How well is America evangelized? This question was asked in a disturbing Christianity Today article entitled “How ‘Christian’ Is America?” (December 3, 1976). The author went on to say, “With a 71 per cent membership in religious organizations, it might seem that America is now virtually evangelized. No one I know of, however, believes that is so.” Well, I do! But before going into that, let me repeat some of the encouraging things brought out in that article.

1. “America has the largest group of professing Christians to be found in any country in the world.”

2. “More American people attend church in an average week than attend all professional baseball, basketball, and football games combined in the average year!”

3. “Some fix the number of U.S. evangelicals at 40 million, although the figure is a soft one.”

And to all of that good news can be added the facts that many of our nation’s best-known radio and television preachers are evangelical and, to quote Christianity Today’s senior editor, David Kucharsky, “most of the nation’s great churches are now evangelical” (“The Year of the Evangelical,” October 22, 1976). Many of us can remember when such things were not so.

But there is another side to the coin. Dr. C. Peter Wagner, the author of the article in question, says that of the 143.8 million adults in the United States, “more than 106 million … fall into the ‘functionally unchurched’ category. This is 74 per cent. In other words, three out of every four American adults are lost and need to be evangelized.”

And it is with this that I take exception. I believe that most of those 106 million adults are evangelized. Evangelized, yes. Converted, no. It seems evident to me that we are living in the most evangelized nation in all history. The United States is a land of gospel surplus. Let me illustrate what I mean by looking at first-century Jerusalem, certainly a city of gospel surplus. It was evangelized, yes. But converted, no.

1. John’s proclamation concerning the Lamb of God must have been much discussed by Jerusalem’s citizens.

2. Some of Jesus’ miracles and much of his teaching occurred in Jerusalem.

3. Wouldn’t most residents of the Holy City hear about the revolutionary cleansing of the Temple?

4. Then came the betrayal, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, at which time the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. Furthermore, the bodies of holy people were raised to life, and they went into the city.

Article continues below

5. After his resurrection, Jesus revealed himself to five hundred, of whom a hundred and twenty waited and prayed in an upper room in Jerusalem until Pentecost. This was followed by Peter’s sermon, and the turning of three thousand people to Christ. All who heard Peter that day were evangelized, but not all were converted.

6. But the evangelization of Jerusalem did not end with Pentecost. The Lord kept adding to the number of believers daily (Acts 2:47). Then we discover in Acts 4:4 that five thousand more were added to the church. We now have more than eight thousand believers.

7. In Acts 5:14 we find more believers, multitudes of men and women, added to the church. And this is capped by Acts 6:7, which says, “The Word of God increased and the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a large number of priests were obedient to the faith.”

8. The Holy City was by this time saturated with the Gospel, that is, well evangelized. For those who still doubt it, there is a strong word of testimony given by the enemies of the Gospel: “You have filled Jerusalem with your teaching” (Acts 5:28).

And yet, with all that, the believers in that great city apparently had little interest in evangelizing Judea, Samaria, and the Gentile world. They were prepared to sow the gospel seed in Jerusalem repeatedly at the expense of fulfilling the rest of the Great Commission. Perhaps they were confusing evangelization and conversion. Perhaps they thought they were to bring the world (their little world) to Christ, rather than taking Christ to his big world.

This suggests the necessity for defining evangelization. One definition is found, I believe, in Acts 2:11. The context reveals people from many lands gathered in Jerusalem. They were being evangelized in their own languages by Spirit-filled believers. They responded by saying, “We [unbelievers] do hear them [the believers] speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” From this I conclude that world evangelization means to give to all people an intelligible opportunity to accept Christ as personal Saviour.

Though that may only be a rudimentary definition of the word, it certainly points to the basic principle of operation followed by Paul. Having evangelized for two years in Asia (a province of Turkey), Paul claims that all who dwelt in Asia had heard the Word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks (Acts 19:10). He left Asia evangelized but not converted. He apparently felt the converts in Ephesus, Thyatira, Sardis, Smyrna, and the like should do the rest of the soul-winning, while he carried on with world evangelization.

Article continues below

In Romans 15:18–20, Paul, who consistently sought to preach the Gospel where Christ was not already known, refers to the outreach of his ministry. He says that from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Yugoslavia) he fully preached the Gospel. He does not suggest that he brought everyone in that 2,000-mile stretch of territory to Christ. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that he ever kept track of the number of his converts. But he certainly does suggest that he left believers behind him and that the Gospel was therefore available to any and all who wanted it. Paul was evidently not willing to saturate one small area with the seed of the Word at the expense of other areas. He refused to get bogged down in his little world to the neglect of God’s big world. But that is precisely what we who live in Gospel-affluent America seem to be doing.

I invite you to note the following facts:

1. We have more ordained ministers in the United States (330,000) than there are in all the other countries of the world combined. Of course, some of them do not preach the Gospel, but that is also true of some in other countries.

2. We have more Christian radio stations and more hours of gospel broadcasting (radio and television) than all the rest of the world. Beside this, we have 6,000 secular stations that air the Christian message from one to seven hours a week. Several fine evangelical preachers are on nationwide radio or TV networks every week.

3. Our Christian publishing houses and bookstores continue to increase, and the sale of Bibles and evangelical books is booming. There is more evangelical literature (books, magazines, and tracts) available in the English language than in all the other languages of the world put together.

4. We have 60,000 young people in our Bible institutes and Bible colleges, and many thousands more in our Christian liberal arts colleges. The combined total of students in Bible schools in the rest of the world does not match ours. Furthermore, we have more seminarians than all the rest of the world.

5. Our evangelistic outreach to children far surpasses that of any other country. It has been reported that on any Sunday there are more people in Sunday school in the United States than in all the rest of the world.

Article continues below

6. We have Bibles in most of the hundreds of thousands of our hotel and motel rooms. We have hundreds of Christian grade and high schools. There are far more Christian camping ministries in America than in all of Europe and Africa.

7. And what about the multiplied para-church youth ministries, and our church and city-wide evangelistic campaigns? In the recent “Here’s Life America” push, as many as 100 million Americans may have been exposed to gospel opportunity.

How does all this look in light of the fact that the United States contains only 5 per cent of the world’s population? If you were the Lord of the Harvest, would you so design things that one-twentieth of the field would be seeded and reseeded while the rest languished?

Our best missiologists today believe there are almost two billion people yet to be understandingly introduced to Jesus Christ. But apparently that does not concern us greatly, so long as there are “106 million American adults” who are “functionally unchurched.”

We conclusively demonstrate our indifference to world evangelization by the fact that 95 per cent of our trained Christian workers (pastors, evangelists, and so on) carry on ministries here in Gospel-affluent America, while only 5 per cent go to evangelize the 95 per cent of the world’s population living beyond our borders.

Then ponder the fact that we spend more than ninety cents of every church dollar on our personal religious concerns, while less than ten cents reaches the foreign fields.

America’s 74 million Protestants give slightly less than twenty cents a week per capita for foreign missions. If they gave only one dollar a week per capita (and how can we understand the Great Commission and give less?), our foreign-mission budget would total $3.85 billion, and that is almost ten times the amount now being received. All of this suggests that we really don’t believe the Great Commission as we should.

Perhaps we, like the early believers at Jerusalem, are not quite understanding the Lord of the Harvest. Maybe we are a bit confused as to whether we have been commissioned to bring the world to Christ (this will not happen) or to take Christ to the world (this must happen). We must be grateful that we live in the most thoroughly evangelized nation in the world, but never at the expense of getting on with reaching people for Christ around the world.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.