Evangelizing Adults: The Misleading Statistic

Some months ago a friend of mine mentioned to me that most churches no longer have active evangelistic programs aimed at reaching adults. One reason for this may be a misleading statistic that’s been bandied about, about how most believers in our churches came to Christ by their late teens. Child Evangelism Fellowship, for instance, uses this statistic to emphasize the need for support for their ministry, to reach children with the gospel when they are young. Many churches may therefore have neglected ministries to reach adults in favor of ministries to children and youth – and unfortunately, many times these don’t reach very far outside the families of regular attenders and leaders.

I don’t think that this statistic actually means very much as a guide for ministry. It reminds me of the pro football color commentator who said something dramatically about a team, that they would be in trouble if they went into the final quarter of the game trailing in the score, since they hadn’t scored very much in the fourth quarter all year. The truth is that team hadn’t scored very much in the final 15 minutes of the game in a few previous games didn’t form an impassible barrier to them scoring enough to win in the final minutes of the games. If that was linked to something concrete like that team not having sufficient physical or mental stamina to play through the final quarter to win if they were trailing or a deep enough series of plays to do different things to win, then it would have meaning – and then good coaches and teams could deal with that to produce a win. But the previous record of something having happened in a certain way does not mean that it cannot happen differently if the people involved look at the determining factors thoughtfully – and in the case of evangelism, scripturally and prayerfully.

I can remember one source that looked at the same statistic, and came to the conclusion that churches rather need to develop more effective methods to reach adults with the gospel. Certainly that is the more reasonable conclusion in view of the basic reality that that statistic simply is absolutely no justification for any church to abandon evangelistic ministry to adults. In fact, except for the incidents mentioned in the gospels where Jesus placed his hands on children and prayed for them, the ministry of Jesus and the apostles was directed mainly to the adults around them. It was rather the apostolic instruction for parents to evangelize and disciple their own children – to bring them up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord. And Christian leaders and churches throughout the ages who have impacted their communities and nations have put their efforts into evangelizing adults.

For instance, the evangelistic ministry of John Wesley evangelized adults, from the coal miners who came to his open air preaching to the many others who heard the gospel from a man who had come to Christ as a adult, in his account of his famous Aldersgate experience of trusting in Christ alone.

Billy Graham himself, who came to Christ in his late teens, also concentrated on evangelizing adults. Though he also sought to reach students, and held special youth crusades, many, many adults have come to Christ through his crusades.

In addition, Dr. D. James Kennedy likewise did seek to reach students, but he primarily sought to evangelize adults with the Evangelism Explosion ministry. That ministry equipped many for witness and brought a clear presentation of the gospel to many casual church visitors and attenders through a church centered evangelistic ministry. Perhaps many churches need to admit that they let that ministry die more because it became unfashionable compared to the fad of ‘seeker friendly’ churches and because many believers found it required more self discipline than they were willing to invest.

Here are, I think, the factors that come into the effective evangelization of adults, from those that I know who came to Christ as adults:

  • Prayer: The Christian relatives and friends who cared about the salvation of someone prayed about it for weeks and months.
  • Realization of the ultimate need of salvation for eternity through Christ: The Christian relatives and friends who shared the gospel believed that the real and ultimate need of the person for which they were concerned was eternal life through Jesus Christ – not to be brought into conformity to someone else’s expectations.
  • Faith in the power of Christ to change lives through the gospel: The Christian relatives and friends who shared the gospel believed the first and foremost change in the person for which they were concerned would come through Christ, not their guilt trips, manipulations and Christian button pushing.
  • Power of the Spirit: those who shared the gospel recognized that the real power of evangelism is the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Complete, scriptural gospel: The people who shared the gospel took care to present the gospel from the scripture and allow the Word of God to speak for itself. There were certainly different presentations and gospel outlines used – sometimes not from an ‘official’ training program, but rather from the scriptures, such as Luke 24:46-49 and I Corinthians 15:-11. The common emphasis was on presenting Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord, the Savior and the Son of God, and the response of repentance and faith in him as the scriptural response to receive eternal life. There most certainly was very little attempt to dumb down or over-explain or paraphrase scripture and scriptural terms, but simply to present the scriptural gospel. Often enough, the real cost of discipleship was presented, and those who heard were allowed to wrestle with the claims and call of Jesus.
  • Answering questions and objections: There was an honest attempt to explain questions and objections from the scripture, since there was a recognition that there is a real offense to the scriptural gospel when someone hears it for the first time, and the need to deal honestly with objections and questions as a part of scriptural persuasion.  
  • Patient and loving follow-up with those who had come to Christ: There was a recognition that a person who has come to Christ as an adult does not have every habit destroyed and every difficult personal, family and vocational situation immediately fixed as a result of simply saying the Jesus prayer.

Pretty much these kinds of elements are common now in the Alpha Course, and have been in some other group Bible study programs and materials. Other personal witnessing programs, such as Evangelism Explosion, have incorporated these elements. Historically, though, leaders, churches and the everyday witnessing believer have all found that these elements are well within scriptural teaching and practice and have sought to follow them even without an explicit program and set of steps and formulas.

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