Evangelism is the act of sharing the message and teaching of Jesus Christ. Two millennia ago, Jesus told His followers to go into the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15). The disciples shared their faith on foot, surely never imagining how large revivals, radio, television and the internet would forever change the face of evangelism.
In his recent Barna Highlight, researcher George Barna noted “over half of churched Christians (52%) report that posting online is a very important way they share their faith with others.”
The history of evangelism shows how proclaiming God’s word has changed in drastic ways over recent years.
Spiritual awakening through revival
Diane Severance writes: “Until 1865, the churches in North America tended … to seek an outpouring of revival from God to awaken His people from spiritual lethargy.”
Jonathan Edwards led one of the first revivals of historic significance in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1734–1742. George Whitefield’s dynamic revival preaching in Philadelphia in 1739 added fuel to the fire of the Great Awakening.
During 1800–40, Charles Finney’s revival-style evangelism led to the Second Great Awakening, spreading to 1,500 towns. In 1857, when lay missionary Jeremiah Lanphier opened the doors of New York’s North Dutch Church at noon so business owners could come in and pray, revivals broke out throughout the United States and the world.
Known as The Businessmen’s Revival of 1857–58, and sometimes called The Great Prayer Meeting Revival, prominent evangelists like Chicago’s Dwight L. Moody joined the growing movement, bringing spiritual awakening to millions who came to salvation in Christ.
The invention of the radio drastically changed the way Christians shared their faith. In June 1922, Chicago Mayor William Hale Thompson invited Moody Church Pastor Paul Rader to fill some airtime in Thompson’s newly built radio station on the roof of city hall. Radio gave Rader and other evangelists an instantaneous, universal, oral means to communicate the gospel, much like the printing press did for the written word. Thus, the radio preacher was born.
As one old-timer noted:
“Ye olden time circuit preacher in Kansas who rode from parish to parish, little dreamed that 20 years hence his more modern followers would step to the radio transmitter, close the switch, and for 20 minutes preach to a greater number of listeners than his complete circuit preaching ever reached.”
The decade of television
Another momentous change in evangelism came in 1939, when television was introduced to Americans. Although it didn’t gain a foothold until after World War II, by 1950 only 9% of Americans owned a TV; 10 years later the number jumped to 89.5%. Television proved a change that greatly decreased the importance of the home radio as a means of evangelism, and brought about the rise of the televangelist.
Billy Graham pioneered the early use of TV specials in the 1950s. Even in its infancy, Graham understood the power and reach of television. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association formed in 1950 and began using television as early as 1951 (when nearly 12 million households owned a black-and-white set). Graham, along with Cliff Barrows and George Beverly Shea, used the studios of KTTV in Los Angeles to produce a half-hour program they broadcast on as many stations as possible.
Just as radio and television changed methods of evangelism, no one could have imagined the coming digital explosion that would bring faith-sharing to a whole new level. Some even believe digital evangelism is now crucial if churches want to survive.
Digital evangelism is a concept of sharing the gospel through digital media, including social media, websites, and mobile apps and devices. Some effective types of internet evangelism include social media, email, video, blogs and podcasts.
Advantages of digital evangelism
As of January 2021, more than 4.66 billion people worldwide actively use the internet, 59.5% of the global population.
Not only is the internet “missions field” wide-open with billions of active users, but it is extremely affordable. Every Christian and church leader can now share the gospel through email and social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Reddit and others.
The cost of an in-person crusade might be $25,000 or more. Organizations must rent an auditorium or stadium, pay speakers and musical artists, advertise, employ workers and engineers, pay for security, permits, logistics, etc. Not only is this type of evangelism expensive, but, in this season of social-distancing, restrictions may limit the size of the audience. Through online platforms like Facebook Live or YouTube Live, ministries can forego in-person events and reach people in their own living rooms.
Experts agree one of the best platforms for online evangelism and connection is Zoom, a technology option that allows one to capture and keep data, track attendance and create small discussion groups in an interactive environment.
With church membership declining, pastors and church leadership can use the internet as an effective tool for evangelism, bringing worship services to homebound members as well as the world’s unchurched people. During the COVID-19 threat, when churches had to close their physical doors, the internet allowed congregations to “meet together” online each Sunday morning.
While the internet may also pose some disadvantages — decreasing person-to-person witnessing, Christian fellowship, in-person crusades and revivals, discipleship and follow-up, on-foot evangelism — Christians are using the internet to effectively go into the world and preach the gospel.
While the methods have changed drastically over recent years, the good news is: the gospel message has stayed the same.