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  • Writer's pictureMichael Durham

THE EVANGELIST—A DYING BREED: THE NECESSITY OF THE RESURGENCE OF THE EVANGELIST





In the ever-evolving landscape of modern Christianity, a specific figure seems to be fading off into the setting sun. Historically, the evangelist/revivalist has been integral to the Church's life. When the Lord ordained seasons of awakening and revival, the evangelist was often at the center of God’s renewing activity. But today, for reasons to be enumerated, these bold men who call the people of God to repentance and sinners to faith are dwindling in numbers and influence. My purpose for writing these articles is to show the reasons behind the decline of the evangelist, demonstrate their historical significance, and hopefully make a compelling case for the resurgence of this most important gift to the Church.

 

 

The Decline of the Evangelist

 

In the ever-changing emphases of contemporary church life, it's easy to overlook the dwindling presence of the evangelist. Some argue that the need for these itinerant preachers is no longer necessary. When America was younger, with westward expansion at its height, these fervent preachers needed to travel from town to town, proclaiming the Gospel in communities with little Christian influence. With the coming of the 20th century, the role of the evangelist became more of a revivalist, stirring up lethargic congregations. Today, the focus has shifted towards more localized, community-oriented ministries, where pastors are chief executives with pastoral staff to keep the church active and busy. However, most of the activity is self-directed, promoting allegiance to a church system that leaves participants thinking they are engaged in biblical church life. This has left the itinerant evangelist outside in the cold, unwanted and neglected.

 

The present thinking is that such gifts are not necessary. We don’t need the pietistic pulpiteer reminding us where we have fallen. We have improved and advanced to a maturity that it need not be said of us, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4).

 

But what may seem like progress is a decline that comes at a significant cost. With their passion for spreading the Good News and reaching the lost and a burden for the lukewarm saint, the evangelist brings a unique and much-needed perspective to the Church. Though seemingly outdated, their role remains a timeless value God can use to breathe new life into congregations searching for a renewed sense of purpose and mission.

 

 

The Historical Significance of the Evangelist

 

To truly understand the essence of the evangelist, we must delve into the annals of church history. Let's step back when evangelists were not relics but flaming leaders of revival. We must remember the apostles in the Book of Acts traversing the known world with the Good News. The exemplary evangelist Paul crossed continents, planting churches with his converts.  Think of Philip and Timothy, commissioned to carry the Gospel to the unreached.

 

Let us remember the Great Awakenings. There, too, were the evangelists, the heroes of those transformative seasons. George Whitefield, a dominant figure in the First Great Awakening, drew thousands, generating a hunger for God among the godless and the religious. Asahel Nettleton fanned the flames of the Second Great Awakening, championing personal conversion and the need for a vibrant, experiential faith. These aren’t just faded memories of a forgotten era but proof that the evangelist served as a catalyst for revival, awakening, and advancing God's Kingdom.

 

 

The Role of the Evangelist Today

 

If ever we needed the heart and word of the evangelist, it is now in this contemporary church context. That ministry gift remains as relevant as ever, but unlike before, it is disregarded by pastors and churches. Fewer and fewer churches will invite the man gifted to stir the heart towards God. Conviction of sin presents too many problems and too much work for pastors who prefer a 9 to 5 schedule. They make no time for a season of solemnity and examination. Most would not know what to do should God bring His presence to bear on a congregation, and a holy hush fell on the crowd. I cannot tell of how many times that has happened while I am preaching, and afterward, the leadership says, “I’ve never seen anything like that,” or, “I’ve never been in a service when that happened.” And it isn’t just the younger men who confess that. I have had men my age say that they have been in church all their lives and never witnessed the glory of God come upon a congregation.

 

Increasingly, if special meetings are put on the church’s calendar, it is concerts, training seminars, or conferences. And concerning conferences, pastors are usually chosen for the speakers’ roster. I’m not against this, nor is this a grip session where I am trying to soothe my soul. I am persuaded that the gifts of the evangelist/revivalist are being ignored, and the Church is suffering as a consequence. Even if a church still has the annual revival meeting, with few exceptions, the invited preacher is often a pastor friend in the region.

 

It is no wonder that the revival meeting lacks revival, and the conferences may create temporary enthusiasm but never a move of God. Pastors are, by and large, teachers. They teach the word of God to the flock of God. Many commentators and pastors interpret the office of “pastors and teachers” in Ephesians 4:11 as “teaching shepherds.”[1] It is not that teaching is not needed in the body of Christ, nor is it that the teacher's gift is not genuine. The anointed teacher is a necessity for the health and maturity of the body. Nevertheless, the teaching ministry has been elevated to the primary gift in the last 50 years and is considered the catalyst to spirituality.

 

If you think I am speaking in hyperbole and therefore overinflating the situation, then take a tour of the most popular “preachers” today, especially those on the major conference circuit, and you will discover the vast majority are pastors, with rare exceptions.

 

This is evidence that the evangelist is being ignored or, worse, rejected. Undoubtedly, the 1980s gave a terrible black eye to the word evangelist when several prominent men who called themselves evangelists scandalized Christianity with their public sins. Since then, many doctrinal errors have assaulted the Church by men who are itinerant ministers, as well as women who carry the title of evangelist. But such is no justification to delegitimize this office by accident or purpose and the gifts accompanying it.

 

There are a few of us left, but what will happen when we leave the scene and go the way of the earth? Very seldom, if at all, do I hear a young man state his desire to be an itinerant preacher. The coveted position is the office of pastor almost exclusively. A good number of men still aspire to the ministry of a missionary, but almost none want to be an evangelist.

 

Where are the voices of thunder? Why is there little to no ministry of awakening? And why are there no genuine revivals where people are humbled in brokenness and contrition before the Lord? When the office that produces that kind of ministry is shunned, along with it is shunned the God-given fruit it yields.

 

In the following articles, I will explore in more depth current trends in conservative traditions that have contributed to the demise of the traveling preacher known as the evangelist. Please read each one with serious consideration to the arguments presented for the resurgence of the evangelist.


[1] R. Kent Hughes, Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ, Preaching the Word Series, Olive Tree Bible Software, version 6.14.5, Eph. 4:11, e-book.


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