Are All of Our Shrinking Churches Evangelistic Failures?

A biblical understanding of conversion, discipleship, and spiritual growth can reframe what constitutes success in evangelism.

Recently, another pastor asked me, “Is evangelism getting harder?”

I knew where the question was coming from. Downward trends in weekly attendance and membership have sparked numerous conversations over the past several years about the church’s evangelistic efforts. Many congregations are also still struggling to make up lost ground after the pandemic. At least on the surface, the numbers seem to indicate that the church is decreasing in both size and influence.

However, the issue might not be as simple as “the church isn’t doing enough to evangelize” or “the church is missing Gen Z.” A more complex explanation might describe our situation.

A Shifting Church

I grew up in a traditional Southern Baptist context. From my earliest memories in the nursery to my studies in seminary to now pastoring a congregation, I’ve been thoroughly steeped in the evangelical church world. Over the past decade or so, I’ve noticed a shift in our theology that has run parallel with our society’s shift away from nominal Christianity. The results make some of the earlier-mentioned concerns more complicated than they first appear.

Over the last decade, parts of the evangelical world have experienced a theological renaissance. There has been a clear shift toward a more robust understanding of conversion, church membership, church discipline, and more. In other words, our ecclesiology has strengthened as society shifted away from Christian nominalism.

A Shifting Understanding of Success

As a result of this ecclesiological shift, we’ve moved to what I call long-form evangelism.

We no longer consider “intellectual assent” or “praying the prayer” as the pinnacle of success. To be successful in evangelism, Christians are not merely expected to share their testimony. They are expected to share the good news, to disciple, to answer questions, to open their homes, to rebuke sin, to encourage church membership to the converted, and more—all while living in a society that is more skeptical of our cause. All this is good and is exactly what the culture change requires.

By reframing what constitutes success in evangelism, we communicate a more biblical understanding of what faithfulness in the Christian life looks like. True evangelism often takes longer, grows slower, and prunes more intentionally than mere intellectual assent accounts for (1 Corinthians 9:19–23, 2 Timothy 4:1–5). If we fail to recognize this, we may be setting ourselves and consequently our members up for failure.

So Are We Evangelizing Less?

So let’s go back to where we began. Are Christians evangelizing less, leading to a decline in church membership? Or is the decline a result of rejecting pragmatic ecclesiology and shallow views of conversion? Do the declining numbers reveal a failure to evangelize or more responsible and better definitions of success?

To be clear, biblical ecclesiology doesn’t necessarily require snail-paced growth. Ultimately, it is God who grows his church, and sometimes he grows his church rapidly (1 Corinthians 3:6–8, Acts 2:14–41). And yet, the Scriptures also show us examples of faithful ministry amid decreasing numbers (1 John 2:19, 1 Corinthians 5:1–5).

My hope is to encourage pastors and church leaders to consider evangelistic faithfulness in a dynamic, prayerful, and nuanced way. We should all feel the urgency to reach the lost. We should be heartbroken at the apparent unraveling of Christian ideals in our society. But perhaps some of us should curb our pessimism with patience. As far as I can tell, our soteriology demands such patience.

The dandelions in my backyard spring up quickly. But they are also trampled quickly. The towering oaks grow slowly. Yet they are not easily moved. Perhaps what is starting to be cultivated in many churches today is not meant to look good on yearly denominational reports. But what if this new approach is more effective in the long run? What if it produces mature disciples who make mature disciples? What if it produces stronger churches that plant stronger churches?

Would that constitute evangelistic failure? I certainly don’t think so.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by 9Marks on May 17, 2024. Used with permission.