Bob Dylan once said, “The times, they are a changing.” This was true over 40 years ago and it still rings true today. One needs to look no further than their phone. My iPhone 5s now has more power, intelligence and functions than the first spaceship to land on the moon. Dylan was right.
While the world around us seems to be changing at lightning speed, we know that some things remain unmovable in spite of cultural trends. God never changes. The gospel is true in all times and all cultures. Sin is still a big deal to God, no matter what we call it or label it. The church is still God’s method of evangelism, discipleship and missions. The Bible is still the perfect written revelation of God’s redemption of humanity just as Jesus is the complete flesh and blood revelation of God’s love and grace.
Wise Christians understand that questioning our methods is not the same thing as questioning the message of the gospel. As times change, we must, in the words of Paul, understand how to redeem the times in light of the prevalent evil of our day. Wise leaders understand that if the horse is dead, you need to dismount.
In other words, if something is not working anymore, then it should be fixed or scrapped. This is not rocket science, just common sense.
Which brings me to the simple question: Are big evangelistic events still relevant? Do they work? Has their day come and gone?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an evangelist who speaks at many large events (as well as many small ones). I’m also the teaching pastor at a large church that has seen thousands of conversions in the past 14 years. So I would be a hypocrite if I jumped on the bandwagon of “the day of big events is over, we should all just live in a small group forever.” While I completely believe that big events, done well and deliberately for the sake of reaching the lost, are just as viable today as they were in the heyday of Billy Graham’s stadium ministry, there is no doubt that the landscape has changed. I would like to explore the reasons why as well as offering a few humble suggestions on how the church can leverage the “big event” once again for the sake of the Kingdom of God in reaching lost people with the gospel.
The Changing Landscape
Clearly, it is a different day than when I first came to Christ in 1987. I began preaching at age 14, the same year I was converted to faith. Back then there were a handful of big events, and they were really big. I remember going to a Christian rock concert with 10,000 people when I was 16. The event was put on by a major denomination in a Division I college football stadium.
About the same time I attended the Texas Youth Evangelism Conference in Dallas (summer of 1990) and around 20,000 teenagers gathered in one arena for a gigantic mega-event. I was awestruck.
Fast-forward 25 years. Both of these events are still taking place, and by God’s grace I was able to actually speak at both of these events that I had attended as a teenager a quarter century ago. The attendance at both events was less than 1,500 each. The times had changed.
But before you think I am lamenting an attendance drop, allow me to show you another perspective. At both events, there was a greater focus on the mission of proclaiming the gospel. Hundreds of people responded to the invitation to trust Christ. These numbers (representing lives of real people) were the results of the leadership of those events being deliberate and focused about making the gospel of Jesus Christ the central reason for the event.
Again, this is not rocket science, just common sense.
Why such a huge decline in attendance?
This is the first question evangelicals often ask. There are reasons why big events have gotten smaller and I will mention them briefly and move on to more important things, like leveraging these events by making them leaner and meaner for the gospel.
Billy Graham proved that you could pull off a big Christian event and pack the place out. He paved the way for everything from Friday night 5th Quarters to Promise Keepers to Beth Moore conferences. But it took a generation for big events to gain traction. As Graham’s crusade ministry wound down because of his age, a fresh crop of mega-events rose up to fill the gap. Winter Jam. Passion. Hillsong Live. Catalyst. These are all a result of an evangelical subculture that loves the big event experience. Today, we have tours and concerts and leadership events coming to a major city near you all the time. How many do you go to? Which ones do you take your teenagers to? Across the board, more people are attending big events, but fewer are attending the traditional ones or the strictly evangelistic ones. Case in point; today, less than 5,000 people on average attend the Southern Baptist Convention. That’s a quite a bit less than the over 40,0000 that attended just 30 years ago.
There really is no easy way to say this, so here it goes; some big events are fun and energetic and awesome, but they just don’t make a big deal out of the gospel. In other words, something besides the gospel is central to the event. I am all for family friendly entertainment and good Christian fun, but there are a limited number of events you can go to in a year, and if you spend all your budget on fun events that make your students laugh and make your ears ring but you never prioritize events that are planned and executed for the sole purpose of exposing people to the preaching of the gospel (where they are actually told that God loves them, that they must repent of their sins and trust Christ, and then are given an opportunity to do that) then it is no wonder the big evangelistic events have suffered while positive, entertainment driven events have multiplied. And while those who run these events do a great service to the Kingdom by providing fun experiences, over time the message of the gospel can become diluted or overshadowed. The gospel is not just having good Christian fun in a safe environment. If the clear gospel is not proclaimed, then the event may lead to an eventual conversation about the gospel, but in the short run it was just good Christian fun (and I don’t say this with a condescending tone, but rather to clarify the difference in the big events themselves).
To be honest, many leaders have told me to my face that they took their group to an event that was promoted as an evangelistic outreach only to leave without ever hearing the gospel proclaimed or having an opportunity extended where people clearly understood that they needed to be saved. We all know how difficult it is to get a lost friend to attend a church service with us. It’s often easier to get them to come, at first, to an event not held at a church building. So when you cash in your chips and finally get them to an event where you believe they will hear the gospel, and they don’t hear the gospel, you know that it may be difficult to get them to come back. We want to leverage the relationship we’ve invested in. And while the most effective way is to share the gospel one on one as you live life together with lost friends, we also know that a big event can be just as effective for the gospel, especially for Christians who don’t feel confident enough yet to lead a friend to Christ. Big events, while not perfect, can offer an environment and an experience where the unbeliever and the unchurched can hear the gospel and respond to Jesus.
Hard Work and a Few Fights
A funny thing happens when the simple gospel is clearly proclaimed and people are told what they must do to be saved. I have seen it happen for 27 years and it never, ever fails, whether it’s a big event or a small Bible study or a conversation in a coffee shop. People actually respond. The Holy Spirit convicts them and their hearts are broken over their sin. By His grace, they repent of their sin, trust Christ and begin a relationship with Jesus. That moment of invitation and response is not the end. It is the beginning of a life of discipleship that unfolds in the context of a local church that is serious about handcrafting lifelong followers of Jesus.
Yet I know from experience that if we are going to see the big events leveraged for the sake of seeing lost people respond to the gospel (instead of giving up the big events altogether), it will require a unified effort on behalf of those who organize and pay for these events. Those in charge must value the gospel supremely. They must be vigilant in protecting the mission of the event, which is the proclamation of the gospel.
There was a day where the phrase from “Field Of Dreams” applied to big Christian events, ”If you build it, they will come.” That day is gone. You cannot book a band and a speaker, order some pizza and hand out a few fliers and get 500 kids to show up anymore. Putting on a great event and getting a great turnout takes months of prayer and preparation. Events that are thrown together are usually poorly attended and can do more damage than good. That is why for some churches that may lack the resources or staff, the best idea is to find the best evangelistic event you can, put on by someone else, and throw all your weight behind getting people to that event. A youth minister recently told me that the reason why they come to our Crossroads Summer Camp each year is because we do a better job putting on evangelistic events than they ever could. His exact words were, “It’s the best bang for the buck.” So be realistic. If you cannot leverage an event of your own to reach lost people you’ve been building relationships with, then find the one out there that is the best bang for your buck and work hard to get people there. Just make sure that the gospel is the mission of that event or you may leave disappointed.
A Few Fights
You’d be surprised to know how hard it is to convince the people who invite me to speak at large events that we actually need to give the preacher more than 10 minutes and that we actually need to invite people to repent of their sin and being a relationship with Jesus. It’s not that way everywhere, but big events have the potential to get lost to numerous little agendas. Everyone wants to promote his or her thing. Everyone wants to get up on stage. Influential people need face time. The band wants to be the headliner and sometimes even the speaker gets territorial about stage time. I remember showing up at an event about 15 years ago. The promoter told me I had plenty of time for the message and the invitation, but the stage manager for the event told me that the band had not agreed to have a speaker that night and I would not be preaching. This was a simple lack of planning and communication on their part, but there I was, with thousands of students in the audience that needed more than just some Christian rock and roll. So with gentleness, I stood firm and fought for a chance to preach. They gave me 20 minutes. God saved many souls that night. But it should have never gotten to that point. If it’s just a concert, then rock hard for Jesus and have a good time. But if the purpose of the event is evangelism, then be clear about it. Be unified and fight to maintain that purpose, no matter what. Stand your ground.
The big evangelistic event isn’t dead, it just needs to figure out what it is trying to accomplish. When it’s focused on evangelism, when the gospel is clearly proclaimed, when an invitation is extended, and when local churches are prepared to help converts take their next steps as new disciples, it’s still one of the most effective ways to reach people for Christ. Let’s not give up on the big event. Let’s fix it and make it effective to reaching people who are far from God.