In the carrying out of the great commission, churches can be a gathering place for believers to receive instruction, encouragement, and fuel to go and make disciples. If not careful, churches can create a “bystander effect” that generates evangelism apathy.
Social scientists have written about the “bystander effect” when citizens seem frozen in fear to provide help or correct injustice. The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City sparked a furious debate when it was reported in the newspaper that 38 people were witnesses to her stabbing death, but nobody bothered to help or call police. The bystander effect or “Genovese Syndrome” occurs when a “larger number of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward to help a victim.” (Philip Zimbardo)
Universities have conducted experiments to see how groups affect a person’s response. The studies made the startling discovery that people were far more prone to help a person in need when they were by themselves rather than in a group.
The bystander effect causes people to think, “If nobody is doing anything, then why should I?”
A believer’s human nature can easily succumb to the bystander effect when it comes to evangelism. Even though there may be an interest in missions and an understanding that evangelism is important – that people need to be rescued from their sins – the thought of verbally proclaiming the gospel to somebody seems profound, foreign, and intimidating. Believers are tempted to think that the Great Commissions is only meant for a select few.
“Why should we verbally proclaim the gospel when its already too late in this world?”
“There is no chance for new members because our community is too churched.”
“There is no chance for new members because our community it too unchurched.”
“If nobody else is doing anything, then why should I?”
How can you overcome the “bystander effect” that seems to plague many churches?
Evangelism only appeals to the new nature in Christ. Fully forgiven, fully redeemed because of what Christ has done, a saint perfect in Christ asks, “Why not me?” They don’t look to others to be prompted to respond by faith to share their faith with others but look directly at the cross. They trust his promises. They believe Jesus when he says “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields. They are ripe for harvest.” (John 4:35) They are not dissuaded by a perceived lack of results from their activity, but champion the activity of proclaiming the gospel itself. They are not prompted to carry out evangelism work to gain new members, but eager to be used by God to help bring as many people to heaven as possible through the power of his Word.
Mission-minded congregations seek to acknowledge – and sometimes repent — the bystander effect at their church. Through the power and the work of the Holy Spirit, they begin implementing the “heaven effect” in their congregation. They see needs in their community and attempt to meet them. They build bridges with people and are gospel intentional in their activities. Mission-minded congregations become far more concerned about rescuing the lost and winning citizens for heaven rather than increasing worship attendance.
They ask, “If nobody is doing anything, then why not us!”
It has become apparent that the story in the newspapers about the death of Kitty Genovese was largely exaggerated. An award-winning documentary, “The Witness,” that was produced in 2015 exposes this in more detail. The story, however exaggerated, helped propel social action to help correct the bystander effect and public indifference to real or perceived social injustice.
The gospel story is a believer’s lone source of inspiration. Jesus died. He arose. He lives today! And those simple truths are what people need to hear today.