Assessing the Consequences of Preaching to a Larger Audience

Every year the International Bulletin of Missionary Research publishes a table describing the status of the Church’s global mission. Among the numerous statistics that make up this year’s table are two of special interest: (1) the number of evangelism-hours and (2) the number of hearer-hours per year. On their own they are significant enough, but taken together they have some very important light to shed upon the state of global Christianity.

What these statistics try to document is every hour of evangelism and every hour of listening to the gospel that takes place in a given year. So, for example, if I spent one hour sharing the gospel with a group of ten people, one hour of evangelism and ten hours of listening would have taken place (one hour for each person). When taken together, one can calculate a ratio. In 1900 there were five billion hours spent in sharing the gospel, and ten billion listening hours accumulated, or two hours of hearing for every hour of preaching (2:1 ratio). There is a certain amount of intimacy that can be seen in this statistic.

While certainly there were evangelists speaking to large groups, the ratio implies that the majority of evangelism happened in small groups or face-to-face. This intimacy will be described by the word “space” throughout the remainder of this article and refers to the intimacy between the hearer and the speaker (not humans and God). While intimacy can be understood to mean the personal knowledge shared between two people, in this context it is simply referring to the ratio of hearing-hours to evangelizing-hours. The greater the ratio is between speaking and hearing groups, the further the space and the lower the intimacy.

Our goal has become getting people into the hallway (of Christiandom). Which room they choose after that is often considered a matter of little consequence.

Today the ratio is nearly six to one. While in 1900 the majority of evangelism took place one-on-one or in small groups, today the presentation of the gospel appears to favor a slightly larger setting. No doubt this increase is related to the boom in communication technology during the twentieth century. But while technology has effectively turned up the preacher’s volume—and drawn a larger audience—it has, nonetheless, caused the crowd to stand a little further from the stage.

Consequences of Having a Larger Listening Audience
While the ability to reach more people using fewer individuals is no doubt a great boon to Christianity, it nonetheless has at least three unintended consequences.

  1. As space increases, the likelihood of a convert joining the particular branch of Christianity, or the denomination of the preacher, is significantly diminished. A Protestant evangelist today might have converts choosing to follow Catholicism; simultaneously, a Catholic evangelist might fill the pews at a local Baptist church. In fact, the idea of it being any other way is utterly foreign to us. Evangelism today is very much like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Our goal has become getting people into the hallway. Which room they choose after that is often considered a matter of little consequence. While one might imagine that all churches would grow equally under this paradigm, this is simply not the case. The churches which seem to benefit the most from this are not the traditional branches of Christendom; rather, they are the independent and marginal (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc…) churches. Given greater freedom to choose their expression of Christianity, many, if not most, are going to choose a church that meets their immediate needs, and not one based upon doctrinal or structural distinctions. Those who feel as though they have flexibility in their choice of church will shop around. If they do not find a church they like—and they are ambitious enough—they may start their own. The greater the space, the less pressure one feels to belong to a Christian tradition. By 2025 the number of denominations is expected to increase from thirty-eight thousand (2006) to fifty-five thousand and the space between preachers and their audience is to increase from 6:1 to 10:1. The two appear to have a symbiotic relationship.
  2. With increased space comes greater difficulty in discipling new believers. In 1900 it would be unusual for a person coming to faith to not know another Christian; the space was just too small. Today, however, with the Internet, videos and radio stations, a person living in a Muslim country could hear a broadcast of the gospel, believe and be left completely isolated. Those radio stations, or the Internet, may offer a packet or a program of some kind in order to aid the new believer, but, for the most part, new converts are left to fend for themselves.
  3. The space created by telecommunications has brought about the rise of parachurch organizations. While many of these institutions have been trying to fill in the gaps created by the number of Christians expanding faster than church structures can allow, others have been a significant cause of space themselves. The result we have seen is a significant growth in both their number and influence; in fact, their number will nearly double by 2025 if trends continue. With their ability to focus their attention on narrow aspects of ministry and ease the burden upon local churches, there is no doubt that many parachurch organizations have been a significant help to the Church. Unfortunately, their lack of accountability to local congregations and willingness to go places where churches cannot has led to some of the problems mentioned above.

So while increased space means the ability to reach more people using fewer individuals, it also presents some difficult questions:

  • How do we tie those who come to faith into healthy churches?
  • How do we prevent the isolation of new converts in unchurched areas?
  • How do parachurch organizations work together in such as way to best benefit the Church’s mission?

Finding answers to these and many other questions will not be easy. Difficult decisions will need to be made, but being aware and being willing to question is essential to the future of Christianity.

Perrin Werner is earning his masters degree at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, USA. He also works as a research assistant for Todd Johnson at The Center for the Study of Global Christianity.