This article is adapted from Mack Stiles’s forthcoming book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (Crossway, 2014).
I was at High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. The pastor, Juan, had asked me to do a seminar on developing a culture of evangelism. I talked and people asked questions. Then someone asked an elephant-in-the-room type of question: “Many Vietnamese are moving into the community around our church; what is the church going to do to reach out to them?”
On the one hand, this was a wonderful question. A member recognized that she had the privilege and responsibility to reach out with the gospel, and she saw an opportunity to do it. On the other hand, the way the question was phrased seemed to imply that reaching out was the responsibility of the church, not the person who noticed the opportunity.
But in a culture of evangelism the work is grassroots, not top-down. In a culture of evangelism, people understand that the main task of the church is to be the church; they understand that church, just being biblical church, is a witness in and of itself. The church supports and prays for outreach and evangelistic opportunities, but the church’s role is not primarily to run evangelistic programs. The members are sent out from the church to do evangelism, the church does not do evangelism.
I know this point may seem a bit picky, but it’s really important. If you don’t get this point right, you can subvert the church. We want church to be church, and members to be seeker friendly, not the other way around.
Here’s how I responded to the question at High Pointe: “It’s really not the best thing for ‘the church’ to set up programs for Vietnamese outreach, but rather for you to think how you can reach out. So I would recommend you learn something about the Vietnamese culture, maybe by learning some greetings in Vietnamese, trying their food, and learning about the struggles they face living in the majority culture. Reach out and invite the friends you make to come with you to your homes, a small-group Bible study, or church. Then, perhaps, some of you should even think of moving into the Vietnamese community with the purpose of commending the gospel among that community.”
In return I saw from the faces in the room many blank stares and great relief on the face of Pastor Juan, who was grateful that I had not just singlehandedly set up an outreach program for him to run.
That’s a sketch of a culture of evangelism at work. I know it’s a bit radical—and I didn’t even suggest they enroll their kids in the local school with the Vietnamese kids.
What Is a Culture of Evangelism?
Most church leaders understand intuitively what I mean by a culture of evangelism. They, too, long for their churches to be loving communities committed to sharing the gospel as part of an ongoing way of life, not the occasional evangelistic raid. But how do we get there?
Slay the programs and program thinking.
Programs are the leeches that suck the life out of evangelism. When you take a cold, hard look at programs, things just don’t add up. Consider that when people younger than 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. Moms lead more people to Jesus than do 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. Those are good things, but they don’t do much for evangelism. Still, we seem to have an insatiable hunger for programs to accomplish evangelism. Why? Programs are like sugar—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.
Make sure you exhibit the gospel in all you do in your church or fellowship. Use what’s there!
Have you ever thought of how many biblical instructions God has built into the fabric of the church that, if done correctly, proclaim 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. We sing the great things God has done for us through the gospel. We give financially to advance the gospel message. The preaching of the Word brings the gospel.
In fact, the preaching of the Word of God forms the church. And, once formed, the church embraces the task of making disciples, sent out to preach the gospel to form new churches. This cycle has continued since Jesus ascended into heaven and will continue until he returns.
Teach and train your congregation to know and love the gospel message and live out the implications.
Do you know the message through and through? Do you understand its exclusive claims? Are you willing to take a stand in a world that hates exclusivity? If everyone knows this outline—God, man, Christ, response—and the Scripture that goes with it, the culture of evangelism is well on its way.
I mean it. Make sure you pray at every gathering for those who don’t know God. I love the attitude in this quote attributed to Charles H. Spurgeon: “Lord, save the elect, and elect some more!” We don’t know whom God is calling to himself.
I prayed for my sister, Linda, for 20 years, and I almost gave up. But God, in his mercy, drew her to himself. This example gives me hope that other family members and friends whom I’ve prayed for over many years might still come to faith.
Pray about your responsibility in evangelism. I pray regularly, “Lord, don’t let a year go by where I am not directly involved in seeing someone come to you in faith.” God has been faithful to that prayer. If God should grant me more years on earth, when I get to heaven I may see 50 or 60 people with whom I was instrumental in seeing come to faith. What a joy that would be!
Help your congregation see evangelism as a discipline.
Spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, Bible study, and gathering as a church community, are means of grace in our lives. Christians who learn these practices early in their walk with Christ grow in their faith. God uses spiritual disciplines for our spiritual health. We grow when we practice them. Our Christian lives become sloppy when we don’t.
But have you ever thought of evangelism as a spiritual discipline?
Don Whitney has written an excellent book about spiritual disciplines. Here’s what he says on evangelism as a discipline:
Evangelism is a natural overflow of the Christian life. We should all be able to talk about what the Lord has done for us and what he means to us. But evangelism is also a discipline in that we must discipline ourselves to get into the context of evangelism, that is, we must not just wait for witnessing opportunities to happen.
Jesus said in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” To “let” your light shine before others means more than simply “Don’t do anything to keep your light from shining.” Think of his exhortation as, “Let there be the light of good works shining in your life, let there be the evidence of God-honoring change radiating from you. Let it begin! Make room for it.”
Later Whitney says, “Unless we discipline ourselves for evangelism, it is very easy to excuse ourselves from ever sharing the gospel with anyone.” Whitney believes that the point of disciplining ourselves for evangelism is to plan for it—for Christians to actually put it into their schedule.
As a leader practice evangelism yourself.
If it is important that the members be “on game,” it is doubly important for the elders and pastors to lead by teaching and modeling evangelism. Then lead by celebrating those who share their faith.
John, who pastors another church in our city, regularly starts a fellowship time by asking for stories from those who had opportunities to speak about Jesus that week. After they share, he invites someone to pray for them.
This practice of celebrating evangelistic efforts is simple and doesn’t take much time, but it’s hugely important in developing a culture of evangelism. There is nothing so discouraging as feeling that a church is more interested in manning the nursery than sharing the faith. And when someone does come to faith, there is great rejoicing knowing that the culture of evangelism is bearing fruit.