During some periods of church history, Christ-followers walked around with a nail in their pockets—an ever-present reminder of Jesus' crucifixion. The thinking went, according to historian Leonard Sweet, "Proclaiming repentance is as much about reminding me of my waywardness as it is about setting other people straight."
If we did that today, we'd likely be seen as suspected terrorists. And forget about getting through airport security!
Today, Christians still want to obey the Great Commission. So the question is: What's the best way to practice evangelism now?
The Meaning of Evangelism
One of Billy Graham's greatest legacies is the Lausanne Congress, formerly known as the International Conference for World Evangelization. At the 1983 Congress, Christian leaders from more than 150 nations gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland, to explore new ways to carry out the church's call to evangelize the world. The Lausanne Covenant was birthed from that meeting, and evangelism was defined as "the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Savior and Lord, with a view of persuading people to come to Him personally and so be reconciled to God." It further declared, "In issuing the gospel invitation, we have no liberty to conceal the cost of discipleship."
In his book Nudge, Sweet offers a simple and direct view of the subject. He explains, "Evangelism is nudging people to pay attention to the mission of God in their lives and to the necessity of responding to that initiative in ways that birth new realities and the new birth."
Regardless of the definition we're most comfortable with, the call to evangelize is inescapable. Whether a huge organization launches a multimillion-dollar crusade or friends talk about Christ over a cup of coffee in a kitchen, evangelism must be practiced today like never before.
The challenge is finding not one—but many—effective methods of evangelism. It is a weighty issue because if we don't succeed, the Christian church risks losing its ability to influence society and keep future generations engaged. Out of the search for evangelism methods that fit today's postmodern culture, many approaches have emerged, such as:
- Prayer evangelism
- Generosity as evangelism
- Acts-of-kindness evangelism
- Missional communities as bridges to evangelism
- Service-based evangelism
- Crusade evangelism
- Online blogging as evangelism
- Social media evangelism
The list is endless, and we all realize historic methods of evangelism often no longer work. Let's take a look at five effective evangelism methods in use right now. While not in any order of success or proven effectiveness, these five methods have verifiable results. The principles they embody are also transferable to different denominations and geographical settings.
Method 1: The Invitational Model
Relationship is the most significant access point into the private lives of others. Spiritual conversations are viewed by most people—Christian and non-Christian alike—as exceptionally private. Most people need to personally know the individual who wants to hold a conversation with them about God, faith, the Bible or any other spiritually related topic.
The invitational model of evangelism happens when a believer invites a friend, neighbor, colleague or family member to an evangelistic social outing. The real focus is not on the event—be it a concert, play or worship service—though that serves a vital role. The believer's primary goal is to expose their friend to a gifted person who can share the gospel in a culturally relevant way. The Christian's hope is that their friend accepts Christ as their Savior.
Warren Bird, the Leadership Network's director of research and intellectual capital, shared the findings of the organization's 2011 study of 25 megachurches. They received 50,000 responses to questions like, "What drew them to the church? What kept them there?"
Of the results, Bird says, "On average, megachurches do better than other churches at evangelism, and it's often as simple as people inviting their friends to church."
This finding does not discount the value of evangelism or the social impact of small churches. The research simply underscores the effectiveness of the invitational model of evangelism.
On a personal note, Christ Church—the church I pastor in Rockaway, New Jersey—grew by approximately 1,000 people in 2013 through this method. We discovered the effectiveness of this model lies in the church's ability to do the groundwork. This entails the creation of a worship environment where people feel comfortable bringing their unsaved family and friends.
The invitational model also requires training Christians in the ongoing practice of establishing growing relationships with the unchurched. My congregation has a long way to go in perfecting this model, but we are committed to using it alongside other effective models of evangelism.
Method 2: The Service Model
General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, built that global organization on the evangelistic principle that says, "A man cannot hear you when his stomach is empty. Feed him, and he will listen." In other words, meeting people's felt needs through acts of service gives power and eternal meaning to your words. Acts of kindness open a heart to the gospel.
Many local churches have positioned themselves as ambassadors of goodwill and advocates in their communities. For example, Christ Tabernacle—a multisite church based in Glendale, New York—began serving families of special needs children within its community. In September 2013, the church hosted a conference in partnership with the Center for Autism and Related Disorders. The invitation was extended to the entire community.
Adam Durso, the church's executive pastor and the dad of a special needs child, says hundreds of families came who had "battled with rejection from the public and social sector because of their special needs child."
Through this ministry, called the Champions Club, Durso says, "Christ Tabernacle has grown in credibility and the right to speak into the lives of many people who have never heard the gospel before."
The church is an ally and a resource to these families who struggle silently to care for their special needs children.
To demonstrate real commitment to them, Christ Tabernacle is now completing a sensory room—a learning space for children with autism, Down syndrome, ADHD and other needs. Last December, the Champions Club hosted a Christmas party, and more than 195 children came, accompanied by their parents and family members.
Roughly 90 percent of them had never darkened the doors of Christ Tabernacle before, nor did they have a relationship with Christ. They toured the sensory room and were quickly hooked, finding themselves at home in God's house.
"We're seeing the congregation empowered to serve a demographic that is greatly underserved throughout our city," Durso says.
The service model is used in a slightly different way at Liquid Church—a fast-growing multisite church in northern New Jersey.
"Hundreds of men in our church stepped up to donate over $50,000 and 5,000 hours of labor to do an 'extreme makeover' of a battered women's shelter in New Brunswick, New Jersey," says Tim Lucas, the church's lead pastor.
"A battered women's shelter exists for one reason—because men abuse their God-given strength. We wanted to demonstrate in word and deed the power of men surrendered to Christ using their strength to selflessly serve women and their children," Lucas says. "The executive director [of the shelter] was so impressed, she began attending our church, gave her life to Christ and was publicly baptized! She is now a key leader in our church, attending seminary and bringing her newfound faith in Christ to her leadership at the battered women's center."
Lucas adds, "When hardened cynics witness the church financially sacrificing and selflessly caring for abused women, neglected children or homeless families, they are inspired to ask, 'Why are you doing this?' and 'How can I help?'"
The beauty of the service model is the discovery that serving people without an agenda other than loving them becomes a launching pad for conversations on faith. The broader community becomes willing to listen to matters of salvation, God and redemption. Regardless of the focus your church takes with the service model, God's love in action through His people is irresistible.
Method 3: The Crusade Model
Major citywide evangelistic events get a lot of press. They're exciting because the big guns come to town—popular preachers, famous singers—and because crowd-drawing, gospel-centric activity takes place that most churches don't have the resources to host.
In most cases, these stadium-sized meetings are planned over a couple of years and cost millions of dollars to pull off. Though they seldom last more than a few days, they require a lot of work—through the training of partner churches and parachurch organizations and through administratively gifted leaders, all of whom ensure the event goes off without a hitch.
I know it takes a lot of work because I served on the executive committee for evangelist Billy Graham's final bow—his New York City crusade that took place June 24-26, 2005. New York park and police officials tallied the crowd at some 242,000 people over the three-day crusade. More than 1,400 churches representing 82 denominations provided an estimated 20,000 volunteer workers. Drawing about 700 media representatives, this event that took a year to prepare—with a $6.8-million-dollar budget—and yielded approximately 9,445 decisions for Christ, half of which were first-time decisions.
Another well-known example of crusade evangelism is Battle Cry—a Teen Mania International event conducted by Ron Luce, its president and founder. This Texas-based parachurch organization conducts crusades across the United States and in Canada to win teenagers to the Lord. In a concert-like atmosphere, teens turn away from darkness into God's marvelous light.
Jack Redmond, an executive member of the Battle Cry steering committee, says, "The engagement of teenagers from hundreds of local churches each year is phenomenal. The 2011 crusade, for example, drew some 15,000 people, and between 1,000 to 1,500 decisions were made for Christ."
Granted, crusade evangelism requires a lot of prep work and resources, but it is still a viable method today.
Method 4: The Testimonial Model
Sharing your faith in a one-on-one setting maximizes the spread of the gospel. Unlike the invitational model, the testimonial model—more commonly referred to as witnessing—empowers the believer to close the deal. By sharing your life with your friend, co-worker or neighbor, you as a believer get a firsthand opportunity to bring people to Christ. Through spiritual conversations, including the sharing of your conversion story, unbelievers are evangelized.
Although this model does not carry the glamour of the crusade model, it is by far the most powerful evangelistic method, resulting in the greatest degree of church growth and discipleship. As statisticians explored sources of church growth over the recent decades, they discovered the web of personal relationships is the primary driver.
In 1986, C. Peter Wagner, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary, reported his survey finding that 86 percent of churches grow because of friends and relatives. As evidenced in the list below, the testimonial model, reflected in the category of "friends and relatives," markedly outperforms other sources of church growth:
Sources of Church Growth
Advertisement: 2 percent
The pastor: 6 percent
Organized outreach: 6 percent
Friends and relatives: 86 percent
Tim Massengale, author of Total Church Growth, recently confirmed this in a new poll. He surveyed some 8,000 Christians across America and documented their answer to the question, "How did you come into the church?"
Sources of Church Growth
Advertisement: 0.1 percent
The pastor: 6-8 percent
Walk-ins: 4-6 percent
Door-to-door visitation: 1-2 percent
Church program: 2-4 percent
Friends and relatives: 70-90 percent
As you can see, the testimonial model embodied in the "friends and relatives" category still contributes significantly to church growth today.
In order to capitalize on this model of evangelism, the local church must spend significant time training its members in the art of sharing their faith. These equipping sessions must take place through a myriad of teaching opportunities beyond the Sunday morning hour.
In our church, we train the congregation to create 10-minute, three-minute and one-minute versions of their conversion story. Becoming skilled at telling the story of your journey to faith in Christ is critical for success.
Method 5: The Event-Driven Model
Churches that experience success with evangelism and growth regularly host events that attract nonreligious people. Whether a seasonal event, such as a Christmas musical, Easter play or harvest festival, or something like a marriage and family seminar, these activities entertain with a clear evangelistic component.
In the above tables, we saw how a church's programs and outreach impact its growth. Though a small percentage of the source of church growth, these organized events work hand in hand with the invitational and testimonial models used to attract lost people to Christ.
Churches that experience growth from conversion—not simply transfers—work hard to develop a culture of evangelism. Their sermons provide God's answers to social issues, relationships and the other areas of life in practical ways. Weekend services are streamlined and fall typically within a 75- to 90-minute timeframe. A well-designed worship experience allows the Holy Spirit to engage the heart of attendees—believers and unbelievers alike. This practice creates ease in the members' hearts to invite their unsaved family and friends to weekend meetings and special events.
The success of the event-driven model lies in the ability of the church to create a culture where God's love for lost people is easily evidenced and experienced. Equally important to the effectiveness of this model is what Durso shared when asked to contrast Christ Tabernacle's experience of the service model with other evangelism methods.
"Our street ministry outreaches, seasonal concerts, preaching in parks and on street corners are great events," he says. "They are exciting. People come to the Lord. But our experience is that they are like a flash in the pan if not backed up with ongoing service-based evangelism that meet people's needs."
Durso is correct. Events are good at attracting people to the church and even at helping people investigate the claims of Christ. However, if we want people to move beyond conversion and experience discipleship, which includes responsible local church membership, our ministry events must guide people to become fully devoted followers of Christ.
Evangelism practices today are certainly different than the models of yesterday, and these five models also have a shelf life. Unlike items we purchase at the grocery store, we don't know their exact expiration date.
But we do know that as culture changes, so should our methods. We cannot get angry at lost people if our evangelism methods are unappealing. We must continue to engage in good social research and in collaborative efforts, and we must continue to be sensitive to the nudge of the Holy Spirit as we strive to see relevant models emerge.
David D. Ireland, Ph.D., is senior pastor of Christ Church, a thriving 7,000-member multisite and multiracial congregation in northern New Jersey, and author of The Kneeling Warrior: Winning Your Battles Through Prayer.
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