Christians may understand the urgency of evangelism and their role in leading people to Jesus, yet not know what the Bible says about how to share their faith. In other words, many get the “why” and “who”, but not the “how”. Few churches are preparing members well to present the Gospel and respond to typical questions. Instead, most offer churchgoers a get out of evangelism (and discipleship) free card, simply instructing them to tell their story and invite people to next Sunday’s service. Entrusting pastors with our responsibility to make the case for Christ is not biblical. However, it accomplishes several goals of contemporary church growth models taught by many seminaries, consultants, and authors:
- Foster dependence – leadership is the subject of countless pastoral articles and books
- Breed loyalty – centralize around a place, leaders, and “sticky” relationships
- Avoid inconvenience – of those with limited bandwidth for more commitments
- Ensure comfort – realize most have little appetite for risking careers or friendships
- Justify giving – pay for the right to pass difficult tasks on to “professionals”
The lack of evangelism training makes it even more intimidating to speak up in what is already a challenging environment to “come out” as a Christian. Ironically, it’s the unwillingness to boldly confess Jesus as Lord and live out His model of evangelism (Prayer/Care/Share) that led to the prevailing perception of Christians as intolerant. Yet we make matters worse, causing people to wonder whether our faith is credible, as we become increasingly reluctant to talk about it. Only assuming personal responsibility for the Great Commission, Jesus’ final marching orders before His ascension, can end the vicious cycle of churches not equipping for evangelism as the climate becomes more hostile to evangelism.
Scripture lays out a process flow for evangelism in the ministries of Jesus and His disciples. Rather than adopt that model, which would severely alter the lives of American Christians, churches condone and promote a set of less disruptive alternatives:
- Act nice – hope people notice and ask why you’re different
- Be holy – defer to God’s authority, getting out of His way since He knows best
- Tell your story – no one can argue with what you believe you’ve experienced
- Extend Invitations – hand out cards or give directions to meet at your church
Asking members to invite friends and family has become the “go-to”, default growth strategy – in lieu of evangelism. In fact, national advertising campaigns have been built around referring non-believers to churches – and charging referral fees for those “leads”! Even the phrase “each one, reach one” often boils down to distribution of church flyers. If the invitee rejects repeated offers, then the dutiful believer is off the hook – reassured they’ve done all they could to win that person to Christ.
However, inviting someone to a church service isn’t the right first step – or the entirety of God’s expectations – for evangelism. Regardless of whether there may have been a period in American history that approach “worked”, that time has passed. It was never an appropriate “entry point” and is certainly less effective now in our current cultural context:
- Promotes addition – rather than the Lord’s math of disciple multiplication
- Perpetuates myths – defines church as a place and members as “customers”
- Ignores mistrust – loss of faith in institutions means fewer will accept invitations
- Undermines worship – seeker focus decreases depth and authenticity of services
- Underutilizes capacity – members could access many people that pastors can’t
Mobilizing the entire congregation into the mission field of families, neighborhoods, and workplaces would spur far greater Kingdom impact. Church planters begin externally focused to build networks, but many shift inward to manage the resulting growth. Likewise, entrepreneurs start with an all-hands-on-deck mentality until expansion creates internal bottlenecks. The difference is that entrepreneurs have sales and marketing staff, whereas when pastors shift focus inward, they tend to divert the “power in the pews” that direction as well – leveraging giftings for “church chores” and relegating evangelism to invitations.
Instead of reflexively inviting those who don’t worship Jesus to a worship service, churches and Christians should follow the evangelistic model practiced by Jesus and the New Testament church:
- Prayer – because evangelism is our task but the outcome is God’s responsibility
- Care – because Jesus had the perfect words but almost always opened doors to evangelism through compassion
- Share – because Jesus demonstrated His love but then told people who He was/is
We can’t outpreach Jesus or produce any results without Him, so we should walk in His footsteps. Churches did so for 1900+ years, serving as the food bank and homeless shelter, but have largely outsourced local missions to parachurch ministries. In addition, few provide church-wide, intensive discipleship and evangelism training; therefore, not enough churchgoers understand Jesus’ Prayer/Care/Share model or live out His commands.
Some churches have not only made invitations the basis of their evangelistic “ask” of members, but also built invitation-based evangelism into their DNA – in the form of advertising. In our Post-Christian culture, church advertising isn’t the right first step and is far more effective in “stealing sheep” (from other churches) than attracting non-believers. The effort and cost of ads, facilities, programs, and other amenities that grow one church at the expense of less “attractive” ones, leave little room for Care and increase hesitancy to push “consumers” too hard to Share. Invite/Involve/Invest was never a good growth plan for churches or the Kingdom – yet it remains the prevailing strategy today.
Prayer/Care/Share is not only the biblical process for evangelism for churches, but also for individual believers. An invitation to a worship service is the last step, not the first, in the following (proposed) sequence:
- Seek the Lord – to understand who to reach and prepare their hearts to receive
- Build friendships – people don’t care what you know until they know you care
- Speak openly – if they don’t see your need for Jesus, they won’t see theirs
- Serve generously – get your hands dirty showing kindness as opportunities arise
- Engage intentionally – involve in local missions projects to see God’s love in action
- Share boldly – learn how to convey the Gospel in ways that resonate with them
- Refer wisely – point them to verses and books that will educate and encourage
- Inquire lovingly – see if they are ready to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior
- Disciple personally – take time each week to meet, discuss, and answer questions
- Introduce socially – have them over to get to know other Christian friends
- Invite, finally – ask new believers to attend a small group or worship service
Imagine the impact on our nation’s spiritual and moral foundation if every Christian implemented Steps 1-10 rather than abdicating personal evangelism by skipping directly to Step 11.
Churches that frequently ask members to invite friends but don’t provide evangelism training do so for a reason. Churches that market through advertising but commit few resources to poverty alleviation do so for that same reason. They have strategically positioned the institution, not people, as the definition of “church” – and members, not the “lost” in the community, as the definition of its “customer”. It’s no coincidence the words “outreach” and “ministry” have also been redefined in today’s vernacular – “outreach” now means church advertising, not personal evangelism, and “ministry” now refers to church volunteering, not serving the poor in Jesus’ name.
Convincing churches to revert to the biblical definitions of all those terms will not be easy, nor will selling “cultural Christians” on the idea of reclaiming ownership of the Great Commission. On top of that, it’s hard to envision overcoming the resistance that has built up against churches, Christians, and evangelism in our society as a result of failing to live out Prayer/Care/Share ever since the Invite/Invest/Involve revolution decades ago. The only answer lies in recommitment to discipleship that fuels unreserved obedience to the words of Scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit. Only the Lord can spark such dramatic repentance and revival. Picture a body of Christ distinctly countercultural but not counter-culture – loving and caring yet not conforming or compromising. No amount of inviting or advertising could be as attractional to non-believers as churches and Christians who look nothing like the divisive, judgmental, and intolerant world in which we live.
It’s Your Turn
Do you have suggestions for how to decentralize “church”, equipping and mobilizing more believers to carry out their biblical mission within their circles of influence?