel knees.
This is the overwhelming crisis in our Church in evangelism and some working solutions to its cure. Dear one, I plead with you. Don’t just sit there! In God’s Spirit, do something!
[For a helpful history on the societal rejection of the word “negro,” see http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2010/01/when_did_the_word_negro_become_taboo.html%5D