Building a Culture of Evangelism Takes Time, So Be Patient and Get to Work
Evangelism isn’t just for the “professionals”—pastors, ministers, Bible teachers, and all the rest.
Instead, the New Testament teaches that evangelism is the whole church’s job. But asserting the “whole church” does evangelism can be a bit confusing. What does that mean? Is there some special evangelism program hidden somewhere in the pages of the New Testament? Furthermore, what if any relationship exists between our personal evangelism and our church’s outreach ministry?
In most churches, the role of the church in evangelism is largely reduced to programs. Local churches create programs or events in order to share the gospel with the surrounding community. Unfortunately, such programs tend to displace the more important work of cultivating a culture of evangelism. They tend to divert members’ attention away from cultivating friendships with unbelievers and toward propping up a program—particularly, event-driven programs. (Watch The Gospel Blimp film for an older, slightly cheeky illustration of this tendency.) The result is as surprising as it is unintended: a church full of busy Christians who simply have no time for non-Christians.
We need to be careful here; not all evangelistic programs do this. But many do.
So, does that mean all evangelism should be unstructured and “organic”? Not necessarily. As a general rule, the best evangelistic programs (1) facilitate relationship building between church members and unbelievers; (2) emerge from the ground-up, rather than imposed by the leadership from the top-down.
Check out Christianity Explored and Christianity Explained for an example of an evangelistic study that encourages Christians to have non-Christians over to share meals and spiritual conversations.
Ultimately, purely programmatic evangelism is insufficient because it falls short of Christ’s vision for his church. After all, the church ought to make the gospel visible (Jn. 13:35; 17:20–21). The church equips people to share the gospel (Eph. 4:12). The church holds one another accountable to evangelize, and helps one another in the task. In other words, our congregations aren’t told merely to prop up an occasional evangelistic program, our congregations are the evangelistic program—one invented by Jesus.
This is why every church ought to cultivate a robust “culture of evangelism.” Programs are events. A culture is a way of life. Programs come and go. A culture endures.
Such a culture is easier to observe than to describe. But here are a few defining characteristics:
- The church labors to make sure every member understands and can articulate the gospel.
- Leaders and members regularly encourage sharing the gospel with people in their network of relationships.
- The church regularly prays (as individuals and corporately) for the evangelistic efforts of others.
- The church trains people to share the gospel winsomely.
- Members informally gather to talk about their evangelistic conversations, receive feedback and encouragement, and pray for the lost.
- Members try to build intentional friendships with their friends’ lost friends so that they can be yet another influence in the life of an unbeliever.
- The church endeavors to care for all its members and love one another in such a way that the gospel is made visible to outsiders (Jn. 13:35).
- The evangelistic programs that happen are chosen for their ability to facilitate and strengthen relationships between members and unbelievers.
HOW CAN PASTORS PROMOTE A CULTURE OF EVANGELISM?
1) Evangelize. (1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:2–3)
We can’t reproduce what we ourselves aren’t doing. If we don’t engage in personal evangelism, then we have no reason to assume we’ll be able to lead a congregation to evangelize those in their circle of influence.
2) Take others to do it with you.
For some reason, modern evangelicals often think evangelism is only a personal spiritual discipline, and therefore ought to be done as privately as possible (cf. Matt. 6:1–6). But if you’re doing something for the kingdom, try not to do it alone. Whether discipling, evangelizing, or counseling, bring a fellow church member with you if possible. Christian growth isn’t about reading all the right books or listening to all the right sermons. People need to see what faithfulness looks like. The simplest way for that to happen is for you simply to invite them to observe your life and ministry up close.
As far as you are able, invite others to watch you evangelize and then discuss it with them afterwards. Take advantage of every opportunity to teach and disciple. In so doing you will not only help equip them to do ministry, but you will help them learn to share ministry as well.
3) Make evangelism a regular point of sermon application.
We should never manipulate, guilt, or strong-arm our people into evangelizing their friends and neighbors. Instead, we should exhort them from Scripture that the Lord expects them to share the gospel, and we should encourage them that they have already everything they need to do it well. Might they need practical training? Sure, perhaps. But they’re already equipped with what’s necessary and most important: God’s Spirit and God’s Word.
4) Make evangelistic appeals to unbelievers in your sermon.
When you preach, speak to unbelievers. Doing so helps both unbelievers and believers. It reminds believers of the urgency of sharing the gospel with the lost. It also models how to articulate the gospel or other Christian doctrines to someone who may disagree with their presuppositions or misunderstand various biblical terms and Christian lingo.
5) Raise the profile of members who are doing evangelism well.
We replicate what we celebrate. One way to build a culture of evangelism is to highlight members of the congregation who evangelize faithfully. During a prayer service, invite a gifted member to share a passage that helps him in his evangelistic ministry. Or simply tell young or inexperienced members to go ask certain people for help with their evangelistic efforts. The point is not simply celebrating those in the congregation who are doing evangelism, but drawing attention to them so that others might look to them for discipling in this area.
6) Lead the congregation to pray for the church’s evangelism and evangelistic ministries.
At some point, every Christian has probably sat through a prayer meeting dominated by requests for Aunt Susie’s hangnail and their friend’s friend’s friend who has the flu. Of course, God cares about hangnails and viral infections, but spending our limited corporate prayer time on these matters probably isn’t the wisest practice.
Instead, use your corporate prayer time to focus on the ministry and mission of the church. Give the congregation a sense of the church’s calling in the world by allowing the mission of the church to dominate the prayers of the church. If we focus our prayers on the ministry of the word, preaching, discipleship, evangelism, and missions, then our people will begin to view those things as central to their own lives.
7) Open up the prayer meeting for stories about evangelistic conversations taking place.
In addition to praying generally for the church’s evangelistic efforts, make it a regular practice of inviting members to share about their evangelistic encounters during the corporate prayer gathering, so that the church can specifically pray for specific non-Christians.
These testimonies have several positive effects on the life of the church. First, members will be encouraged by how much evangelism is actually taking place. Second, they’ll be motivated to faithfully share the gospel themselves. Third, the congregation will become more invested in the evangelism that’s already occurring. I (Sam) remember sharing about an evangelistic conversation with some Jehovah’s Witnesses and being astounded by the response of other members offering to pray for the JW couple and even offering help: “Why don’t you invite them to the barbecue at Pastor Steven’s?” “Want to invite the mom to our next play date so we can meet her too?” “I recently witnessed to a JW couple and learned a few things, mind if we get coffee and chat about our experiences?” Sharing about evangelism in corporate gatherings makes our personal evangelism a matter of congregational interest and investment.
EVANGELISTIC CULTURES TAKE A LIFETIME TO BUILD
Pastors sometimes struggle to believe their members are evangelizing regularly, especially if the church isn’t seeing many conversions. In these situations, they can be tempted to take even the seven suggestions above and use them to berate their congregation. But a culture of evangelism only takes root in a church when the pastor is willing to celebrate even the smallest of evangelistic efforts. So don’t be afraid to ask someone to share about a recent evangelistic conversation—even if it “failed” and there was no fruit.
It takes time to grow a culture of evangelism. Hopefully some of these practices will help. So get to work; patiently pray and patiently wait. And over the months and even the years, watch what type of culture the Lord grows in your congregation.