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It is my contention that countries like America, England, Australia and other Western nations were in generations past, in a sense, like the ‘Jews.’ Thus, evangelists could approach them in the same way that Peter did in Acts 2. They had a Bible foundation. However, I believe that a foundational cultural change has occurred so that these nations are now like the ‘Greeks.’ Because the church, by and large, has not recognized this change, effective evangelism is becoming increasingly rare.
A fascinating quotation appeared in the March 2002 issue of Charisma magazine. Publisher Stephen Strang, who probably personally knows more missionaries and evangelists than anyone else, was writing about efforts to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ: ‘And calls for world evangelism seem to have little long-term effect.’
This amazing frankness, coming from the Pentecostal world (who are among the most passionate people about soul winning that the world has ever seen), illustrates the difficulty faced today by Christians who spend enormous amounts of energy, time and money to fulfill the Great Commission.
Over the years I have visited many countries. I have lived in Australia and America, and have spent considerable time in England. I therefore want to relate to you just some of the many observations I have made concerning these three countries. I then want to apply these observations to evangelism.
In 1959, when I was just a small boy, I vividly remember a major event in Australia’s history. A famous evangelist, known then as ‘The Bible Says Man,’ came to Australia for a series of crusades. Now, Australia is not—and never has been—a Christian country to any great extent. Americans often tell me that their country began with founding fathers who had great convictions. I tell them that Australia’s founding fathers also had great ‘convictions,’ but of a different sort! Of course, Australia began as a penal settlement for convicts sent from England over 200 years ago.
At the same time, the Christian philosophy that pervaded the English culture also was incorporated to some degree in Australian culture. When this evangelist visited Australia, the whole of Australia seemed to be buzzing. Most people were aware of what was happening. Communication lines were set up across the country to transmit his voice on loudspeakers. I recall going to a church hall and sitting in front of a big speaker as this evangelist preached.
His main message could be likened to that of Peter in Acts 2. He called people to repentance. And it is true that thousands were convicted of their sin and repented. Some historians have claimed that this is the closest Australia ever came to revival. I know of people in Christian leadership in Australia today who were converted during that particular crusade.
But here is a very important comparison: When that same evangelist came back in 1969, 1979, and by satellite linkup in the 1990s, with the same message (of sin and repentance), he didn’t get anywhere near the same response. Australia did not ‘buzz’ as it did in the 1950s. Certainly, some people went forward. However, like many crusades today, if we are really honest, there are few real first-time commitments compared to what happened generations ago. Something was different. (Incidentally, when this same evangelist went to Singapore in 1971, the response was similar to that in Australia in 1959. What is of interest is that Singapore had not yet introduced evolution into any of its curricula.)
My father was a public school principal in the state of Queensland. In accord with Education Department regulations, my father would have prayer each day with all the public school students before they went to their classes. Also, each teacher at the beginning of class was required to read a Bible story for that day.
I would say that most students were very aware of the Bible, and familiar with many of its passages, such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection, and so on. They were certainly familiar with the Ten Commandments and understood Christian morality. They had a sense of what was right and wrong.
However, here is an important observation: public schools in Australia today do not have prayer or Bible readings as part of their daily schedule. Although ministers of religion are allowed to conduct religious education classes, the system as a whole has actually now become very anti-Christian.
As a teacher in the public school system in the 1970s, I was always thrilled when the Gideons came to hand out free Bibles (New Testaments with Psalms and Proverbs) to all the students. I noticed, however, that as time went on, an increasing number of students refused to take one of these free Bibles. Something was definitely causing a change in attitude to the Bible.
In countries like Canada, the Gideons are no longer allowed to give out free Bibles in public schools. And in Australia, although Gideons are still permitted to hand out Bibles in public schools, there are some individual school councils who no longer allow this. Things are changing.
At one place, the pastor apologized to me for the fact that the church met in the foyer rather than the main auditorium because there were so few people.
As an Australian, I had always thought of England as being rather Christian. After all, this is the home of Bunyan, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Wesley and others. Yet, I was shocked the first time I traveled to England. There was hardly any vestige of Christianity left in public life. Conservative Bible-believing churches were mostly small and struggling. As I traveled across the country I noticed old churches that were converted into antique stores or even mosques.
On more than one occasion, I found myself preaching in a church that once held thousands of people, but now only a few dozen members attended. At one place, the pastor apologized to me for the fact that the church met in the foyer rather than the main auditorium because there were so few people.
And yet, before the last world war, church attendance in England made up a considerable percentage of the population (perhaps as much as 40–50 percent). Now, church attendance is more like 5 percent!
Something has happened to the church in England.
The first time I came to America in the early 1980s, I was astonished at how ‘Christian’ this country seemed to be. By comparison, until recent times, there were no Christian radio stations in Australia—I couldn’t believe the fact I could listen to Christian stations all across the nation. To me it was almost as unbelievable to see the number of churches in cities and towns all across the United States. In Australia, church attendance is quite low (probably around 5 percent for regular attendees). To me, America was very Christian.
I was startled to see nativity scenes in public places, but have noticed over the years how these are being gradually removed as court cases—often instigated by humanist organizations—challenge such displays. A change was occurring.
Considering how Christian America appeared to be, I was also shocked to find out that prayer was no longer allowed to be supported by officials in public schools. In fact, prayer, Bible readings and the Ten Commandments (God’s law) seem to be all but outlawed now in schools across the country. I understand a lot of this change started in the 1960s. (Now it is true that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does guarantee students free expression regarding their Christian beliefs, but because of intimidation by humanist groups, most school officials are reluctant to even consider this.) The U.S. Supreme Court has now interpreted the First Amendment—as far as teachers are concerned—to mean that they are not allowed to be seen to impose the Christian view above any other.
In recent times in America, public schools have been suffering from violence, drugs and sexual perversion. It’s sad to note that at school conferences there are now booths selling the latest in metal detectors, X-ray machines and the like, to help curb problems on the school grounds.
There is no doubt—great changes have occurred all around in America.
I would also like to make a few other general observations concerning all three countries.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to get people to attend church. Many churches have now resorted to expensive programs to attract people. It seems to be getting harder to bridge the gap between the church and the world.
Most of those who attend crusades or revival meetings today already have a church background. There certainly are conversions, but compared to generations ago, the number of really sincere first-time commitments (in most instances) is really quite small. By and large, the unchurched are becoming more difficult to reach.
Generations ago, in all three countries, many parents automatically sent their children to Sunday school or church programs, even if they themselves did not attend church. Increasingly, though, more and more families do not send their children to such events.
In all these countries, we observe increasing lawlessness, suicide, abortion, homosexual behavior, pornography, euthanasia and many other social ills. The Christian framework once prevalent in these nations is collapsing. Christian morality is waning. Increasingly, people don’t have a sense of right and wrong on many issues that were once clear-cut in generations past (e.g. sex, adultery, pornography). For instance, in the United States, morality and character were once vital criteria in presidential elections. In 1998, however, it was evident from how the public viewed the moral crisis in the White House that this was no longer so.
So what has happened to these nations? What has caused these changes?
Generations ago, I believe these (and other Western nations) were like the ‘Jews.’ Prayer, Bible readings and God’s law were even a part of the public education system. Most people understood (and basically accepted) Christian morality. People understood the concept of the Creator God of the Bible. They knew what was meant by sin, and accepted absolutes. When an evangelist preached a message of sin and repentance, people could be pricked in their hearts (as the hearers were in Acts 2). They knew that sin was adultery, sexual perversion, lying, stealing and not loving God with all their heart.
The founding fathers of America understood what would happen if Christianity (including prayer and the Bible) were ever taken out of the education system. For instance, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence stated:
The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments. Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.1
The present fashionable practice of rejecting the Bible from our schools, I suspect, has originated with the Deists. They discover great ingenuity in this new mode of attacking Christianity. If they proceed in it, they will do more in half a century in extirpating our religion than [anti-religious philosophers] Bollingbroke or Voltaire could have effected in a thousand years.2
The Bible, when not read in schools, is seldom read in any subsequent period of life.3
At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the world was a ‘dark’ place. People lived in fear, and superstition abounded. The Word of God was suppressed and not generally available. Church leaders insisted they were the only ones to determine what God’s Word meant. Luther led the Reformation to get people back to the sure Word of God and to get the Scriptures into the hands of the average person. What a change this wrought. We are still reaping the effects of this Reformation today. But sadly, as the church compromises the Word of God with the teachings of fallible men—and as more and more highly educated Christian leaders insist that only they can really interpret and give meaning to the Scriptures for the average person—we are seeing a reversal today of the Reformation that brought such light to a dark world.
Luther’s warning concerning education in the 16th century is more pertinent than ever today:
The universities only ought to turn out men who are experts in the Holy Scriptures, men who can become bishops and priests, and stand in the front and all the world. But where do you find that? I greatly fear that the universities, unless they teach the Holy Scriptures diligently and impress them on the young students, are wide gates to hell.4
I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God’s Word becomes corrupt. Because of this we can see what kind of people they become in the universities and what they are like now.5
When the Bible (and thus Christianity) was the foundational basis of a nation, there was much plowed ground, prepared for the seed to be planted. I suggest that this is why evangelists in generations past could reap such wonderful harvests. The Christian gospel could be communicated, for most people had the same way of thinking. They all started from the same basic presuppositions.
What has happened is that increasingly these cultures have now become like the ‘Greeks.’ They have, by and large, lost the Christian foundation that once existed. We have generations of people who have been trained in an education system basically devoid of the knowledge of God.
Most of the church is still approaching these cultures as if they are ‘Jews’—but they are not. They are becoming more like the ‘Greeks’ each day. And if the church doesn’t wake up to this change, increasingly they will not make a major impact on the culture, and any vestige of a Christian fabric that still exists will be all but lost.
What happened to bring about this change? What is the root cause? And why hasn’t the church understood this change if it has occurred?
The church, to a large degree, has helped the change, because the church itself has changed to being more like the ‘Greeks.’ This is the fundamental problem with our Western cultures today. And this is where the real cause lies in regard to the collapse of Christianity in the West.