The Bystander Effect


A tragic situation unfolded on the streets of Queens, New York on March 13, 1964.  As she was returning home from work, Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed outside her apartment building. Many neighbors heard her screaming out in a panic, but only one man shouted out his window, “Let that girl alone.”  That was all he did.  Her attacker fled when the man called out but returned ten minutes later where he searched for her, found her, and finished her off.  If this situation isn’t appalling enough, what makes it much worse is the fact that about 37 witnesses either heard or saw the attack and yet did nothing.

This murder intrigued two young psychologists to find out what people are willing or not willing to do in an emergency situation.  They discovered something that is today identified as the “bystander effect.”  In their experimentation, they found that when only one bystander is present, 85% of people offered help.  When two were present, 62% of people offered help.  And when five were present, only 31% of people offered help (Wrightsman).  Surely this percentage lowers further when more are around.

What is the most dangerous about the “bystander effect” is the fact that everyone thinks someone else is going to help. We may not be witnessing murders or theft, but it makes one wonder if the church is being crippled by the “bystander effect.”  We are surrounded by and living in a world of spiritual emergencies, and yet far too often we sit back and think that someone else is going to do the evangelizing.  Perhaps part of the problem is understanding what evangelism is all about.

Evangelism is about community.  If we are all working together to create an environment that is friendly and inviting, then people will come to find acceptance among us.  We will become like a family.  It takes more than one or two people to create a community like this.  It’s going to take everyone trying and working together as a congregation.

Evangelism is about relationships. You can build relationships with people you know and slowly show them the Lord. Even if you have no idea how to lead a Bible study, your friendship with the person could be what brings them to our friendly community of Christians who eventually could lead them to Christ. But it has to start with you and this has to be on purpose.

Evangelism is about bravery. It’s easy to sit and do nothing. It’s hard to step out of our comfort zones. We are talking about spiritual emergencies here though! We’re talking about saving people from eternal punishment.  We’re not going to bring people to the Lord overnight, but let’s be brave and start slowly building our relationships with our friends and start pointing them to the Lord.

Evangelism is about effort. Few know how to lead a Bible study, and that’s alright, but we need to stop using our lack of knowledge as an excuse to do nothing. Let’s study diligently so we don’t have to use our lack of knowledge as an excuse for a lack of effort. Let’s just set up a study and have someone else lead it. Let’s bring our friends to events so others can help bring them to the lord. Let’s offer to sit in as a “silent partner” with someone who is already leading a study so that we can learn how to do a study. There is a lot we can do, but it’s going to take effort.

Jesus clearly taught, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

This isn’t your job. This isn’t my job. This is OUR job.


  • Lawrence S. Wrightsman, Social Psychology in the Seventies (Monterey, Calif.: Brooks/Coal Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 33-34. quoted in Courage – You Can Stand Strong in the Face of Fear, Jon Johnston, 1990, SP Publications, p. 37.

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