Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 4, Number 1


Mass Evangelism: Problems and Potentials

Ed Mathews
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

Mass evangelism is the attempt to proclaim the Good News to a large number of people simultaneously--whether in Gospel meetings or evangelistic campaigns, whether with print or film, whether by radio or television. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate a method--rather than the advocates of a method--called mass evangelism. Methods are relative. They are conditioned by time, place, and people. There is only one Gospel but there are many methods. The Bible reveals the message but does not lay down one absolute methodo- logy for proclaiming that message. The same method may be very effective at one time, in one place, with one people but quite ineffective at another time, in another place, with another people. Mission does not need another Gospel but it does require a continuous revision of the methods employed to communicate the old, old story in an intelligent and meaningful manner.

Critique of Mass Evangelism

Many people have been brought to a saving faith, many churches have been planted by mass evangelism. A great debt of gratitude is owed to such efforts. They have and will continue to have a profound influence on the progress of the kingdom.

The Charges. It is also increasingly clear that large-scale outreach cannot be institutionalized in the contemporary world. Like every method for spreading the Gospel, the mass approach to evangelism has built-in limitations. As TIME magazine said, in reference to a Billy Graham crusade, it is a "redundant anachronism" (1966:64). Though such an indictment may be unnecessarily harsh, overstated criticism should not blind any one to the widespread, deepening uneasiness about mass evangelism, should not blind missionaries to the need for a rigorous scrutiny of this method.

The Questions. A close examination of mass evangelism raises several important questions. These questions must be faced squarely and honestly. Are those who respond believers coming forward for rededication or unbelievers for conversion? Are they incorporated into churches? Are they nurtured into responsible, reproducing members? Do local congregations grow as a result of mass evangelism? What is the effect on the local church one year and five years later? Answers to these and similar questions will assist in discovering the real problems and potentials of mass evangelism.

A Response. In spite of the need for answers, surprisingly little research has been done, little hard data are available on this type of mission work. Mass evangelism traditionally reports attendance figures, listening or viewing audience, or number of responses. Success is often based on amount of letters, volume of calls, extent of requests, as well as materials distributed. These are important but only indicate the "front end" effects. They can obscure more than they reveal. Historical Background of Mass Evangelism

The use of mass evangelism is a long standing practice. Many essential lessons are learned from a review of its history.

Biblical References. Jesus proclaimed the kingdom to "large crowds," Matthew 4:25. On one occasion, when He saw the "crowds," He went up on a hillside and preached what is called the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:1. Later, such "large crowds" gathered around Him that He got into a boat and spoke to them, Matthew 13:1-9. At various times throughout His ministry, "great crowds" followed Him and listened to His words, John 6:2. Though it cannot be asserted that mass evangelism constituted a major method in the ministry of our Lord, He did use it as a practical means for communicating the Good News. Peter spoke to thousands on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:41. "Crowds" heard Philip in Samaria, Acts 8:6. Paul and Barnabas spoke to a "great number" of Jews and Gentiles in Antioch of Pisidia, Acts 13:44, Iconium, Acts 14:1, and Lystra, Acts 14:18. Paul and Silas spoke to "large numbers" of Jews and God-fearing Greeks in Thessalonica, Acts 17:4, and Athens, Acts 17:17, 22-32.

Obviously mass evangelism gave birth to the New Testament church. It was used effectively in various cultures and among different people. Nevertheless, it was not the only method employed in the New Testament. In fact, it was really not the primary method. Rather, the record indicates personal, small-group, face-to-face evangelism was the prevailing practice among the first century saints (Peters 1972:206). This may have been because of its effectiveness, because of its suitability to their emphasis on the laity, or because of the severe persecutions that broke out in the Roman Empire.

Historical Developments. Christendom through the centuries has continued to use mass evangelism. In more recent times, the tide of this approach has ridden the crest of three major waves of large-scale activity. The first wave of modern mass evangelism came in the eighteenth century ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield. Their work was characterized by open air meetings (often called "camp meetings" or "field preaching"), itinerating, and aggressive evangelism (Orr 1965:33). As a rule, the established churches in Great Britain looked askance at such "undignified" behavior.

The second wave occurred in the campaigns of Charles Finney and D. L. Moody in the nineteenth century. Although Finney worked cooperatively with the local clergy, it was not till the coming of Moody that a conscious effort was made to include the laity in the outreach (Orr 1965:191,192), albeit only a few, specially trained lay "personal workers" assisted the respondents in the counselling room at the campaign site. The third wave in the tide of modern mass evangelism came in the twentieth century under the leadership of William A. (Billy) Sunday and William F. (Billy) Graham. Sunday brought to mass evangelism an organizational efficiency, especially the use of follow-up cards distributed after the campaign to the churches the "converts" preferred to attend. The city wide crusades of Graham seek to mobilize all the churches in a given area for both participation and follow-up.

Recent Experiences. Others have in recent times borrowed from these models of mass evangelism with varying degrees of success and failure. Evangelism-in-Depth, New Life For All, Overseas Crusades, African Enterprise, Asia Evangelistic Commission, One Nation Under God, Hope For America, World Bible School, World Radio, World Christian Broadcasting, Herald of Truth, and others are contemporary examples of mass evangelism. None of them is the best way to reach the lost in every situation. All of them have limitations. None of them can be frozen in its present form. All of them need ongoing refinement in a rapidly changing world.

Problems With Mass Evangelism

Although evidence of its use in the New Testament and in church history may abound, mass evangelism as practiced today creates major concerns. Are these concerns compelling enough to require creative adjustments in its application or serious enough to disqualify its use altogether?

Problems with Size. Mass evangelism usually requires massive organization. The sheer size of such organization has fallen under increased suspicion lately. Mass evangelism is particularly prone to rely on big names. In the aftermath of Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jerry Falwell, there is a strong distrust of such bigness. George Barna calls it "corporate cautiousness" (1990:173). It results in a suspicion of self-promotion so often associated with mass evangelism. The credibility gap caused by such bigness tends to limit its appeal to a certain strata of society (Peters 1972:224). Consequently, in trying to cover a whole area, mass evangelism will "spread its effort too thin and expend equal labor upon the receptive and the unreceptive alike" (Bradshaw 1969:113).

Problems of Appropriateness. Mass evangelism has problems of appropriateness, too. It is easy to condition a church to think of evangelism as "a special event." Outreach becomes sporadic rather than persistent. Area wide efforts should supplement instead of supplant the soul-winning work of a local congregation. There is simply no substitute for regular, local, personal witnessing. When mass outreach is a substi- tute for evangelistic anemia, "it is both inappropriate and ineffective" (Cassidy 1976:205).

Problems with Results. Mass evangelism also has problems with results.
It struggles to gain and retain converts. In his book Church Growth Principles: Separating Fact From Fiction, Kirk Hadaway asserts, "there is no evidence that mass evangelistic events help churches grow...." (1991:29). To say there is "no evidence" is surely an overstatement. More accurately perhaps, is the conclusion of George Barna, in Marketing the Church, that "the cost is of dubious value considering the low returns" (1988:13). C. Peter Wagner carefully analyzed the results of an Evangelism-in-Depth campaign held in Bolivia during 1965. After the study he "was greatly surprised to discover that the year-long program had not increased the rate of growth of the churches" (1987:140,141). In fact, he went on to say, the percent of annual growth was greater the year preceding--than during and the two years following--the Evangelism-in-Depth effort! (Wagner 1987:141). Collaborating evidence for the struggle to gain and retain results abounds (Dyck 1975; Enyart 1970; Murphy 1970; Peters 1970; Reed 1974).

This does not mean that Evangelism-in-Depth specifically nor mass evangelism generally has no effect on church growth (Reed, Monterroso, and Johnson 1969:61). Positive outcomes have been obtained. Better results are being realized by some more recent mass outreach efforts. The various types of mass evangelism surface people who are interested, confront them with the claims of Christ, and invite them to respond--to write, to call, to come forward. However, results have too often been limited to these primary responses, to initial contact rather than long term commitment.

Potentials of Mass Evangelism

After reviewing fifteen years of mass evangelism in an article titled "Crusades and Missions," Joseph Underwood lists their benefits. (1) For the community, they can provide a reminder of the presence and reality of God, a prophetic voice pleading for a return to moral responsibility. (2) For the church, they can give a sense of solidarity among the local members, a feeling of confidence and hope for future growth. But, Underwood concludes, they "must be prepared for and perpetuated by the regular, continuing work of the local churches" (1965:12).

The following model is an attempt to lower costs, raise effectiveness, maximize regular, lay participation, reduce competition and conflict, deepen impact, and enhance the contextual relevance of area wide approaches. The model consist of three major elements (which encompass several sub-elements). First, involve the local church. Mass evangelism must not disregard, ignore, or overshadow the local brethren. Two important issues must be considered. (1) A person con- verted by the temporary excitement of great singing, big organization, or a skilled speaker often finds the local congregation flat, boring, and dull. New converts must experience the enthusiasm of the local brethren, be warmed by the fire of the local church. Research indicates that the greater the gap between the local church and the evangelistic effort the greater the difference between the initial ingathering and the harvest that lasts (Arn 1984:107). (2) Mass evangelism must not take the motivation, initiative, decision making, and work away from the local brethren. Cross cultural importations and impositions are not advisable in a day of deep and strong national feelings. The local brethren must "own" the area wide outreach effort from start to finish.

Second, take plenty of time.
If the local brethren are to be an integral part, they need more time, much more time to prepare for and participate in mass evangelism. What used to take several months may now require "several years" (Peters 1972:217). What used to be done by others will now be generated in large measure by them. The extension of time reflects two essential changes. (1) Year round activity helps local churches see proclamation as more than a flash-in-the-pan, once-in-awhile effort. Instead of appearing as an end in itself, mass evangelism must be seen as one of several ongoing outreach strategies. And, (2) the church does not serve mass evangelism but mass evangelism must serve the church or, more accurately, mass evangelism must serve the mission of God through the local congregation.

Third, develop a comprehensive strategy. The deep penetration of a community requires a thorough preparation. This suggests--even demands--that the entire process from beginning to end be bathed in fervent petitions for the blessing of God.

  1. Research. The more understanding of the local situation, the better evangelism can be focused on relevant issues.

    The research should be done in three stages with different questions at each stage. (a) Pre-outreach assessment. What methods of evangelism would work best? What message should be proclaimed? Who should proclaim the message? (b) Mid-outreach assessment. Who is being reached? What motivates them to accept Christ? Are they being incorporated into the local church? And (c) post-outreach assessment. Is the number of responses reflected in the growth of the church? How could the mass evangelism effort have been done more effectively? These and similar questions can keep mass evangelism from being an irrelevant, prepackaged, sterile mission effort.

  2. Training Seminars. The growth of the church must be understood. A nucleus of informed, local leaders is required to transform mass evangelism into solid, tangible, lasting church growth. It will not happen by accident. Leadership training seminars are imperative.

  3. Evangelism Classes. The emphasis is on the laity. The most effective evangelism occurs when those who have experienced salvation tell their friends, neighbors, and relatives. It has always been that way in history. The laity must be enabled and encouraged to share their faith throughout the mosaics of their community.
  4. Visitation. The laity must also be trained to recapture the inactive members as well as hold the new members. The social dimension must not be neglected (Guthrie 1992:3). Regular visitation is a productive practice which can and should begin before and continue after any mass evangelistic effort.
  5. Selective Evangelism. When research on the local population is finished, when the congregation is growing as a result of evangelism and visitation, THEN a carefully selected, receptive segment of the society should be given priority attention as a target of mass evangelism (Lausanne Occasional Paper 1989:10). The unreceptive should not be ignored, but certainly the bulk of the resources should be deployed in ripe fields.
  6. Follow-up. Letters, calls, and visits must be used to maintain contact and encourage study. Home classes with each respondent will increase the possibility of conversion to Christ and incorporation into the life of the local church.

Mass evangelism is still a viable method of outreach.
Its limitations are real. Its results must be measured in context against the investment of time, money, and effort. Mass evangelism has value as one-among-several possible strategies. However, as a means of reaching the unreached where the church does not exist, it is by and large a waste. As a solution to local church inertia, as a substitute for ongoing local evangelism, it is futile.

Mass evangelism can be a powerful means of Gospel procla- mation in relatively small towns, where community prevails, where local brethren are harmonious. If it is imported simplistically into large heterogeneous cities, and confined exclusively to a series of public speeches, radio or television programs, it is probably counter productive, relatively ineffective, and an inefficient use of resources. At the right place, in the right time, and among the right people with appropriately trained local personnel, with comprehensive church-centered follow-up, and in the power and guidance of the sovereign God, mass evangelism can be a strategy whose potentials outweigh its problems.

Honest evaluations and continuous study must accompany every application of mass evangelism in order to assure growth. Multitudes of winnable people are waiting to hear. God will be glorified if a good method is refined into a better one.


  1. An example of such careful scrutiny is a chapter by B. E. Davis called "Mass Media in Missions" in the book Guidelines for World Evangelism (Gurganus 1976:140-169) as well as Christian Chronicle article by Philip Slate titled "Missions Professor Critiques Methods Used in Eastern Europe" (1992:15).

  2. An example is the research report by Win Arn called "Mass Evangelism: The Bottom Line" in The Paster's Church Growth Handbook, Volume I, 1984, pages 95- 109.

  3. The sexual improprieties of Bakker and Swaggart are well documented. Much less known--but equally as disastrous in terms of public skepticism--is the financial debacle of Jerry Falwell. The sad scenario has just recently come to light. David Reed, "Falwell: An Unraveled Empire Now," Abilene Reporter News, Sunday, December 20, 1992, Section A, pages 13 and 22.


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Arn, Win 1984 "Mass Evangelism: The Bottom Line" in Win Arn, ed. , ed.

1984 The Pastor's Church Growth Handbook, Volume I. Pasadena, California: Church Growth Press.

Barna, George 1988 Marketing the Church. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress. 1990 The Frog in the Kettle. Ventura, California: Regal Books.

Bradshaw, Malcolm 1969 Church Growth Through Evangelism-in-Depth. South Pasadena, California: William Carey Library.

CASSIDY, Michael 1976 "Limitations of Mass Evangelism and its Potentialities," International Review of Missions, Vol. 65, No. 258, April, pages 202-216. Davis, B. E.

1976 "Mass Media in Missions" in George Gurganus, ed. DYCK, David 1975 "The Missionary Church in the Dominican Republic." An unpublished MA thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary.

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Peters, George 1970 Saturation Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House. 1972 "Great-Campaign Evangelism" in Donald McGavran, ed.

Reed, David 1992 "Falwell: An Unraveled Empire Now," Abilene Reporter News, Sunday, December 20, 1992, Section A, pages 13 and 22.

Reed, Jerold 1974 "A Componential Analysis of the Ecuadorian Protestant Church." An unpublished D.Miss. dissertation, Fuller Theological Seminary.

Reed, William, Monterroso, Victor, and Johnson, Harmon 1969 Latin American Church Growth. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Slate, Philip 1992 "Missions Professor Critiques Methods Used in Eastern Europe," Christian Chronicle, Vol. 49, No. 7, July, page 15.

Taylor, Clyde and Coggins, Wade, eds. 1970 Mobilizing for Saturation Evangelism. Wheaton, Illinois: Evangelical Missions Information Service.

Time 1966 "Billy's Victory in London," Vol. 88, No. 3, July 15, pages 64,65.

Underwood, Joseph 1965 "Crusades and Missions," The Commission, Vol. XXVIII, No. 5, May, pages 9-14.

Wagner, C. Peter 1987 Strategies for Church Growth. Ventura, California: Regal Books.

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