By Kent E. Fillinger
To learn more about the state of evangelism in our churches, we asked questions of a dozen ministers from churches of all sizes:
• David Clark, lead pastor, Central Christian Church, Beloit, Wisconsin
• Scott Clevenger, lead pastor, Christ’s Church Camden, Kingsland, Georgia
• Doug Dykstra, lead minister, Adventure Christian Church, Tavares, Florida
• Tim Harlow, senior pastor, Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois
• Jerry Harris, senior pastor, The Crossing, Quincy, Illinois
• Nathan Head, executive pastor of ministries, Southland Christian Church, Nicholasville, Kentucky
• Cal Jernigan, senior pastor, Central Christian Church, Mesa, Arizona
• Patrick Lightfoot, adult minister, Journey Christian Church, Greeley, Colorado
• Mitchell McIntyre, senior minister, Bedford Acres Christian Church, Paris, Kentucky
• Richie Shaw, lead pastor, Real Life Ministries Spokane (Washington)
• Dave Stone, senior pastor, Southeast Christian, Louisville, Kentucky
• Ashley Woolridge, executive pastor, Christ’s Church of the Valley, Peoria, Arizona
How would you characterize the “spiritual openness” to the gospel in our culture today?
David Clark: I continue to be excited by our area’s receptivity to the gospel. There is resistance. But that is no different than it was 34 years ago. How the gospel is presented definitely affects how the gospel is received.
Dave Stone: Generally speaking, I think it’s more difficult; society as a whole is not as open as it used to be. Now, in this postmodern (post-Christian) world, we have to earn the right to be heard. Our big buildings don’t enhance that, but developing one-on-one relationships does.
Jerry Harris: I believe people are more open to the gospel. I personally have never experienced such a contrast between prevailing culture and real Christianity. People are longing for something that works in a world long on promises but very short on delivery.
Cal Jernigan: There is tremendous “spiritual openness” in our culture, but it does not necessarily translate into openness to church. People are still seeking spiritual things, (but) unchurched people would not consider “organized religion” as their first choice to get answers to their spiritual questions.
Barna reports, “Nearly half the U.S. population is churchless.”1 What cultural elements in the church need to change for it to be more effective in reaching the unchurched?
Tim Harlow: We have to lead with compassion. Or as Jesus said, “love your neighbor.” That is the single most important cultural shift that needs to be made if we are going to reach the unchurched and dechurched. The way our compassion surpasses our comfort is by seeing people the way God sees them. We need to get rid of the “us versus them” mentality, and replace it with an “us for and with them” mentality.
Ashley Woolridge: Probably the single biggest thing we could do as churches is to evaluate everything we do as to how it comes across to an “outsider” (someone far from Jesus who has not been a part of a church).
At CCV we ask people to mystery shop us all the time. And we listen. Recently we asked 10 couples who were not Christians and had never attended CCV to come to a service and give us an hour of their time afterwards. We had a professional lead a discussion with them after the service. The results were eye-opening, to say the least. And we’ve had to change many things as a result.
We’ve never changed anything related to the gospel message. But our methods and terminology sure have changed.
Scott Clevenger: I’m afraid too many churches still operate solely from an “attractional” ministry philosophy, where they are attempting to attract more people onto their campus through Sunday morning services, events, etc. We must have a community presence. We must get outside of the church walls in order to make a dent in that 50 percent stat.
With that said, however, I also feel a church whose ministry philosophy is solely “missional” will miss the mark, as well. There must be a balance.
Mitchell McIntyre: I think the church, as a whole, can focus on three things: (1) preach and teach the Word (in a way people can understand); (2) develop authentic relationships within the church and outside it; and (3) serve and reach lost people. This isn’t a question of worship styles or building design; it’s about attitude, mission, and vision.
Doug Dykstra: Methods for evangelism must be changed. Someone once said that people today need a “long, safe engagement period” before they’re ready to hear the gospel. Rarely do we see rapid responses to the gospel. I’ve learned to be more patient than ever before.
What evangelistic strategies is your church using effectively or successfully to reach those far from God?
Ashley Woolridge: One of the biggest evangelistic changes we’ve made in the last 10 years is switching from affinity to geographic small groups. Affinity groups work well for connecting those who are already Christians. Geographic small groups allow you to focus more on evangelism. It has completely changed the evangelism temperature in all of our small groups (which we call “neighborhood groups”).
David Clark: I live in a multiethnic community. So we have a Spanish-speaking ministry and a predominantly African-American inner-city campus. We have an additional campus in a neighboring community 15 miles away. Twice a year we deliver 12,000 door-hangers to the residences in our area. Four times a year we call our people to pray for their lost friends and family, giving them invitational cards to give to neighbors and coworkers. Four times a year we hold “buzz” events designed to attract unchurched people in our community.
This year I’ve decided to do “baptism” weekends once a month.
We serve the poor to validate the authenticity of the love of Christ. Weekly we give away four days of groceries to all hungry people (probably about 150 to 200 people) who ask for help. We do Project Hope (free medical care, eye care, dental care, haircuts, clothes/shoe bank, along with a free hot meal) twice a year. We do a school supply/backpack store and Christmas store to give dignity to those in need.
Richie Shaw: The strategy is to empower disciples to make disciples in real relationship. Most of our equipping revolves around how to be in real relationship with people, because that is where the greatest impact is going to happen.
Scott Clevenger: We’ve realized that the giant events we’ve created in the past yield very little return on investment, from an outreach perspective. We kicked off an all-church vision this year to saturate our community simply by being present in our community. We call it “For Camden.”
We hashtag all of our social media #forcamden, and we set up a simple site, www.forcamden.com, where Twitter and Instagram posts with that hashtag automatically sync up. When someone asks why we’re doing this, we simply tell them, “We’re from Christ’s Church, and we are ‘For Camden.’” That’s giving us a foot in so many doors.
Nathan Head: Over the last several years we have focused our energy on being known more for what we’re for than what we’re against. We are for the marginalized, so we helped start a ministry that engages the jobless in meaningful work. We open our doors every week to shelter homeless men. We are for those who are in poverty, so we opened two free medical clinics to serve them. We are for strippers and adult entertainers, so we send people into strip clubs in our community every week to love them unconditionally. We are for the mentally and/or physically challenged, so we throw a prom for them every year and celebrate them in our community every week. We are for the struggling, and so we give more than $10,000 a week, free and clear, to people in need.
Our singular focus at Southland is to “Unleash a Revolution of Love,” and these are a few ways we do that.
What does your church do to make evangelism a priority?
Cal Jernigan: Evangelism is always our top priority. And to heat it up further, we have made personal evangelism a ministry initiative this year. We realized last spring that we had not adequately equipped our people to share their faith. We are making strides to correct this.
Patrick Lightfoot: Each week we end our services with our mission statement, “At Journey, we love Jesus, we love people, and we have to go to Heaven and take as many people with us as possible, so enjoy the journey but don’t enjoy it alone.” This is a weekly reminder to our people the importance of two things: sharing Jesus with the lost and doing life together (discipleship). Both are vital in moving the kingdom forward, as you can’t have one without the other.
Jerry Harris: Our worship, our teaching, our ministries, small groups, finances, and campus expansions . . . everything we do is designed with evangelism in mind.
How have you changed your approach to evangelism in recent years? How has your church changed its approach?
Richie Shaw: When we planted Real Life Ministries Spokane four years ago, I hadn’t been leading many people to Christ personally. That had to change when we moved to Spokane. If we were going to be a church that reached lost people, I had to be a man, a disciple who reached lost people, before I was ever going to be a pastor who taught disciples to reach their friends and family.
That changed everything for me. As I started praying, Jesus opened up doors of opportunity for me to reach lost people in our city. The culture of our church will be a reflection of my leadership.
Tim Harlow: The big change is leading with our hands instead of our mouths. Back in the day, we thought we needed to convince people about Jesus. Now we need to show people who Jesus is.
Nathan Head: We’ve increased our focus on it. Last year our website contained more than 70 blog posts on evangelism. We pray about it every week as a staff and eldership. We show story after story in our weekend services. We celebrate baptism every chance we get. We’ve worked to normalize evangelism in our culture and empower people to invite their friends into the great life they now have in Christ.
How does your church prepare or equip its members to share their faith with others?
Dave Stone: Periodically I teach a class called Making Connections and Building Bridges. During sermons we also regularly point out suggestions and effective methods we see in the biblical text and from the early church.
Tim Harlow: We just took our church through a book and small group curriculum I produced with Pastors.com called Life on Mission.2 It looks at Jesus’ ministry and how he calls us to live our lives for the sake of people who are far from God. My book challenges people to live a life on mission through connecting, serving, sharing, growing, and praying. It’s simple, but not easy.
How can churches and believers effectively connect with those outside the faith?
Scott Clevenger: At its lowest common denominator, it’s a heart issue. Obviously, you can’t get close to the heart of Jesus without developing a heart for lost people.
Nathan Head: We probably have to own up to our fear about it. It’s not rocket science to love people, but it can be scary to get started. If you treat people as projects, they know it. If you truly love them, they know it. I’d suggest we start with the people to whom we are naturally drawn.
Tim Harlow: I have a friend who likes to say the best evangelistic tools are stuck on the side of your head. If you want to connect with people, all you need are good questions and the willingness to hear someone’s story. Make them feel welcome, even if they are a mess, in your church, in your home, and in your life.
Dave Stone: John Stott talks about “rabbit-hole Christianity,” where believers scurry throughout their day from one Christian get-together to the next. We challenge our people to intentionally have frequent conversations and relationships with people outside of the church and their Christian circle. (The idea isn’t original with us; we actually got it from Jesus!)
1“Connection,” Outreach magazine, January/February 2015.
Kent Fillinger serves as president of 3:STRANDS Consulting and director of partnerships with CMF International, Indianapolis, Indiana.
Is It One of Your Spiritual Gifts?
For the first time, our church survey asked lead ministers whether evangelism was one of their primary spiritual gifts. Overall, 64 percent of the lead ministers surveyed said they have the gift of evangelism. The churches led by these ministers baptized more people than the churches led by ministers who did not claim evangelism as one of their primary gifts.
But interestingly, churches led by ministers who do not possess the gift of evangelism grew faster in every size category except for medium-size churches. For example, megachurches led by ministers who do not claim the gift of evangelism grew twice as fast last year as churches led by ministers who say they have that gift.