Reaching the Lost
by Al Diestelkamp

Christians are always looking for ways to reach the lost with the saving message of the cross. While the unchanging gospel is still the only "power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16), the methods employed to convey it have changed over time.

One need only look at the record of evangelism in the book of Acts to see that even first century brethren had to find alternate ways of reaching the lost. On the day of Pentecost, and for a time thereafter, public "street preaching" was done with great effectiveness. They even held the equivalent of protracted gospel meetings, preaching "daily in the temple," as well as teaching "in every house" (Ac. 5:42). However, as we read on in Luke's account we see less public preaching in favor of more person-to-person evangelism being done.

After the dispersion that resulted because of increased persecution following the stoning of Stephen, we find the scattered disciples going "everywhere preaching the word" (Ac. 8:4). It seems that in Samaria preaching to large groups was still an effective tool used by Philip (Ac. 8:5-6), but he was also available to preach Christ on a one-to-one basis (Ac. 8:26-40).

Peter, who had been effective in public preaching, traveled quite a distance intending to teach one man. However, when he got to his appointed destination he found that Cornelius had gathered many friends and relatives to hear the word (Ac. 10:24).

Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, was called on to go preach the gospel to a terrorist who had dedicated himself to stamping out the message of Christ. Saul of Tarsus, immediately after his conversion, began preaching Christ in the synagogues. In fact, as the apostle Paul, that approach became his "custom" (Ac. 17:1-2), as well as debating idolaters (Ac. 17:22-34), and teaching from "house to house" (Ac. 20:20), until his arrest forced him to do his teaching while under house arrest, with prospects having to come to him to be taught (Ac. 28:30-31).

Then there was also the written word. In order to reach the lost of every generation, and to insure the integrity of the gospel message, the Holy Spirit inspired men to evangelize through that means. Thus we see that our first century brethren used whatever means were available, depending on the circumstances, to preach the gospel.

I am convinced that through the middle centuries there was a remnant of God's people who did what they could to advance the cause of Christ, but just how they went about it, I would not dare to speculate. However, we do have a glimpse into the methods of brethren in modern times, from the 18th century up to the present, and again, the methods have changed with the times and circumstances.

Pioneer preachers in the era that is sometimes referred to as "the restoration movement," used most of the same methods employed by first century Christians. They preached with great success in large public outdoor gatherings that brought out literally thousands of persons, most from sectarian backgrounds. This led to public debates that also proved to be effective in reaching those in religious error. Not unlike the apostle Paul, who went into the synagogues to teach, it was not uncommon for gospel preachers of that era to go into the meetinghouses of Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian churches to present the unadulterated gospel.

Our nation's Civil War in the mid 19th century put a damper on evangelistic efforts for the time, as did controversies regarding the organization of the church and the use of instrumental music in worship. By the onset of the 20th century the resulting division had pretty well taken it's course.

By the mid-20th century brethren were able to utilize some evangelistic methods and tolls that had not been available in earlier times. Congregations with ability would purchase airtime on local radio stations or place teaching ads in newspapers. At the same time, congregations usually hosted at least two week-long gospel meetings each year. Often, these meetings would result in conversions. I remember a meeting in which we went to the creek about every night (one night witnessing eleven baptisms).

Especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s an emphasis on personal evangelism was revived, encouraging small group studies (also called "cottage meetings"), or one-on-one studies utilizing self-made outlines or the use of purchased charts or filmstrips, resulting in moderate success. Congregations continued to have gospel meetings, but over the years these efforts have actually become more focused toward edifying Christians than reaching the lost. This is not a criticism. After all, you can't preach to people who aren't there.

Enough about the past! What about now? We have even more avenues of reaching people, including direct-mail, professionally produced videos and church websites. Even so, we're finding it difficult to find people willing to give God's word a chance. The congregation I work with has done an unusual amount of direct-mail advertising over the past year, reaching virtually every home in our community. We have had a number of initial responses, but none who will continue to attend our assemblies or accept an invitation for private studies.

Of course, we must press on and not give up on our efforts. In the meantime we can rejoice that in some parts of the world the gospel is being received more readily than here in our nation. Interestingly enough, the places the gospel is having the greatest impact are some of the poorest of nations.

Hmmm. Maybe we need to pray for God to humble our nation economically!

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Cortland, Illinois 60112
e-mail: aldiestel@gmail.com

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