As a former member of an evangelical church, I remember those lessons about the sad state of overseas missionary efforts, often directly form the mouth of a visiting missionary. The story was always troubling and extremely daunting. Of course, the purpose of these lessons was always to stir us all up to support those few men and women who actually chose to evangelize out of the country.
After hearing a missionary speak passionately about having a few hundred member congregation somewhere after a 10 or 15 year effort, my mind would invariably note that the country in view had millions of citizens. How excited was I supposed to be about reaching so few, and what was the likelihood that the future progress would be dramatically better.
To abate that type defeatist thinking, we would often hear that indirect means of reaching people were being advanced: literature, recordings, and broadcast media. These indirect approaches were implied to be the means by which the mandate of the Great Commission would at last be successful, at least in the sense that all had heard if not responded. Particularly today, with the advent of the internet and the stateside emphasis on the use of broadcast media by the church, this indirect approach to teaching is more and more favored in world evangelism.
This "scatter gun" method of spreading the word is decidedly different than that of most of the history of the church, what we would call personal evangelism. In the former, the hearer only has the opportunity to absorb a very limited message, whatever is presented in that broadcast or literature, whereas in a personal evangelistic approach, questions can be asked and elaboration requested. One can readily see that the latter method would logically limit its effectiveness as a normal teaching tool.
Indirect evangelism almost demands an element of divine intervention in the teaching process to overcome its limitations. It is hard to imagine that a person of a vastly different culture could be convinced of a new religious truth from hearing one of even a few lessons, without some kind of extraordinary motivation, apart from the mere words and the knowledge they convey. Whenever, divine intervention in evangelism is assumed or implied, troubling questions arise. Why is divine intervention so seldom successful? What determines when it is successful? Can the human teacher facilitate the success and, if so, how? If every person heard the evangelical message one time in their life, would that fulfill the Great Commission to God's satisfaction? If one chance at salvation is sufficient for God's purpose, why do some have many and some have none?
Some evangelicals suggest that indirect evangelism includes benevolent activities on the part of the church to address physical needs in the world: food, clothing, shelter, medical attention. Often though, fellow evangelicals shout down that suggestion, claiming that effort directed at physical needs simply dilutes the efforts to teach and turns the church into a "soup kitchen" instead of a holy place. It pits the idea of teaching by doing against a teaching by saying only. If the effectiveness of the human element in evangelism is to be maximized, it is hard to understand how relying on verbal instruction alone is better than the instruction coupled with benevolent example. Those who oppose benevolence as an evangelistic tool, must emphasize the power of the mere words associated with teaching. The words alone, perhaps supplemented by divine activation, must be capable of impressing and motivating the hearers. By implication those hearers don't need the example of a life guided by the evangelical principles. Instead we should simply pound the words of evangelicalism into the brain, by whatever conceivable scheme, over and over again and let God do the rest.