Giving Evangelism Its Proper Place
Re-emphasizing the message of first importance in our churches
“Sean, I want you to teach less and lead more.”
About three years ago, I was on a three-day annual planning retreat—something I’ve done for many years. In normal fashion, I started the planning retreat in prayer. Almost immediately and unexpectedly, the Lord began to impress this idea on me—teach less, lead more. This doesn’t happen to me very often, so I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but the thought persisted for those three days, and then continued on for weeks.
A large part of my role at our church—Constance Free Church in Andover, Minnesota—has been in the area of teaching. And, as many know, on any given week, a pastor can spend up to 30 hours in quiet study, preparation, meetings and planning, in addition to sermon delivery. This can be depleting at times, especially for an extrovert like me, but I’ve always desired to steward the gift as best as possible. Still, teaching doesn’t always allow a lot of margin for other areas of ministry and giftedness.
So, here’s where it got interesting. I began to think, “well, Lord, if you want me to teach less and lead more right now, what does that mean? How, when and where would you like for that to happen?”
The message of first importance
As my wife, Heidi, and I began to spend a lot of time processing and praying over this, one thing became clear to us: whatever we do, wherever God leads, bringing the central heart of the gospel message to the world needs to be of first importance.
The conviction actually stems from a passage in 1 Corinthians I read during my planning retreat:
“Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” (1 Cor 15:1-4, emphasis mine)
Now, when Paul said, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance,” he could have mentioned a lot of other things. He could’ve mentioned the importance of gathering together weekly, being devoted to teaching and fellowship, or breaking bread and praying. He could’ve focused on the importance of singing and music. He could’ve emphasized the importance of ministry to children and families, or Christians discipling other Christians. The list could go on. Just think about your passions within the church.
Although these are all good and important things for the church, Paul emphasizes the central heart of the gospel message as the main importance: “that Christ died for our sins…that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” As I reflected on this passage, I began to look at my own life in the community as well as the church, and asked myself, “would the people in my circles of relationship say that this is the first important message from my life?”
When students are heading into the end of a long semester of school, one question will inevitably form in their minds: “is this going to be on the final?” In other words, "how important is this? Do I actually have to know the material, or can I let it slide?" Well, Paul, in a sense, says in 1 Corianthians 15: “this one is going to be on the final. If you only learn one thing, focus on this.”
Whatever we do, wherever God leads, bringing the central heart of the gospel message to the world needs to be of first importance.
The top 10 percent
Eventually, I shared these thoughts with my senior pastor, Randy Discher, but here’s what I didn’t know at the time: months earlier, God also stirred something up in him—a paradigm shift for us in the area of outreach at our church. The Spirit of God had led us down parallel tracks, and those tracks were now intersecting. I love when that happens!
Like most churches, we recognized that importance of sharing the gospel. We offered training classes, outreach events, “bring a friend” Sundays, special invite series and relevant weekend messages. We even founded a nonprofit to encourage our church to love, serve and bless our world, and proactively hired consultants.
Six years ago, one consultant asked us, “if you had a one-year faith goal, how many people would you like to see make a first-time decision to follow Jesus?” We would have been thrilled with 50, but, at best, we had sporadic and minimal results. Regardless of what we did, it seemed we could not sustain evangelism desires throughout our church body.
So, as part of our action steps, we got connected to the Billy Graham Center of Evangelism, a research-based institute at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. The Billy Graham Center studied 3,000 Protestant churches and compared the top 10 percent of the churches who were doing evangelism well to the bottom 90 percent of churches not doing evangelism as well. They learned and shared the following four things about the top 10 percent:
- The pastors and leaders model reaching the unchurched.
- Their people catch and imitate reaching the unchurched.
- Prayers focus on reaching the unchurched.
- Non-Christians feel welcomed, accepted and valued, and stick around in much greater numbers.
Notice, this is not about being a “seeker-driven” church, as much as being a “hospitality-driven” church. And, also notice, it’s not necessarily about creating events. It’s about disciplemaking. It’s about pastors modeling, people imitating, churches praying, and unbelievers sensing they are welcomed, accepted and valued.
There’s a book, You Found Me by Rick Richardson, that unveils findings from this same study by the Billy Graham Center. As the book mentions, most people would disagree with the phrase, “my Christian friends talk about their faith too much.” Most people wouldn’t mind their friends talking about their faith, if they really valued it, and many would be willing to attend a worship service.
The fact is, though, most Christians aren’t talking or inviting. Despite what the media communicates, there’s a difference between what people think about Christians compared to their neighbor who is a Christian. In other words, there’s a difference between what people think of a group versus an individual. This should be an encouragement to us in passing along the message of first importance.
Leadership and hospitality
The Billy Graham Center’s research has informed our goals during the past three years at our church through six pillars. Let me share just two of those pillars with you.
The first is leadership. If we are going to see culture change, it starts with pastors and leaders modeling it. So, as the co-pilot of this initiative, I organized 18 of our primary leaders from every ministry area at our church, and we have been meeting once a month for outreach learning, inspiration, accountability, planning and prayer.
It has been a privilege for me to lead this team. We have learned that everything is at work against evangelism. Since the idea of evangelism can tend to evaporate in people’s minds, meeting every 30 days has been critical to maintaining the “first importance” in our own lives as well as our ministries. If you’re interested in learning more about this pillar, you can read an article in Outreach Magazine in which we were featured about our accountability process.
The second pillar is hospitality. Each of these leaders have set goals within their ministry areas to help increase the “outreach temperature” of their ministry workers and participants—to help them increase their “hospitality” and provide opportunities to bless our surrounding community and world.
To start, we developed two teaching series, each with clear calls to action. The first, which started just before Easter 2018, was called “The Art of Neighboring,” based on a book with the same title by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon. This series helped provide our leaders and congregants with tools and wisdom in reaching and conversing with their neighbors, and, as a direct result, we saw our highest-attended Easter services to date.
In the fall of 2018, we began our second series, the BLESS Practices—practical tools designed to help us love and serve our neighbors, friends, co-workers and relatives who don’t have a relationship with Jesus. BLESS is an acronym that stands for: Be in prayer, Listen with compassion, Eat together, Serve in love and Share a story, and we’re still referring to these practices in small group settings.
Out of these teaching series (and others), our team launched a “Block Party Trailer,” “Backyard Kids’ Clubs,” “Family Palooza” (video below), a year-long curriculum on Organic Outreach for Ordinary People by Kevin Harney, a Christianity Explored class and even a plan to share the message of first importance with every new child who joins our children’s program. All of these programs, events and initiatives had the same goal—to help people love and serve their neighbors while emphasizing the message of the gospel. Collectively, these leaders set more than 75 initial goals, and it has only grown since then.
These are just some highlights of God’s good and gracious work. It doesn’t even include the work that our staff has done with a local elementary school, a senior care center, care ministries, women’s ministries events, a men’s sportsman’s banquet, children’s and student ministries programming, and so on. There is a lot happening right now in the area of outreach, because our entire team is collectively involved in the process. We are better together.
The transformative power of the gospel
Although this culture-shifting strategy may take three-to-five years to gain traction, it has already been transformative in our church. Our leaders are growing, not just in knowledge, but also in action. They are not just hearing, but also doing the Word as it relates to outreach (Jas 1:22-25). They are going to more and more people who are far from God. They’re praying for them. They’re listening with care. They’re eating with them. They’re serving with love. They’re sharing their stories and the Word. They’re inviting them to our church.
Based on an annual survey, around seven percent of people who attend Constance self-identified as likely not yet having a relationship with Jesus. So, once a series, we began presenting the message of first importance. Now, many of those seven percent have made a first-time decision to follow Jesus, and it is encouraging our church to invite even more.
This transformation is only spreading. Last year, 86 people indicated a first-time decision to follow Jesus. Now, over the past 10 months, we have seen over 250 people, mostly adults, indicate a first-time decision to follow Jesus. God be given the glory and praise!
So, how about you? Is bringing the gospel to the world of main importance? Is Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 15 central in your thoughts, prayers, actions and words?
One of the best first steps we took in this area was to join a Church Evangelism Initiative cohort through the Billy Graham Center Institute. Three cohorts have already been formed in the North Central District. One more is in the process of being formed for next fall. The EFCA national office has also been involved in a cohort with EFCA President Kevin Kompelien, and other leaders as they recognize this as a need and a priority. Even earlier this year, Kevin, Randy and I sat down (in the video below) to discuss both the importance of evangelism and the impact of these cohorts on our movement.
In May, I received an email from the Church Evangelism Initiative coordinator. They’ve been surveying lead pastors before and after their cohort experience, and here’s what they found. After two years in a cohort:
- 100 percent of the pastors reported a significant increase and impact in their own personal evangelism engagement.
- 97 percent of the pastors and churches have adopted the leadership and change model and structure they recommend.
- 82 percent of the churches have implemented the BLESS missional practices.
- 54 percent of the pastors report increased conversions as a result of their cohort involvement and leadership changes.
- And here’s my favorite stat: in the last three years, churches in these cohorts have led 2,592 to Jesus. May God be the glory!
Maybe this could be your church’s first step. To learn more about how to get involved in a Church Evangelism Initiative cohort, you can visit the cohort website.