by Shaun Potts
Interact Magazine 1998
Volume 9 Number 3
Over the past six years I have had the privilege of speaking at hundreds of evangelistic events at churches, universities, schools, dinners, breakfasts and a whole array of creative forms of outreach. As an itinerant evangelist I have the special privilege week in and week out of doing what I love most. I enjoy nothing more than having a conversation with someone who is seeking to understand what it means to follow Jesus. ‘At the coalface’ is where I feel most comfortable and what I love most of all in the ministry God has called me to. I am by no means an expert and am always learning new things, but this unique opportunity has allowed me to observe many models of churches of various denominations and this does warrant some comment on evangelism in general and, more specifically, evangelism and the local church. Most of my evangelistic energy and concern is concentrated upon the local church because I believe this is the major way this country will be won for Christ. However, there is some cause for concern at the local church level.
In 1997, Mark Chapple, one of my trainees and a student of Morling College, undertook a survey of NSW Baptist churches regarding evangelism and evangelistic preaching. It was anonymous, so the 80 responses from some 300 churches were frank in their answers and comments. The results showed that there is a lack of clear awareness among ministers of what constitutes an evangelistic address, as distinct from regular week-to- week pulpit speaking. Secondly, ministers are reluctant to ask people outright to make a response to follow Jesus. Rarely are people given the opportunity to respond at all to a gospel message. Thirdly, unsaved people rarely attend Baptist churches. Fourthly, there is some confusion amongst ministers about the relationship between ‘evangelism as process’ (evangelism through personal relationships over a period of time) and ‘evangelism as event’ (events where the gospel is preached). Fifthly, there is no apparent trend amongst ministers towards utilising the ministry of itinerant evangelists, yet there is among practising ministers a clear desire for both increased training in evangelism for themselves and equipping of more specialist evangelists. Overall, the survey reveals confusion about what defines an evangelistically active church, and whilst this survey was undertaken in Baptist churches it almost certainly reflects the situation in other denominations. Let’s look briefly at how Scripture defines the purpose of the church.
The Purpose of the Church
Paul wrote the following to the church in Ephesus: It was he (God) who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph.4:11-13). And to the church in Colosse: We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. (Col.1:28). The purpose of the church is clearly the building up of God’s people to maturity in Christ. There seems, however, to be a difference of opinion about just how one is to aid others in becoming mature in Christ. Some church vision statements concentrate on the nurture and growth of the Christians within the church whilst others focus on evangelism as the main priority. Surely the two are inseparable! How can Christians grow in Christlikeness and maturity unless they, like Christ, are concerned to seek and save the lost? Therefore it is vital that the body of Christ is helped to understand the gospel and how to bring it to others.
I have found that most churches have formulated a vision statement but when asked about the strategies in place to achieve the stated goals, many have not yet worked out clear methods of ensuring the vision becomes a reality. Initially, architects formulate a vision of what they dream will be built, but later the hard work of drafting working plans must take place for their vision to come to fruition. So churches must spend many hours on the painful details of how in concrete terms they are going to move forward.
Event vs Process Evangelism
As the survey revealed, there is misunderstanding about the relationship between the evangelistic event and the process of evangelism. The evangelistic event can be anything from Sunday church services to dinners in all sorts of venues (clubs, restaurants and homes) to outreach built around hobbies or sports (eg craft evenings, golf days, surfing competitions). Over the years I have been quite impressed by the ingenuity of many churches who have put on really creative events which suit the community around them. I remember turning up at the home of a fellow who had invited all his mates to watch the State of Origin on a big screen in his garage. (I’m glad I spoke before the game, as NSW lost that particular match and they were a miserable bunch afterwards!) The success of any event like this is totally, let me stress totally, reliant upon the process of men and women building relationships with their friends.
When I am invited by a minister to speak at a church I sometimes ask the question, ‘Are the people at your church generally good at inviting their friends along?’ A silence usually follows because it is hard to be honest at that point. The answer is often , ‘No, not really.’ One of the valid reasons people don’t bring their friends to evangelistic events is that they don’t know the speaker and therefore won’t take the risk of their friends becoming embarrassed or turned off. This tells us that we must give the church a chance to build a relationship of trust with the speaker beforehand by doing some introductory work and inviting the same person to speak a number of times. Christians also need to hear the gospel preached. There is no better way to motivate them to invite their friends than by challenging them with the gospel message. Don’t underestimate this. I have often heard people say, ‘I wish I had brought .… along today. It’s just what they needed to hear.’ My response is, ‘Bring them along next time,’ and quite often they take me up on the suggestion.
The term ‘process evangelism’ rightly acknowledges that coming to faith normally takes time. It’s a process. Sometimes this is called ‘relational evangelism’, sharing the gospel through friendships. Yet not everyone in our churches feels able to do this as it is a difficult task to share the gospel clearly, especially now that we live in an age which is post-Christian. Some believe that event evangelism is no longer valid and therefore that the evangelist has also become redundant. I can only say that I regularly see men and women becoming Christians at different events. I recently received a letter from a church I had spoken at saying that some had started to follow Christ, others wished to do a ‘Christianity Explained’ course (a six week gospel course on Mark’s Gospel), whilst others simply wanted something further to read. You see, event evangelism is actually process evangelism.
There are several advantages of having evangelists come to your congregation. Firstly, they can often say things that are harder to say on a one-to-one basis. They can also be a catalyst in starting someone searching or in pushing those in the middle of their search to keep going without giving up. Others are at a point where they need to have a line drawn in the sand and be encouraged to cross it. The partnership between an evangelist and a congregation is a powerful way to win people for Christ.
Training is Crucial
We need to treat the training and teaching of the gospel to our church people as a high priority. I am astounded at the number of churches, even some of the larger ones, which have neglected this area. When conducting training sessions I often ask the question, ‘Why do we find it so hard to share the gospel with others?’ The same two answers come back each time. The first, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ Many Christians find it difficult to express gospel truths naturally to others. There seems to be the perception that because we have the Holy Spirit within us, we shouldn’t find it difficult. But a brain surgeon doesn’t wake up one day being an expert at brain surgery. If he is any good, it is because of the many years of teaching and practice.
On these training days it is not difficult to fill a whiteboard with the concepts that must be communicated to adequately share the gospel, but it’s another thing to put the words and concepts about Jesus into a conversation that makes sense to a friend. My experience is that people are desperate for help in this area. They know they should share the gospel because of what Jesus has done for them and feel guilty about keeping this great message to themselves. A recent survey of Baptist church attendees showed that three out of four haven’t said anything about being a Christian to another person in the past year! There’s an obvious need for regular training in this area.
The second reason people don’t share the gospel is the fear that if they do it badly they will lose a friend, be branded as strange, etc. These reasons are fair enough but we must constantly keep the message of the gospel before them if they are to overcome their fear. It is the gospel itself that gives us courage and inspires both a love for God and a love for people that empowers us to take risks for their sake.
Sadly, people often tell me that they don’t have even one friend who isn’t a Christian. It is said that in just five years most of us who attend church lose our non-Christian friends as they are replaced by friends from within the church. As we said earlier modelling is by far the best way to teach evangelism. If we as ministers don’t make it a priority to make friendships with those outside the church, how can we expect members of our congregation to do so?
When churches are intentional in evangelism, people will become Christians. We need clear strategies for follow-up of new believers. We need to make sure there are a variety of trained and gifted people to get beside new Christians and both teach and model the fundamentals of Christian belief, life and growth. Again I am shocked by the number of churches who do not have any clear process of following up seekers and new Christians.
This is said not to shame but to spur us on to the task of making disciples that Jesus has entrusted to us. I confess I find evangelism hard. I find it harder to speak to Kevin across the road than to speak in your churches. But I do know this: Jesus has lived, died and risen and this is the greatest news known to humankind. It cannot be kept to ourselves and we must do all we can to reach the many Australians who are lost.
Shaun Potts is an evangelist, working with Gospel Communications in conjunction with the Baptist Centre for Evangelism and Global Mission, NSW.
© Shaun Potts (1 November 1998