People will believe the Gospel can transform the world to the degree it has transformed them. And they will spread exactly what it is they believe.
If churches are in decline in America (while growing at unprecedented rates across the globe), the cause of decline is not a lack of evangelism. The lack of evangelism is merely symptomatic, the childlessness of a barren womb, the non-effect of a void, like the darkness that was over the face of the deep without the Presence that was over the face of the darkness (Gen. 1:2), “a form of godliness but the denial of its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).
It’s remarkable how much popular Christian literature pedaling various forms of “multiplication” strategies (that don’t work) have little to no semblance to Paul’s or Peter’s or James’ John’s letters to the churches, all of which have surprisingly very little to say on the topic of evangelism. They are far more concerned with theology, on the one hand, and then some conspicuous “therefore” that precipitates something in the vain of: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). People can’t help but talk about what’s on their mind, so if they know nothing of a power at work renewing their own mind, they’re not going to talk about the One who claims to be making all things, like minds and people, new (2 Cor. 5:17; Rev. 21:5).
Why should they? Better off talking about the kind of power they believe actually does work, even if it just means complaining it is not working well. I can’t think of anything that would encourage me more than if I stopped hearing Christians complaining about the politics that don’t work to change a country (whether in the past or at present) and started hearing them complain about the God who doesn’t work to change them. At least they’d be getting closer to a proper diagnosis. That righteous indignation over the moral decline of moral America or the social injustice of something unnamable but definitely systemic may very well be little more than a therapeutic (and not prophetic) lament about the moral decline of a bitter heart, the social injustice of a systemic porn habit. At any rate, if God were to show up to heal that heart or break that habit, they may not have succeeded yet in restoring their precious golden age (that never existed) or progressing to a utopian age (that once existed in Genesis 11), but at least they’d have something to stop complaining about. And that would be the sound of revival.
But I suppose it is far easier to tell people the problem we’re facing is a lack of evangelism in the world (by persons getting, ahem, paid to evangelize them (with their guilt trips)), the solution of which is more human effort (an easy sell to people who don’t believe in God’s present efforts), than telling them the much more likely scenario: that the more basic problem we are facing is not a lack of evangelism in the world but a lack of transformation in the Church, the solution of which is more human surrender–to a Power that always comes first to transform its captive, and then to those whom the captive tells about how they’ve been transformed and “by what power and by what Name” (Acts 4:7). When that happens, it won’t matter if the governing authorities run an anti-evangelism campaign, which have historically tended to be a most effective way to incentivize evangelism, because people who’ve witnessed such a Power cant help but bear witness to it. At least that was Jesus’s actual “Master Plan of Evangelism,” making people witnesses of his power by transforming them by it (Acts 1:8).
“So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot help but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:18-21).
So maybe instead of speaking for God, we should encourage people to refuse to speak for God until they have witnessed his work in their lives, until their faith in the crucified and risen Christ begins to take shape as a “newness of life” that is replacing their “dead[ness] to sin” (Rom. 6:1-4). The apostles, after all, having gone through a three-year discipleship training program led by a certain Jesus of Nazareth (whose methods seemed frankly a little simplistic and repetitive, if not old fashioned…but who is going to argue method with the Guy who used to be dead?) and witnessing his resurrection, had still not yet earned their title as “witnesses.” They had one last thing to do: “wait” (Acts 1:4)–wait until they witnessed the “same [Power] that raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 8:11) do something new in their lives (Acts 2; cf. esp. Rom. 6:1-4). “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses from Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Maybe the first step toward evangelism is to stand still, to wait until we have witnessed an act of God, indeed “the God who acts for those who wait on him” (Isa. 64:4), to wait until God shows up to act in the place we’ve most intimately learned to stop expecting him to act, and pray until he does: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10).