Evangelism in the 90s: Rick Atchley Interviews Milton Jones (Jul – Aug 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rick Atchley and Milton Jones
July – August, 1993

ATCHLEY – How do you view prospects for evangelism in the’90s? Will our message be in season or out of season?

JONES – I definitely think that our message is “in season.” Paul says that we are to preach it when it is in season and out of season, but I think that there is an extra motivation to get the word out when it is in season. This great openness to the gospel in our country will be seen especially through 1995. During the next two years, we might see the greatest receptivity of our lifetime. The unchurched of America are seeking churches. They are beyond open. Open is when they will come to church when you invite them. Beyond open means they are coming even when they are not receiving invitations. However, most of these seekers will have found a church by 1995. As a result, some churches are going to see unparalleled growth during the next few years.

ATCHLEY – What is changing today that will impact us?

JONES – Everything. When I was in college, a marketing professor told our class that the only constant today is change. We all laughed. I don’t think anyone would laugh today. Francis Schaeffer in his studies during the ‘70s on Western Civilization said in reflection on the ‘60s that the changes that previously took a century to make now take a decade. I believe that these changes of past decades would now only take a year. You can see this most vividly in Eastern Europe. Who would have thought communism could fall so quickly?

Because of our acceptance of change, we have become very anti-traditional. This is very true in churches. And these people who are seeking churches are looking for non-traditional churches that are contemporary in ministry, evangelism, worship, and organization. People today are open to Jesus but not to every kind of church. There was a word coined in the ‘70s called “satisficing.” It meant that if you could have some things that you liked, you would put up with other things that you don’t like. Most people of the ‘90s don’t want to satisfice. They are looking for what they really want.

ATCHLEY – What does this mean for Churches of Christ?

JONES – It means that we have some problems if we don’t change some things. We have a lot of traditions that we don’t like, much less the outsider. Being non-denominational is good because it means that we can change quickly. But a lot of us are fearful to make the changes that need to be made.

Our “Back to the Bible” movement is not unique anymore. You can find a church on nearly any corner that agrees with that. Years ago we had something like an iron curtain around our members in the Churches of Christ. They didn’t know what was out there in the rest of the religious world. Now that iron curtain is down. And once they have seen the freedom that’s out there, they are not going to be the same. They are going to want change.

ATCHLEY –How do you understand evangelism in terms of the church’s mission? Is it the sole purpose of the church or just one of them?

JONES – I see the church as the body of Christ. As Jesus was here on earth, we are to be – we are to walk in his steps. So it’s hard for me to get far away from what he said in Luke 19:10 – that Jesus “came to seek and save the lost.” It doesn’t mean that we don’t do other things or that our benevolence is conditional (because it wasn’t with Jesus), but things in the church ought to relate to seeking and saving the lost. As Paul said, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” 1 Corinthians 9:22). We need to be asking, “Is this a possible means to save some?”

ATCHLEY – How are Churches of Christ doing in terms of growing through evangelism?

JONES – Not very well. There are very few that are having significant growth through reaching the unchurched.

ATCHLEY – Were we really “the fastest growing religious group in America” in the 1950s?

JONES – I don’t know. It’s debatable, but we were growing.

ATCHLEY –What has changed?

JONES – Nearly everything but us. As I said, we live in a world that’s changing and sometimes we haven’t. Therefore, we are too often not on the cutting edge. For instance, let’s talk about methods of evangelism. Christianity Today did its largest survey ever on Evangelism in the ‘90s. They found that the predominant way people were led to conversions today is through general talk and natural discussion about Jesus (54%). Yet we tend to think that the answer is in giving a canned personal salvation plan (only effective with 1%) or media approaches (less than 1)). These plans worked in the ‘50s, but not now.

ATCHLEY – Most people pick churches that minister to them. How do you get an inward-looking church to look outward? How do you move people from focusing on their own needs to considering first the needs of others – particularly non-Christians?

JONES –It’s difficult, and a sermon or seminar won’t do it. We have a lot of seagulls up here in the Pacific Northwest. I have heard that seagulls break open mussel shells by taking them up a hundred feet and then dropping them to the pavement. Sometimes it takes something dramatic to open a tightly encased world. In the case of an inward looking Christian, it may take a personal crisis or a significant and dramatic spiritual renewal.

ATCHLEY –If we continue to stress grace as a church, what implications does that have for us evangelistically?

JONES – It depends on what kind of grace it is – costly or cheap.

ATCHLEY – Do grace-oriented churches tend to become less evangelistic?

JONES – They have in the Churches of Christ which makes me think whatever we were preaching as grace may not have been what the Bible meant. We need to rediscover grace or perhaps discover it for the first time. Grace can be nothing more than a reaction to legalism. It could be simply a doctrine to allow you to justify your burnout and inactivity. This is especially true in a large church. The Fuller Institute says always 60% and commonly up to 90% of their members come from Christians seeking a haven of anonymity where they can take some rest and relaxation from the burnout of smaller churches. Large churches get that way for two reasons – successful ministry and the failure of the small church.

ATCHLEY – Do large churches face unique challenges in evangelism?

JONES – Yes. First of all, can the big church have intensive fellowship and discipleship on a small level and still remain a large church? True discipleship can’t take place on a mass level. It must be personal. Evangelism must be more than converting people to a big, exciting assembly. There must be a personal relationship with Jesus and his fellow disciples. And secondly, can the leaders of a large church survive? For survival in a large church, there needs to be a decentralization of leadership to not only help out the staff and elders but also to create opportunities for other people to grow.

ATCHLEY – What kinds of churches do you think will be the most successful in evangelism in the ‘90s? What traits will they have in common?

JONES – Many will grow, but few will grow through evangelism. In Prepare Your Church for the Future, Carl George labels the evangelistic church of the ‘90s as the “Meta Church.” “Meta” means change. The distinction of the Meta-church will not be its size but its ability to use its skills and energies to modify traditional church infrastructures. (In other words, it can change quickly.) They will be known primarily for two activities equally as important: a large celebration time of worship and small groups.

ATCHLEY –You are noted for your emphasis on groups in your church. Do you think the importance of groups will grow or wane in the ‘90s?

JONES – Discipleship Journal says that it will be the most effective way to reach people in the ‘90s. Carl George says it will be effective beyond the ‘90s. Tony Campolo thinks it might not be as effective in evangelism with the Baby Busters, but groups will still be effective in their discipleship and maturity. The problem is that most of the effective group ministries in the U. S. have been done by para-church groups. In fact, it is still the para-church groups that are doing most of the evangelism in the U. S. You hear about churches that are effective in doing evangelism, but in reality, there are few of them. The key for the future will be for the church itself to have an effective group ministry. It is possible. The New Hope Community Church in Portland has around 6000 in small groups. They estimate that 85% of the people were unchurched when they first came to these groups.

ATCHLEY – How do you get evangelism into friendship or lifestyle evangelism?

JONES – This is extremely important because it is the most effective way to reach people today. Studies show that 75% to 90% of church members are in a particular church because of their friends or relatives.

ATCHLEY – Have these approaches become cop outs for never verbalizing faith?

JONES – Too often they have. In some cases there has been friendship but no friendship evangelism. For evangelism to take place, there ultimately has to be proclamation or the telling of good news.

ATCHLEY – How do you develop meaningful relationships with non-Christians when all your fri ends are Christians?

JONES – The truth is that we do have some non-Christian relationships. There are people in our lives who don’t know Jesus (maybe it’s the paper boy, a co-worker, a neighbor). The Institute of American Church Growth says the average Christian has 8.6 relationships with the unchurched (the older Christian close to six, the newer closer to twelve). The need then is to identify these people, get to know them better, pray for them, share experiences with them, identify receptive times in their lives, get other Christians to be with them, and tell them about Jesus.

ATCHLEY – There is a lot of talk today in religious circles about reaching “baby boomers.” Why?

JONES – They comprise at least one-third of the American population. If you count their children also, they comprise more than 50%. They are the most influential group in the U. S. and the most different. Without them, you don’t have much of a future. Plus, they are the most open.

ATCHLEY – What are they looking for in a church?

JONES – Worship, help with their children, meaning to life, Jesus really. They are not that different from the people in John 12 who said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” They may not know it, but what they are really looking for is Jesus.

ATCHLEY – What are the dangers of appealing to them?

JONES – They are probably the most selfish generation in history. They want things their way. There will always be a fine line between marketing the church and compromising our commitment. We must always know where that line is.

ATCHLEY – How can Churches of Christ in the Bible Belt overcome some of the negative perceptions others have of us in order to reach more people?

JONES – Go after the unchurched. It’s the churched that are prejudiced against us. The reason is that much of the early Restoration Movement was a reaction to other churches in America. As a result, most of our approaches to evangelism were designed to show how your church was wrong and ours was right. Over 95% of church growth today comes from other churches. Less than 5% come through conversions. Seek the unchurched. Whatever view they have of you will be because of you rather than someone else who preceded you.

ATCHLEY – Some are saying church planting is the way to reach people in the ‘90s. Do you agree? What does that say for older churches?

JONES – I’ve been told that “Church Growth” was the topic of the ‘70s, “Church Planting” the topic of the ‘80s, and “Church Renewal” will be the topic of the ‘90s. I think there are a lot of us looking for existing churches to have renewals. We want to know, “Can these bones live again?”

A great book on church renewal is Bringing the Church Back to Life by Daniel Buttry. In it he quotes Emmet Johnson: “A renewed church is a corporate group (and body) to which it is fun to belong. Its worship is contagious. But it cannot look at the world with dry eyes because the Christ who called the church into being is terribly concerned.” According to his definition there are three aspects to a renewed church. It is fun to belong to it, worship is alive, and it has a big heart and concern for the problems in our world.

I like the definition of revival in one of the old Welsh Revivals: “the churches are full of people and the people are full of God.”

ATCHLEY – Why is evangelism more difficult in existing congregations?

JONES – Evangelism is not why people are there in many churches. Many are there because they were born and raised there. Others go because of another attraction that has nothing to do with evangelism. Some are there because they were evangelized (these will want to be more evangelistic). There are some who choose a church because they see it as evangelistic, but this is getting rarer in the Churches of Christ.

ATCHLEY – Is there nothing we can do but accept who we are and make planting new churches our chief strategy for reaching the lost?

JONES – I hope not. I’m for planting new churches. We need to. But churches reproduce after their own kind. We believe in the God of the resurrection; surely he can resurrect the church!Wineskins Magazine

Rick AtchleyRick Atchley has served as the preaching minister for the Richland Hills Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas, since June, 1989. He has a BA in Oral Communications and a MA in Religious Communications from Abilene Christian University.
Rick is the author of three books: Sinai Summit: Meeting God With Our Character Crisis, Back to the Father: Crossing the Bridge of Forgiveness Without Burning it Behind You and What Men Need to Hear. Rick married Jamie Lyda, of San Antonio, on June 6, 1981 and they have two sons, Michael and Matthew, and one daughter, Morgan.

Milton Jones

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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