During the height of the oil crisis a few years ago, U. S. Federal marshals arrested Glenn Heller, a Boston gas-station owner, for violating price regulations by charging a then-unheard-of $L 42 a gallon. Now, with gas prices decontrolled, his Beacon Hill Gulf station offers unleaded gas at $1.69 per gallon during the daytime, and charges go up to a whop ping $2.59 between midnight and 8:00 A.M.! Before the current gas surplus caused prices everywhere to slide a little, he was charging a top rate of $3.99 a gallon!
Customers pay dearly for other services as well. Drivers who run out of gas must pay a $ 15 deposit for a gas can and a $3-an-hour rental fee. Motorists pay $1 just to use the air pump!
Yet despite stiff prices, Heller sells about three thousand gallons of gasoline a week—half of it at night when other stations are closed. He is clearly capitalizing on a captive market.
On the other hand, a service station in our town recently put up a sign: "Customers Wanted—No Experience Required!" It charges $1.29 a gallon for gasoline, and the air is free.
Why would someone stop at Heller's Beacon Hill Gulf and pay such outrageous prices when there must be dozens of other nearby stations like the one in our town, looking for customers and offering their products at a fair price? Two reasons come immediately to mind: need and availability.
In a sense your church is like a filling station. With dozens of others to choose from, why should anyone choose your church? Location, architecture, pro gram, pastor, even denominational identity, often have less to do with the choice than we think. People looking for a church, like motorists looking for gas, respond to felt needs.
Robert Schuller's formula for church growth is simply "Find a hurt and heal it." The tremendous response to Dr. James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" film series attests to the truthfulness of that concept. People are looking not for entertainment or new programs, but for satisfaction, solutions, and answers.
In Luke's Gospel, Jesus tells of a man who has unexpected company arrive at midnight. The rules of Eastern hospitality require the host to provide a simple but satisfying snack, but he has no bread in the house. There is no Seven-Eleven store on the corner, no basement freezer full of food. To supply a single slice of bread, he would have to grind the grain into flour, make the dough, build a fire, and bake the loaf—a time-consuming operation, and it is now in the wee hours of the morning.
Suddenly the host remembers the neighbor next door. With a larger family, he doubtless keeps a supply of bread on hand. Excusing himself, he slips away from his guest and knocks, rather tentatively, at his neighbor's door. No response. He knocks louder and calls his neighbor's name. Finally the man awakens, but when he learns his friend's plight, he responds from within, "I can't help you, for my family is asleep all around me here on the floor, and if I get up I'll awaken them."
The host grows desperate, and refusing to be quiet or go away, persists until the neighbor gets up and gives him the bread, not because of their friendship (now strained to the breaking point), but because of his persistence and need.
In your town are people who are as desperate as the host in Jesus' parable. The "bread" they seek may be the solution to a marital difficulty, answers to the perplexing issues of parenting, help in coping in a complex world or a sense of belonging, of being needed and wanted. They come knocking with a myriad of problems.
They will find answers; their sense of frustration will drive them to that. The answers they find will not always be the right ones or from the best sources, but they will find answers nonetheless, from a friendly bartender, a fellow worker or neighbor, or perhaps a member of a cult—someone, anyone who will listen understandingly and respond. To the person in need, the tightness or wrongness of the counsel they receive is not as important as its availability.
Availability to meet human needs involves far more than just being in the right place at the right time. It goes to the very heart of the church's evangelistic mission.
Church growth strategist C. Peter Wagner, of Fuller Seminary's School of World Mission, gives three major definitions of evangelism: evangelism of presence, proclamation, and persuasion.
Presence evangelism focuses on being a force for good in the community, on witnessing by lending a helping hand, by "helping people in context." According to this definition, the very fact that a church exists in the community is a witness to the world. The inadequacy of this view is illustrated by a poll of mainline clergy conducted by the National Council of Churches. Less than 40 percent of the ministers questioned believed the church's basic evangelistic mission is to bring people to Christ.
The words of Nazarene missiologist Paul Orjala ought to serve as a warning to the church at this point: "The chief reason many churches no longer practice evangelism is that they no longer believe that people are lost and need the Saviour. The uniqueness of Christ— 'none other name' (Acts 4:12)—has been traded off for religious pluralism. The universality of God's offer of salvation through Christ has been replaced by universalism. "—Get Ready to Grow (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1978), p. 42.
Proclamation evangelism involves proclaiming the gospel in such a way that it is heard and understood. This concept of evangelism operates under the assumption that once the gospel has been declared (and comprehended), the evangelistic task has been completed, whether or not people come to trust in Christ as Saviour as a result of the effort.
Joe Bayly's The Gospel Blimp, with its "gospel firebombs," is a classic satirical statement about the pitfalls inherent in proclamation evangelism. Sometimes, however, even the ludicrous works. A Methodist layman launched thirty thousand whiskey bottles stuffed with gospel tracts. More than six hundred responses resulted from this "Jim Beam" evangelistic strategy, and one church was established! But the average American is exposed to 1,600 advertising messages a day, and since our minds tend to filter out most of them, trapping only a minuscule minority, the gospel message fights an uphill battle for survival.
Persuasion evangelism, the third of Wagner's options, operates on the premise that evangelism is not complete until disciples are made, until men and women are committed to Christ and to the body of Christ. Perhaps the most definitive statement of the goal of evangelism from this perspective is that written by the Anglican Archbishops' Committee in 1918: "To evangelize is so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Saviour, and serve Him as their King in the fellowship of His church."
My son and I enjoy fishing. Many an afternoon we've dutifully carried our fishing gear through the pasture and over numerous fences to the edge of a stock pond where we know there are catfish. We've baited our hooks with everything from nightcrawlers to "stink bait" and waited patiently for a nibble. Sometimes we leave empty-handed, and we still are glad we went. But as every angler knows, to "go fishin'" includes the expectation of success. You haven't really fished in the proper sense of the word unless you have caught something. Neither do those who have become fishers of men for the Lord.
The end result of presence evangelism is compassion. Proclamation evangelism aims at communication. But the goal of persuasion evangelism is conversion and commitment. To be content with less is to miss the point of the Great Commission. We are to call men and women to decision and to discipleship.
What about your congregation? Is your church content simply to "be there" helping people? By proclaiming the gospel in such a way that it is heard and understood, does your congregation feel it has fulfilled its responsibility under God? Or does your church recognize its evangelistic task as that of bringing men and women to Christ, making disciples, perfecting them in the faith, and bringing them to be responsible, reproducing members of the body of Christ? Does the church under your care tell a needy world: "Customers Wanted—No Experience Required"?