by J. Mack Stiles: Most pastors I know start a church plant with a deep desire to do evangelism. In one sense, what else would you do? Hardly any new pastor sets out to start a church by “sheep stealing.” They want a vibrant, cross-focused, Jesus-centered church that hums with gospel witness and is filled with excited new believers.
And they’ll get right on it after they figure out how to set up a sound system in a high school gym, and puzzle out where the nursery is going to be held in the hotel, and deal with setting up the web page.
Though most pastors see evangelism as a key to spiritual health for the life of a believer and the life of the church, given the astonishing number of things that must be done for a new church plant—not to mention the internal sinful resistance to evangelism—it’s easy to lose our fervor in evangelism. Evangelism, it seems, is always pushing the ball uphill.
If evangelism is to be woven into the fabric of the life of a new church plant and its pastor, it takes some thought and planning.
Here are 10 things I’ve learned that may help.
1. The time to start evangelism in your church plant is before you ever start the church.
If you’ve been so immersed in seminary or a support ministry such that you’re separated from non-Christians, then you need to think how you can treat evangelism as any other spiritual discipline.
Okay—let me tip my hand, if you’ve not been engaged in regular evangelism you probably shouldn’t be starting a church. Regardless, regularly make attempts to share your faith now before you ever start to plant a church. If you wait until you get around to it, you won’t ever get to it at all.
2. Teach, teach, teach.
Define the gospel: “The Message from God that leads us to salvation.”
Define that message: “God, Man, Christ, Response,” or “Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation.”
Define evangelism: “Teaching (or preaching) the gospel with the aim to persuade.”
Define biblical conversion, well, biblically. Check out Michael Lawrence’s excellent new book on the topic.
And when evangelism is demonstrated or commanded in the text of Scripture you’re preaching through, make sure to highlight that for your congregation.
3. Go for low hanging fruit.
I once noticed a man who attended church occasionally with his wife. I bumped into him after the service and said, “Tim, I’m curious, where are you in your spiritual life?” “I’m not a believer,” he told me. “I really just come to make Gina happy.” We talked a bit more. I invited them over for lunch and we talked about spiritual life and the gospel.
Nothing much more happened, but Gina later told me that for all the years he was coming to church, nobody had ever asked him about his spiritual condition. Don’t let that happen. Many people who show up in church are surprised when people talk more about sports than spiritual truth, and over time it convinces them they’re doing okay. Instead, nail your fear of man to the cross and ask new people about their spiritual life.
The best place for pastors and timid evangelists to do evangelism is with the people who come to church. They’re in church, after all!
4. Don’t assume the gospel.
Assuming the gospel is the quickest route to kill a church in a couple of generations. Recently I was in Portland, Oregon, and I noticed the city was filled with empty church buildings.
But there was once a day when vibrant Christians sacrificed their money and time to build those buildings. What happened? They began assuming the gospel. An assumed gospel leads to a twisted gospel, which leads to a lost gospel. And when the gospel is lost, the life blood of the church is drained out.
Check every sermon with a question: “Could a non-Christian come to faith through what I preached today?”
Check the songs you sing. Are you communicating that people can be close to God regardless of the condition of their heart? We do that when we stir affections with a great tune but sing gospel-less words.
Make sure the truth of the gospel is in congregational prayers and Scripture readings; make sure it’s clarified in the sacraments (do you fence the Table?). Have people give testimonies to the church before they’re baptized, checking it over with them beforehand to make sure the gospel is clear.
When you do membership interviews, make sure when someone is fuzzy on the gospel that they’re really believers. Let people know you love talking about the gospel and will happily make time in your schedule to do that. This selects out those who have genuine interest.
Talk about the gospel often with those who love it; more people than you know are listening in, especially children.
5. Lead in evangelism.
I suppose this is obvious, but you need to lead in evangelism. It’s not enough just to preach the gospel, though that’s of first priority. The congregation will know if you’re sharing your faith personally. Of course you’re so busy with Christians that it makes your job more difficult. Yes, you have a hard job. But tell your congregation of your desire to share your faith, get them to pray, and tell them of your successes and failures.
6. Make sure that everyone is on game.
You want the whole church to speak of Jesus—not just the pastor. This is why the church should regularly be asked about their evangelistic opportunities. And don’t forget: they can help you. Tell your members that, if it would help them, you’d love to talk with their non-Christian friends.
Perhaps you’d find it useful to get my book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus on why a heathy church is the most important means of evangelism.
Champion evangelists in the congregation. Pray for them corporately, and ask them how it’s going. If the congregation knows this a priority to the leadership of the church, then they’re more likely to practice it as a priority in their lives.
Of course, you want to talk your people to talk about successful evangelistic opportunities, but don’t forget to share stories of failure. Ninety-nine percent of my evangelistic efforts don’t go anywhere, but when that happens it’s helpful just to know that we’re in the battle.
7. Be practical, but not pragmatic or programmatic.
Just like you, your congregation needs help to share their faith. But don’t set up a bunch of evangelistic programs. I often say that programs are to evangelism what sugar is to nutrition. Programs may make you feel like you’ve done evangelism when you haven’t, just as eating sugar may make you feel like you’ve eaten when you haven’t.
Having said that, do help your congregation get in the game with some practical helps. Here’s an example: Covenant Hope Church in Dubai had everyone write out five non-Christian friends on a card and had people pray about sharing with the folks on that list. How simple and practical. They had them put it in their purse or wallet and they refer to it regularly. Have them think through the plan: an invitation for coffee, an email with an invite to church, etc. Help your congregation understand that if everyone is sharing their faith it will be much more effective than any church-wide evangelistic program, no matter how large that might be.
8. Be bold and clear when you share your faith.
I don’t mean be offensive and abrasive when you share your faith. I just mean take more risks in evangelism. Be honest; let people know where you’re coming from. This may sound a bit strange, but one of the great things about being up front about your desire to talk to people about the gospel is that if you’re rebuffed, you’ve saved a lot of time for them and you.
9. Know the gospel, speak the gospel, and live the gospel.
Know how to say the message of the gospel in clear and unassuming language, and make sure members of the congregation know how to say the gospel in a minute or two in their own words, too.
I’ve noticed something over the years in my attempts to share my faith: if you don’t regularly ponder on, pray about, apply, and speak the gospel, then it will become fuzzy and distant. I think it’s the spiritual maxim that what you have will be taken away from you—or, to employ a cliché: use it or lose it.
Help the congregation know how to apply the gospel to their lives in areas of sin and repentance, forgiveness and holiness. Help them see how the gospel is not just what gets us saved, but a well in the center of life that we should draw from daily.
10. Use books not tracts.
For giveaways and welcome gifts for visitors, prioritize brief and readable books than tracts. So many people I’ve known have come to faith though The Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney, or What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert.
Don’t be chintzy. Give out books that explain the gospel, and train your members to be willing to go over the books with the seekers who get them.