The audience is vast, stretching more than half a mile from the platform. Then, suddenly, I change the message. The crowd is leaning forward, hanging on every word. As I pause, it is so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
The last 10 minutes, my preaching is aimed at the human conscience. I quote the Ten Commandments. Man's utter sinfulness is described in terms that can be understood by a Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or Christian.
The altar call is given. At this moment, there is no promise of a physical miracle, but only of an inward change. Tens of thousands raise their hands. Welcome to one of my overseas crusades. In country after country, multitudes are embracing salvation. It is harvest time.
EVANGELISM IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
Now let's change the scenario. It is a Sunday service. People are worshiping God; hands are raised; some have tears streaming down their face. This is not an evangelistic service, but a time dedicated to building up the believers in their most holy faith. The time comes for the Word of God.
I preach about 40 minutes, and then suddenly stop. Walking away from the pulpit and my notes, I take the message in a new and seemingly unrelated direction compared to what has been the theme of today's preaching. It's time for the altar call. So far, my sermon has not been directed in any particular way to the unbeliever. For the next five minutes, I speak to the human conscience, reciting several of the Ten Commandments. I emphasize that the human soul has incredible value.
As the altar call is given, hands are going up in different parts of the room, and soon, there is a line of people standing in front of the church to make first-time decisions for Christ.
Pastors often ask questions about evangelizing the lost, such as: "How do you develop a church life where unbelievers are in every service?" or "Should we expect unbelievers to come to our church?" or "What about follow-up?"
Some people reason, "We understand that you have an evangelistic emphasis, but how do you turn a whole church into becoming evangelistic?" Others query, "How does your local church evangelism relate to church growth?"
As I address these and many other questions, I do not have all the answers. I am merely sharing what has worked in my life with the hope that others may glean from it.
Have a vision for souls being saved. I was raised in a Pentecostal church where we might have seen one or two souls come to Christ per year. The people were wonderful; they loved God and His Word, but faith for evangelism was very small.
When I started conducting weeks of gospel meetings in churches, my own faith goal was for five people to come to Christ every week. Sometimes I met my goal, sometimes I exceeded it, and at other times I fell short and maybe only got to lead three or four people to Christ.
In 1978 I conducted a crusade in a city where the Assemblies of God in Canada was trying to establish a church. Canada was considered a very difficult place, and none of the evangelical denominations had managed to get a foothold in that city. During the course of one week, we prayed with 1,020 people to come to Christ. After that, I did not want to go back to the five-per-week level. I started to believe God for 50 souls every week. Again, sometimes I exceeded the goal, and other times I fell a little short. But many weeks, my faith goal was reached.
Throughout my life, I have asked God to help me increase my vision and faith for souls. Earlier this year, the Lord spoke in my spirit, "Don't you know that I can give you 1 million souls in one week?" My head said yes, but there was no real faith in my heart.
Weeks later, I was in Ethiopia in a gospel festival attended by more than 2 million in four nights. Half the audience would respond to the altar call night after night.
Could it be that God is stretching me, that I have been thinking too small? Our faith needs to grow from "little" to "ever-increasing faith"--not only in the area of healing, signs, wonders and prosperity, but also in the most needy area of all: lost souls.
Returning to the local church scene, my priority has been to develop a local church where the people are not dependent on their pastor for soul-winning. We don't want a church with merely a soul-winning pastor, but a soul-winning church. This evangelistic fervor among the people keeps the church growing. Evangelism is not a one-man operation; it is a body of believers who have been raised up together to accomplish a great purpose.
The importance of cell groups. The growth structure is most clearly demonstrated through a network of multiplying cell groups. Within our leadership group, we use the term "cells," but in public meetings we prefer the term "house meetings."
This is out of sensitivity to new believers or nonbelievers because the word "cell" is easily misunderstood. To an unchurched person, it may conjure up the image of a prison cell. This is just one tiny area where we endeavor to be sensitive to the mind-set of the person without Christ.
In the network of house meetings, individuals are nurtured, cared for and discipled. Each cell group is a part of a section of anywhere from five to 12 cells, and each section is a part of a district consisting of anywhere from five to 12 sections. It is not possible to divide the church into exact numbers.
If we said that one section should be 10 house meetings, what would happen a few months later when five of the house meetings had multiplied so that we would now have 15? Instead, there must be fluidity in numbers, which allows for growth and multiplication. For example, when one section reaches 12 cells we multiply it into two sections. Each section then grows to 10 to 12 cells before another multiplication.
CORE BELIEFS FOR EVANGELISM
There are several core beliefs and attitudes that have helped us to build our spiritual building. Perhaps what we have done can also be a help to you in reaching your city for Christ.
1. Attitude toward God. When evangelism is discussed with most Christians, they are in agreement that it is most needful. However, many feel that for whatever reason, it is not possible in their setting.
This has to do with our attitude toward God. Jesus has clearly given us the Great Commission. To think or argue that He would have asked us to do something impossible is actually an insult to God.
Consider that at the end of each gospel, as well as in the book of Acts, the focus is on what we commonly call the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says: " 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age'" (NKJV).
In Mark 16:15-16 we read Christ's words: " 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.'"
In Luke 24:46-49 the message is reiterated once again: " 'Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. And you are witnesses of these things. Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.'"
In John 20:21 we read: " 'Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.'"
Jesus reiterates the Great Commission again on at least two occasions in the book of Acts. " 'But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth'" (Acts 1:8).
Later on when Jesus explains to Ananias the apostle Paul's calling, we read: " 'Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name's sake'" (Acts 9:15-16). Here three specific categories of people are mentioned: Gentiles, kings and the Jewish people.
God is obviously very much concerned about the salvation of souls. If we teach and practice a lifestyle that is focused on pleasing God, then the salvation of souls will have a strong emphasis. If, on the other hand, we propagate a message that God is to serve us, we will find resistance when we try to introduce the topic of evangelism.
2. Attitude toward the task. There are several negative attitudes that quench the fires of evangelism:
**Fatalism. This is common in today's church. It sounds something like: "Oh, don't worry, everything is going to turn out just like God intended it to," or "I believe that the folks getting saved in our church are the ones that were really meant to get saved." In other words, if people aren't getting saved, it is God's fault.
Fatalism believes that we cannot alter the situation because "whatever will be, will be." If this were the correct way of thinking, why would Jesus be weeping over Jerusalem, or why would He even have given us the Great Commission? If everything would automatically turn out like God wanted it to, why would we be exhorted to "Go?"
God's attitude is expressed in His word to Ezekiel: " 'So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one'" (Ezek. 22:30).
Here we clearly see God's will. God wanted to avert disaster in Israel. He wanted a man to stand in the gap, but He found none. How often today does God want someone to win and disciple a person, but He finds none?
**Self-deprecation. In some churches people talk of themselves as "poor old sinners." In a charismatic setting it is often expressed: "Oh we are so needy. I know God wants to use us to win souls, but we are just not ready yet. God is working out so many things in our lives."
This type of thinking creates a feeling of inability and takes away the attractiveness of what it is to be a Christian. A Christian is supposed to be someone who has something, not someone who is continually looking for something. Christianity by its very nature is not to be self-centered but focused outwardly.
**Automation. Another damaging thought is that people will somehow come to Christ on their own.
Some time ago a believer told me about his friend who had died without Christ. "I worked for 20 years with this man," he said. "He was always open and interested concerning my life and my commitment to Christ. I never hid it from him, but I also never really explained the gospel and asked him to make a decision. Finally, when he got sick, I meant to visit him when he was at home, but it just never happened. Then he was taken to the hospital.
"Again, I procrastinated. Finally I went, and on my first visit the room was full of doctors and nurses, so I thought that was not the time to share the gospel. We needed privacy. The second time I visited, there were some family members present. On the third time, I was informed that only next of kin were allowed in the room. A few days later he died, and I had never shared the gospel with him."
Sometimes people wait for the perfect opportunity. They feel that the Holy Spirit is not really in it unless everything is perfectly arranged. This is a denial of Scripture. Jesus told us we are to compel people (see Luke 14:23). The apostle Paul said that "we persuade men" (see 2 Cor. 5:11) and that "we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ's behalf, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20).
Notice the biblical language. Words such as compel, persuade, plead and implore indicate that there may be some resistance. Not every salvation is going to come without a struggle.
We are not to give up because of the resistance, but to be faithful to the task we have been given. How will a person without the Spirit of God somehow get the idea to get saved unless we who have the Spirit of God get the idea to go to them, get to know them, love them, serve them and win them?
**Delegation. Some claim that the task of evangelism belongs to those who feel especially called. So they delegate the responsibility of evangelism to others. This has served to develop a "specialist" mentality that is very damaging within the church.
People feel called to worship, intercession, end-time studies and a host of other valuable ministries. These are all great and necessary pursuits as long as they are not at the expense of the overall task given to all believers: winning and making disciples. While our functions differ, we all have a common task. When Paul and Barnabas were sent into missionary service, the Holy Spirit spoke the message to the whole church, not individually to Paul and Barnabas.
If anyone could have excused himself from the task of evangelism, it was Paul. After all, he was a theologian of unparalleled importance. Would Paul have been justified in claiming an exemption from the task of soul-winning in view of his heavy responsibilities to write books expounding the Christian faith? On the contrary, Paul exclaims, "Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16).
**Attitude toward unbelievers. Sometimes we slot unbelievers in two categories: the possible and the impossible.
Many churches are doing an admirable work reaching the poorer sections of town with feeding programs and special outreaches. This generates large numbers of decisions, but often does not affect church growth. It is easier to get poorer people to raise their hands after they have been fed; but we must remember that our task is not to get hands raised but to make disciples.
This work among the poor is commanded in the Bible. We practice this in our church. At the same time, when the Holy Spirit shows us Jesus' perspective, we begin to look at all unbelievers in the same way. People in government-sponsored building projects as well as unbelievers driving BMWs are all under the yoke of sin and in an equally desperate need of salvation.
**Atmosphere. The atmosphere in a church service or home group must be conducive to winning souls. Our church would not be considered "seeker-sensitive" in the way that term has been used in the last few years. We worship with hands raised, sometimes dancing and rejoicing; our services can seem loud and often last more than two hours. Still, I consider us to be very seeker-sensitive.
We maintain a mindfulness of unbelievers in the meetings. This is true in every service, but especially when we have an outreach meeting, which we call a "harvest night." Of course, we never advertise it as a harvest night. That would be like telling the community, "Come to our event, and we will harvest you." This is hardly a smart way to reach the nonbeliever.
We advertise these as friendship services, under different headings such as "Father's Day Feast"--where we serve chicken wings, pizza and soda--or a Valentine's service--where we serve coffee and pastry and are entertained by a band. In those services, every song and announcement is geared in such a way that every word spoken can be understood by a person who is not accustomed to church.
By necessity, in our regular Sunday services we use biblical words without apology. After all, the Bible is the book we preach. We don't apologize for this. We see it as our task not to get away from a strong Bible focus, but to present the Bible in such a way that the unchurched person understands it.
I frequently share strategically planned comments that help make the unbeliever feel at home and as though we expected them to be in our service. I often explain why we raise our hands or why we bring tithes and offerings, for example, in a way that unbelievers can relate to.
**Advertising. Always think about the purpose for any particular advertisement. Would a caption such as "Holy Ghost Miracle Revival" really attract the unbelievers in your community? You have to discern if the advertisement you are using appeals to the group you are trying to reach.
**Altar call. Every corporate church service should have an opportunity for people to get right with God. An earnest invitation to receive Jesus should be given to those who have never known the Lord as well as to backsliders and those who are uncertain about their salvation.
Sometimes a pastor feels certain no unsaved people are present. This should not hinder him from giving the altar call. Just the mere giving of the call sends a powerful message to all present that the pastor is expecting unbelievers to be present.
After all, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 14:23 that unbelievers do attend church services. If we do not expect unbelievers to be present in our services, then for sure their absence will become the norm. If, on the other hand, we set a tone whereby the continual expectation is for souls to be saved, God will honor this faith.
Regardless of what the teaching topic has been in a given service, there is always something in every Bible teaching that applies to salvation. The pastor should look at his message before preaching it and ascertain at which point the message connects in a particular way with an unbeliever. Ask the question, "What verse speaks directly or can be angled directly at a person without Christ?" At the end of the message, go back to that particular Scripture or principle and build your salvation call on that.
The term "altar call" is commonly used. Actually it is a very strange expression, since most of us do not have any altars in our building. When a preacher says, "In a moment I am going to give an altar call," that very expression seems strange to an unbeliever.
I use the words "altar call" only as a code word in teaching. In a service setting, it would be better to say, "In just a moment I am going to give you an opportunity to respond to what you have heard" or "to respond to receive Christ." On a few occasions, we have placed special friendship cards on each seat; people fill in those cards for a number of things, including indicating they have received Christ in the service. We generally give altar calls publicly, since Jesus told us to confess Him before men.
There should be a clear-cut plan for the salvation invitation before it is given. Prayer partners should be trained to come and stand alongside those who have responded to Christ. There should be an area, preferably in the church auditorium itself, where those who have responded to Christ are taken for further counseling.
Names and addresses should be recorded. Decision cards, pens and everything that is necessary should be on hand. Some of these instructions seem self-evident, but my experience has been that many churches are simply not prepared for people to get saved.
It is very important that the invitation for people to come to Christ is clear and concise. All of us pastors have an ego, and we are tempted at times to dilute the invitation to Christ so that we get great numbers around the altar.
We have had guest speakers who made the altar calls so vague that everyone who had things they needed to settle between themselves and God came forward. In one instance, 100 or more people were standing at the front when, except for one or two, they were already saved and, in most cases, members of the church.
This creates great confusion for our prayer partners. In our church, prayer partners have become accustomed to an altar call where they can count the people who respond, be it many or few, people who have come to get saved, those who have backslidden, or those who are out of communion with God and the church.
General invitations for "breakthroughs" or "blessings" and other things should not be mixed in with the repentance/salvation call. If the call for salvation is not done correctly, it will serve to discourage the prayer partners, and after awhile it becomes a catalyst for unbelief. This happens when the altars are filled week after week with supposed salvation respondents who are actually just general church members seeking more of God. After a while, the entire congregation is desensitized to the salvation call.
Never be embarrassed if there are only a few who respond. It is better to have a few respond who clearly know what they are doing in giving their life to Christ than to have a large number of people who are merely responding to a vague, general invitation.
**Attention to prayer. Prayer commands our attention toward unbelievers. One of our core beliefs is that prayer does not change God; prayer changes us. Yes, prayer moves God to do what He already wants to do, but the means by which God accomplishes this is by causing that same prayer to move our hearts.
When our hearts are moved, we will take the necessary action, which means to inconvenience ourselves by finding ways to make friends, to love and serve those without Christ.
**Assimilation. The question most frequently asked is how our new believers are assimilated into the church. Each new believer is systematically followed up and assisted until he or she personally becomes a disciple or is otherwise satisfactorily accounted for; that is, if he or she should become a member of another church, or whether he or she refuses to walk in his or her newly found faith.
Follow-up takes place within 24 to 48 hours. There are people assigned to follow up, and each follow-up visit is accounted for. Our experience has been that without accountability, not very much happens.
During his or her first few days as a new believer, a person will be introduced to a house-group leader and also to a personal follow-up person. Often this is the same person who was the prayer partner in the church service or house meeting where the person gave his or her life to Christ. This person, whom we call an "Andrew," makes himself or herself available when questions and needs arise in the new believer's life. We encourage the Andrews to take ownership of the discipling process.
Parallel to individual attention, we sponsor year-around Alpha courses. This small-group video introduction to Christianity, produced by Anglican vicar Nicky Gumbel, is a great complement to our work in introducing new believers into the church.
We always keep in mind that should we fail in the process of turning the new believer into a disciple, this carries with it a high price. It often causes the new believer to feel that he or she has "tried God" and the church without success. He or she may then move on to other things to satisfy the hunger in his or her soul. Such a person is often worse off than before. The heart is hardened, and his or her faith in the God of the Bible is lessened.
We have developed an entire manual that deals with how a person moves from being unsaved to becoming a full-fledged disciple in Jesus, and then moving on to becoming a home-group leader, section leader or district pastor.
When we first insisted on accountability regarding how the new believers were being followed up on and assimilated into the life of the church, this seemed threatening to people. There was a feeling that the pastors were checking on everyone. Over time, this misunderstanding has been overcome.
Our district pastors, section leaders, house-group leaders and Andrews now realize we are simply caring for the sheep in the way Jesus taught us in John 10.
These core beliefs are continually being fine-tuned and developed through our understanding of Scripture and by the experiences we encounter. I ask the Holy Spirit to help me to have humility to keep learning.
Sometimes I have communicated one aspect of the work at the expense of another and caused a lopsided emphasis. Then it is important to admit my mistake and to adjust. When there is a willingness on our part to learn and develop, the Holy Spirit is free to work in our lives.
Without the work of God's Spirit in our lives, the fires of evangelism will be quenched. The passion for souls flows from the "the love of God" that "has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5).