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E-mail and evangelism

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–It’s official. I no longer like e-mail.

That wasn’t always the case. I still remember discovering e-mail for the first time. My computer modem was as large as a vintage radio and as loud as a jet engine, but it allowed me to contact friends at a moment’s notice, at any time of the day or night. “You’ve got mail!” were welcomed words back then.

Not anymore. Not only does the constant buzzing of my Treo remind me that life is too busy, but the e-mails I receive sometimes only hinder communication. For example, most of us have experienced the anxiety of reading wrong emotions into an e-mail and/or explaining a misunderstood message that we sent. The e-mail symbols designed to express emotion simply cannot replace give-and-take, ask and respond conversations when emotions are involved.

In other cases, e-mail provides a means to express much more — too much, and in much less God-honoring ways — than we would say personally. We give too little thought to our words when communication is between computer screens rather than two people looking each other in the eye. The buffer of cyberspace somehow permits us to be rude and ungodly in our interaction with others.

My biggest concern about e-mail, though, is that this medium makes it possible to send messages without ever talking to each other. I have in my archive folders dozens of messages from friends who write regularly — but whose actual voices I have not heard in months. Why pick up the phone and call when I can just send an e-mail? At least this way I know I will not get a busy signal or an answering machine. I fear that face-to-face conversations have sometimes been unintentionally sacrificed on the altar of e-mail convenience.

Of course, my distaste for e-mail is really only partial. I am excited when I hear from long-lost friends who found me via web pages and e-mail. I can now somewhat easily communicate with missionaries around the world. Their concerns are distributed and prayers sent heavenward following just the click of a computer key. And, e-mail has provided unprecedented opportunities for doing evangelism — especially for those believers who might be less inclined to speak face-to-face about Jesus.

On the other hand, my concern that e-mail promotes faceless communication is dwarfed by a similar concern about current trends in evangelism. Think about it:

— Evangelism in too many churches is about believers responding to a guest who first visited the church rather than their proactively sharing Christ. If the non-believer (whom we may not know personally) makes the first move, we are then ready to respond with the Gospel.

— Evangelism is sometimes reduced to “invite others to church, where someone else (the preacher) will tell them about Jesus” — and even then more corporately than individually. In that case, nobody does personal evangelism.

— In some congregations, evangelizing takes place more on the international mission field —– as essential as that task is — than in a church member’s neighborhood. The same believer who travels overseas to speak of Christ through a translator often leapfrogs his own unbelieving neighbors who speak the same language.

— Despite the New Testament emphasis on laity, too many churches still relegate evangelism to hired clergy. As one church member told me, “We pay them to do that because they’re the ones trained for it.” Personal involvement in evangelism is thus equated with putting a check in the offering plate on Sunday.

I need to be clear here. I fully support using any God-honoring means to spread the Gospel. Ignoring current technological advances means missing great opportunities now available. I want church members to appreciate so much God’s work through their church that they willingly invite their friends to attend. My heart beats with global missions, and I have seen church members more committed to local evangelism after returning from the mission field. I also believe that clergy must set the example in doing evangelism. Hence, I am not discounting the methods and strategies listed above. I simply am saying that they are not enough if evangelism is not also personal.

Yes, write evangelistic e-mails, invite your neighbors and friends to church, follow up with guests, take mission trips and expect your pastor to be a model. Prayerfully support all that your church does to reach its community.

Don’t forget, though, to tell others about Jesus — and do it face-to-face.
Charles E. Lawless Jr. is dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Charles Lawless