Wisconsin U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin has outraged a lot of churchgoers recently by saying, “Certainly the First Amendment says that in institutions of faith that there is absolute power to, you know, to observe deeply held religious beliefs. But I don’t think it extends far beyond that.” Since it was reported that she said that, the religious community manifested in the blogosphere, talk radio, cable news, and social media has responded with fear and outrage. Indignant cries like “How dare she tell us we can’t practice our religion except in a church building?!?!” and “Freedom of religion and freedom of speech is doomed in this country!!” are making their rounds through the various Facebook posts and Twitter feeds of American New Testament Christians and denominational folks, and to an extent I can’t say I blame us for reacting in this fashion. There are legitimate fears held by myself and others that outrageous fines and jail time will eventually be the price paid in this country for advertising and exercising in any way our deeply held religious convictions that homosexual marriage is sinful, whether or not we happen to be inside a church building on Sunday morning.
Yet, I also am reminded of the fact that there aren’t that many of us who are that vocal about our Christianity outside of the church building anyway, and it has been that way for some time. According to the Barna Group, an evangelical Christian polling company:
When asked if they have a personal responsibility to share their faith with others, 73% of born again Christians said yes. When this conviction is put into practice, however, the numbers shift downward. Only half (52%) of born again Christians say they actually did share the Gospel at least once this past year to someone with different beliefs, in the hope that they might accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.
As with most convictions, there usually lies a dividing line between theory and practice. When it comes to evangelism, that dividing line looks different among various demographics.
Barna defines evangelicals according to adherence to nine theological perspectives (defined in the details below), including one’s personal responsibility to share their faith in Christ with others. So in this study, of course, evangelicals (100%) claim this responsibility by definition. Nearly seven out of 10 have acted on this conviction within the last year, meaning evangelicals have the highest rate of evangelism among the various religious segments that Barna examined.
What stands out among the data, however, is that evangelicals also have among the highest rates of failure in follow-through from conviction to action when it comes to sharing their faith. Nearly one-third (31%) believe they should evangelize, but have not done so—at least within the past year.
Catholics (34%), on the opposite end of the spectrum, are the least likely across Christian faith traditions to affirm their personal responsibility to share their faith. Yet, this minority is also the most consistent in linking their belief and behavior. Roughly one-third of all Catholics (34%) believe they should evangelize, while one-third of born again Catholics actually do.
This 2013 report goes on to indicate that millennials or young adults as well as the elderly and those in the low income bracket are currently the most evangelistic among us, while those of us in the 30’s and 40’s bracket, 50’s and 60’s bracket and those in the middle-class income bracket are less personally evangelistic than we were in previous years.
To bring it closer to home for churches of Christ in this country, I encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to look around in the auditorium this coming Sunday morning and check the bulletin where they record the attendance numbers. Are those numbers below 100? Probably, according to brotherhood statistician Flavil Yeakley. In 2008 he reported that 45% of the almost 13,000 churches of Christ in the United States have fewer than 50 members and more than 70% have fewer than 100 members.
How many churches of Christ do you know of who have 1,000 members or more? Not many. How long does it take your average local congregation to increase in size by 50 members? Years, right? At least two years, possibly three.
Of that growth of 50, how many of those were Christians who moved into the area or transferred their membership from another congregation? How many of the 50 were baptisms? Out of those, how many consisted of children of adult members of your congregation…as opposed to complete outsiders whom you personally know and invited to church or studied with because you knew they were lost in their sins and wanted to do your part to make a difference in their lives?
How many in your congregation are actively involved in regular, weekly personal evangelism…other than the paid preacher? One or two, right? Five or six, tops.
Now, let’s compare us to the evangelism recorded in the New Testament Christianity we always say we’re wanting to restore. The very first local congregation read about in the New Testament grew by 3,000 in one day (Acts 2:41). It then continued to grow day by day (Acts 2:47) so that the number soon rose to 5,000 (Acts 4:4). After that, even in the shadow of repeated persecution of her leaders (Acts 4:1ff; 5:17ff), divine church discipline of two of her members which was quite violent in nature (Acts 5:1-11), and strife over possible prejudice within the congregation (Acts 6:1ff), the numbers of the Jerusalem church “multiplied” (Acts 6:6). It didn’t stop there. Even after extreme, violent persecution which scattered that congregation to the four winds (Acts 8:1ff), the church as a whole in that region “multiplied” (Acts 9:31). Around a decade or so later, the Jerusalem church was said to once again have “thousands” of believers (Acts 21:20).
The difference is striking, isn’t it? Painfully striking, when you think about it.
Church of Christ, it’s time for a wake-up call. We talk a lot about “speaking where the Bible speaks, and being silent where the Bible is silent.” We’ve made a lot of progress in accomplishing that worthy, biblical goal (1 Cor. 4:6; Rev. 22:18-19; Prov. 30:6). However, when it comes to evangelism we still have a lot of work to do.
Here’s what the New Testament Christians did. They went about preaching the Word (Acts 8:4). The gospel was being proclaimed by them in all creation under heaven (Col. 1:23). It took only two years for the whole region of Asia Minor to hear the gospel because of them (Acts 19:9-10). Their voice was going out to the ends of the earth (Rom. 10:18). The word of the Lord was sounding forth from them, and their faith in God had gone forth everywhere (1 Thess. 1:8).
They were exercising their First Amendment rights…and they didn’t even have the First Amendment.
So while I get that in one sense why we are so outraged over this senator’s statement that Christians need to keep their First Amendment rights confined to a church building, at the same time I wonder why in the world most of us are so upset about it…considering that for a generation or so the church building is the only place where so many of us choose to exercise our First Amendment rights to begin with. Why be upset with her idea of limiting a freedom which we ourselves have already limited?
Christians, do you want our society to get back to God? Do you want your church to grow? Most importantly, do you want the souls of every single person you know to go to Heaven?
It’s up to YOU to do something about it.
And it’s going to take a lot more than you nodding your head as you read this, saying “Amen!”, clicking the “Like” button on Facebook and posting this article on your wall, and re-tweeting it on Twitter. Remember, according to the Barna research above that…and only that…is what most of you are going to do.
No, it’s going to take more than that.
It’s going to take YOU, you PERSONALLY, deciding to ACTIVELY, on a DAILY basis, talking with the people in your life about Jesus and sharing the gospel with them.
If you do this, guess what? God’s going to open the doors of Heaven to you regardless of whether a single person listens to you.
But if you DON’T do this, guess what? Everyone you know who is lost will stay lost and end up in Hell for all eternity, and you will be right there alongside of them.
That’s what God has promised (Ezek. 3:16-21).
So go out there and use your First Amendment rights while you still have them…and then keep on “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) even if they should be taken away.