Recently, I chatted with a local pastor about his evangelism efforts in a smaller, rural community. His church isn’t that large so finding volunteers for any kind of outreach initiative is challenging. The larger churches in town seem to have most of the popular holidays—like July 4th—wrapped up with all their resources. This pastor tried many things that just did not seem successful over the years, except for their live nativity scene at Christmas that usually garnered around seventy or more cars. He was at his wits end and more than happy to visit about possibilities.
In talking with this pastor I sensed his discouragement, frustration, and hopelessness all at the same time. It wasn’t like the church wasn’t interested in evangelism, or had not tried to reach their community. They had tried numerous things to seemingly no avail. So what is a church leader to do in that kind of situation? When it seems as though you have tried it all but the fruit is missing?
The first thing I encourage any pastor to do is “Don’t give up!” When so many things go wrong or seem unfruitful, it’s easy to get discouraged and quit doing even those things that have been fruitful for your ministry. Step back and prayerfully consider what has provided even a slight reward. Repetition is often a church’s best avenue of bringing awareness to a community and the live nativity was a prime example. Seventy cars is a great number for a smaller community!
The second thing I encouraged this pastor to pray about was their web site. Since over eighty percent of first time visitors explore a church’s website it should be easy to navigate and up to date. Too much flash (small videos) on church websites can actually be a turnoff to many people, so keep it simple. Although difficult to believe, not everyone has high-speed Internet.
Lastly, for now, see what’s important to your community and become involved. Most smaller communities—and even larger ones—value authentic relationships. That means visibly building relationships one at a time in that community and finding out where there are needs that your ministry could help with—from adopting school playgrounds to the volunteer fire department. So don’t give up! As St. Augustine once said: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
The older I get the more I realize that I’m not as flexible as I used to be back in my high school days. On rare occasions, when I overexert myself now, my back gives me fits and gets out of sorts. Sometimes, it even forces me to go to a local chiropractor for a little adjustment. I’ve found over the years, that the doctor’s initial adjustment usually isn’t the last adjustment needed, but that there are little shifts along the way to recovery. Recently, I had a really stubborn case of back pain—to the point that my wife, Nancy, even said: “You’re still walking crooked.”
I almost never go back to have a second adjustment with a chiropractor—once is usually enough for me! However, this past week I just couldn’t get things lined out myself. I had upcoming services and did not want to battle back pain while out of town. So, I made a decision to see if there were any openings at the chiropractor’s office for another adjustment—not realizing that God was getting ready to work through me to touch someone’s life.
Luckily, they had an opening and I was able to drive right over. After my adjustment, the doctor and I started talking about things and he shared some serious challenges he was facing. I asked if I could pray for him and he readily accepted my invitation. I hardly ever ask my doctors if I can pray for them—and actually hope that I don’t need to see them very often at all! However, this time I felt impressed to ask permission and afterwards, I could tell that this had been a divine appointment. The frustration of having to go through another round with my chiropractor paled next to the realization that he needed God’s touch on his life.
All that to say, evangelism isn’t always about preaching to someone—sometimes the Lord just wants to use you as a vessel of His love and blessing for someone else. After all, our lives might be the only imitation of Christ that most people will actually listen to or see. The apostle Paul even said in 1 Cor. 11:1, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Honestly, our actions usually speak louder than words, but sometimes the Lord prompts us to speak, to ask, to listen, and to pray. I hope you will.
I recently went to lunch with a couple of my friends. When the waitress came to take our order we told her that we were going “Dutch.” She got a puzzled look in her eyes and I thought perhaps she had just not heard me so I repeated myself. The young lady asked, “What’s that?” I asked if she had not heard that phrase before: “We’re going Dutch.” To my surprise, she said that she had never heard that expression before. I began to feel very old and realized an important truth concerning evangelism all at the same time.
Since most of our expressions of faith are learned inside our faith communities, how can we expect anyone outside of those communities to understand every acronym, slang term, or “ordinance” of the Church? In short—we can’t. For example, I told a young man once that I was an ordained minister. He said, “What’s that?” This man had never been in church and did not know the first thing about church language. Thankfully, he was gracious enough to ask what something meant. When trying to share what God has done in your life with someone else, you must never take it for granted that they understand the language of your faith community.
Although Jesus Christ said that no one can come to him “except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44, KJV), we must accept some responsibility for the words we use when presenting the Gospel message. It is our job to work hard at simplifying our spiritual language and present it in a spirit of Christ’s love and grace. Paul told the Colossians in chapter 4:6 (ESV), “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” Being gracious will go far in helping us communicate as we seek to share biblical truths.
Since most people we talk to usually try to be polite, unchurched people won’t normally tell us when they fail to understand something we have said. That’s why it is so crucial to understand your audience and foster a gracious attitude. Wouldn’t you appreciate it if someone talked with you about important issues with a gracious attitude and in a language that you could understand—and even allowed you opportunities to ask questions? Most assuredly, we all would.
Dr. Marshall M. Windsor