The Problem with Evangelistic Programs


It doesn’t take much effort to convince most Christians that evangelism with community is the way to go. It’s not even hard to find people pulling together to accomplish an evangelistic task.

But usually when we think of evangelism in community, we think of evangelistic programs, which is not the same. By “program,” I mean the occasional big event with a well-known speaker or exciting topic. At some point during the event, there is a presentation of the gospel. Or maybe the program is low-key, geared for seekers, such as a service project or a sports program, with the hope that it might open a door for a spiritual conversation.

God can use programs. I know people who have come to faith at evangelistic events. For the record, I often promote and speak at evangelistic programs. But I don’t think programs are the most effective, or even the primary, way we should do evangelism.

So, when you take a cold, hard look at programs, things just don’t add up. For one, there is an inverse economic bang for the buck: the more money spent on the programs, the less fruit from evangelism. So, for example, when people under 21 (when most people come to faith) were asked how they came to be born again, only 1 percent said it was through TV or other media, while a whopping 43 percent said they came to faith through a friend or family member. Just think of the cost comparison between a cup of coffee and TV programming. Or think of the effect: moms lead more people to Jesus than programs.

Oddly, it seems evangelistic programs do other things better than evangelism: they produce community among Christians who take part in them, they encourage believers to take a stand for Christ, and they can enable churches to break into new places of ministry.

Yet we seem to have an insatiable hunger for programs to accomplish evangelism. Why? Programs are like sugar. They’re tasty, even addictive. However, it takes away a desire for more healthy food. Though it provides a quick burst of energy, over time it makes you flabby, and a steady diet will kill you.

A strict diet of evangelistic programs produces malnourished evangelism. Just as eating sugar can make us feel as if we’ve eaten when we haven’t, programs can often make us feel as if we’ve done evangelism when we haven’t. So we should have a healthy unease with programs. We should use them strategically but in moderation, remembering that God did not send an event, he sent his Son.

What should we do? We want to have evangelism in community. We long to have friends alongside us when we share our faith. But at the same time, we see the limits, even the dangers, of programs. Is there some alternative?

I would like to make a case for something completely different, something that is both communal and personal: a culture of evangelism centered in the local church.

The Church and Evangelism

Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). A little later, during the same time with his disciples, he prayed that they would be unified, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20–21). Understand this: Jesus says the love we have for one another in the church is a statement that we are truly converted. And when we are unified in the body, we show to the world that Jesus is the Son of God. Love confirms our discipleship. Unity confirms Christ’s deity. What a powerful witness!

There are many passages that instruct and shape our evangelistic efforts, but these verses are the biblical foundational that show us that the church is to be a culture of evangelism.

This means that the local church is the gospel made visible. If we are to picture the gospel in our love for one another, that needs to take place in a local congregation of people who have covenanted together in love to be a church. It’s not abstract love, but love for real people in the real world. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard from non-Christians that the church was strange to them, but what drew them into the fellowship was the love among the members.

But the gospel is pictured not just in our love. Have you ever thought of how many biblical instructions God has built into the fabric of the church that, if done correctly, serve as proclamations of the gospel?

In pursuing a healthy culture of evangelism, we don’t remake the church for evangelism. Instead, we allow the things that God has already built into the church to proclaim the gospel. Jesus did not forget the gospel when he built the church.

For instance, baptism pictures the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It shows how his death is our death and his life our life. The Lord’s Supper proclaims the death of Christ until he returns and prompts us to confess our sins and experience forgiveness anew. When we pray, we pray the truths of God. When we sing, we sing the great things God has done for us through the gospel. When we give financially, we’re giving to advance the gospel message. And of course the preaching of the Word brings the gospel.

In fact, the preaching of the Word is what forms the church to begin with. And, once formed, the church is given the task of making disciples, who then are sent to preach the gospel to form new churches. This cycle has been happening since Jesus ascended into heaven and will continue until he returns.

A culture of evangelism is grassroots, not top-down. In a culture of evangelism, people understand that the main task of the church is to be the church. We can see that church practices are a witness in and of themselves, and certainly the church supports and prays for outreach and evangelistic opportunities, but the church’s role is not to run programs. The church should cultivate a culture of evangelism. The members are sent out from the church to do evangelism. I know this may seem a bit picky, but it’s really important. If you don’t get this right, you can subvert the church—and be wrongly angry with church leadership.

So, in a healthy culture of evangelism, it’s understood that there is a different priority for the church and for the individual. We need churches that live out the gospel in the way the Bible describes, and we need seeker-friendly Christians, not the other way around. That means that something you should do in evangelism personally might not be the best thing for the church to do as a whole.

In a culture of evangelism, the goal is for everyone to share, pray, and take opportunities as they come—not just the pastor and elders. Our responsibility is to be faithful witnesses—together.

I believe that if members spent half the time they had spent on programs in friendly evangelistic conversations with neighbors, co-workers, or fellow students, they would see a better response to the gospel and reach even more people. If you think about it, there is no way you could ever fit into your church sanctuary all the non-Christians with whom the members of your church are in contact weekly—no matter how big the sanctuary.

The fact is, most people come to faith through the influence of family members, small-group Bible studies, or a conversation with a friend after a church service: Christians intentionally talking about the gospel.

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Editor’s Note: This article is a lightly adapted excerpt from Mack’s book from the 9 Marks Building Healthy Churches series: Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Crossway, 2013). It’s the third of three excerpts. The first is “How Should We Define Evangelism?” The second is “Definitions: Gospel and Persuade.”

J. Mack Stiles

Mack is the director of Messenger Ministries Inc., a think tank working to develop healthy missions. He and his wife, Leeann, have traveled and lived many places before landing in Erbil, Iraq, in July 2017, including 15 years in Dubai, UAE. Up until recently, he was the pastor of Erbil International Baptist Church. Mack resides in Louisville and is a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church.

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