“I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philem. 6, NIV).
Paul’s desire for an active church in faith sharing continues as a perennial concern. Each generation needs to review its commitment level in witnessing and sharing their faith to the community, thus maintaining a continuous link with the Great Commission entrusted to the church. With a view to finding out this commitment in North America, the Institute of Church Ministry at Andrews University sent a survey in 2004 to a sample of Seventh-day Adventist members attending on a given Sabbath. The survey sought responses to three questions: (1) In what witness activities do members generally participate, and how many were brought into the church as a result? (2) What was the personal devotional life of the members like? (3) What was instrumental in their own experiences of joining the church?
The survey elicited 1,689 usable responses. This article will summarize the key features of the data. If we understand the principles behind the findings and pay attention to the implications, it will improve the way we do church and give us tools for effective evangelism.
First, a look at the composition of the respondents. Genderwise, 57 percent were female and the rest male. Sixty percent were long-time Adventists—members for more than 20 years. Fifteen percent have been members for 11 to 20 years. Four percent have been members for less than a year. In addition, 61 percent of the respondents grew up with an Adventist parent. All this seems to indicate the power of relationships and that our congregations are not bringing in many new members who have no Adventist background.
The data also indicates an aging church. More than 60 percent are over 45 years of age with 22 percent being 65 or older. Only about 9 percent are under 25 years. This shows the need for the church to be much more intentional about reaching and keeping young people in the church.
In what witnessing activities did members usually engage? The survey reviewed 11 common activities (see table 1). Topping the list was small-group or Home Bible Fellowship studies, with 36 percent participating. Seven activities—phone contacts, evangelistic meetings, health seminars, Revelation Seminars, other Bible seminars, one-to-one Bible studies, and door-to-door contacts—clustered around 20 percent. Two activities—Daniel and family seminars—took in 10 percent.
As to the question regarding how many hours in a month on average members were involved in church-related, community-service programs, one-half of the respondents reported none. About 30 percent reported 1 to 5 hours, 11 percent said 6 to 10 hours, and nearly 6 percent put in a high 20 hours or more.
Table 1: Witnessing and Evangelism Activities Engaged in by Adventist Members in North American Division
Small group or Home Bible Fellowship---36 %
Telephone contacts---24 %
Public evangelistic meetings---22 %
Health seminars and programs---21 %
Other Bible seminars---21 %
Revelation Seminar---19 %
Giving one-to-one Bible studies---19 %
Door-to-door contacts---19 %
Daniel seminar---11 %
Family seminar---10 %
Literacy for adults or English as a second language---3 %
Respondents were asked, “How many people have you been wholly or partially responsible for bringing into the church in the last three years?” About two-thirds indicated that they were not aware of any. Fifteen percent could think of one, and another 15 percent remembered two to five. Only 4 to 5 percent could identify more than five in the previous three-year period.
The second set of questions dealt with devotional practices. Respondents were asked how often they participated in five devotional activities. Leading the way was personal private prayer, where 73 percent were involved daily and another 21 percent at least once a week (see Table 2). Personal Bible study did not fare nearly as well: 37 percent reported daily study, and 43 percent at least once a week. The study of the Sabbath School lesson registered lower: 28 percent daily and 41 percent at least weekly. So far as Sabbath School attendance was concerned, 71 percent attended each week, and 9 percent attended at least once a month.
Other researchers have shown that family worship1 is a key to a solid Christian home and an important factor in retaining young people in the church. With Adventists, the survey showed 28 percent of the respondents have daily family worship, 33 percent on a weekly basis, and the remaining 39 percent have family worship only occasionally or not at all.
Table 2: The Frequency of Participation in Devotional Practices of Adventist Members in North America
Personal private prayer
Daily: 73 %
Once a week: 21 %
Personal Bible study
Daily: 37 %
Once a week: 43 %
Study of Sabbath School lesson
Daily: 28 %
Once a week: 41 %
Reading Ellen White books
Daily: 14 %
Once a week: 29 %
Never: 57 %
Daily: 28 %
Once a week: 33 %
Never: 39 %
Why they joined
The third set of questions attempted to probe what was instrumental in their own choice of joining the church. The survey measured the relative strength of each of nine possible factors (see Table 3).
Table 3: Instruments Influencing Members to Join the Adventist Church in North America
Brought up in an Adventist home---59 %
A friend or relative---58 %
Reading of literature---49 %
Public evangelistic meetings---36 %
Bible studies in the home---34 %
Visits by a pastor---20 %
Television or radio programs---20 %
Bible correspondence course---19 %
Material on the Internet---7 %
Respondents were invited to indicate what this “other” meant. While not all did, the most frequent comment had to do with Christian education and teachers. Table 3 shows that key factors leading people to join a church relates to positive relationships and friendships, with this fact also documented in similar research, such as by Win Arn2 (see Table 4) and more recently by Rainer.3
Arn discovered relationship as the most effective way of reaching people for the Lord. He extensively talks about the importance of oikos (relationship). That’s what I’d like to call “relational evangelism.”
Table 4: Win Arn’s Study of the Factors That Influence People to Join the Church4
Special need---1–2 %
Sunday School---4–5 %
Evangelistic crusade---0–5 %
Church program---2–3 %
The importance of relational evangelism in the Bible
Oikos (sharing faith through relationship) was and still is the most effective way of spreading the gospel. The New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology5 devotes approximately ten pages to oikos, relational evangelism. Oikos in Greek means the dwelling place, the structure of the family or a community with the word strongly related to salvation history. The Lord created us to live in community because we need each other. He wants this community of faith to make a difference in the world by sharing their faith and love.
Relationship becomes not only important in bringing people to the Lord, but also in keeping them in the Lord and the church. We need a support group that encourages us, prays for us, holds us accountable, and fosters an environment of growth, spiritual health, and vitality.
Arn shows that unless the new believer develops at least 7 to 11 friendships in the first six months of their conversion, the possibility of leaving the church registers as very high. With those who do develop a minimum of seven relationships and feel comfortable in the church fellowship, the possibility of staying in the church is very high.6 The more friends a new believer has, the more likely they will stay in the church. We come to the Lord through relationships, and we stay in the Lord through relationships. We are discipled, encouraged, and nurtured through relationships.
Why is relational evangelism effective?
Several important factors may be cited to show why relational evangelism is the most effective means of sharing the Gospel.7
Relational evangelism provides a natural network for sharing the good news of God’s redemptive love. Naturally, people who are close to each other share their faith with each other. Friends and relatives hang out together. They eat out together. They enjoy sharing and talking with each other. Andrew brought his brother Peter to Christ. We have the privilege of bringing our brothers and sisters, moms and dads, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors to Christ.
Relational evangelism deals with receptive people. Often we hear that we are more effective with strangers than our families, but this is not necessarily true. The Bible records many examples where one brought one’s relatives and friends to Jesus. Andrew brought Peter. Philip introduced Nathaniel to Christ. The jailer in Philippi brought his whole household to Jesus. When people around us see a change in us, they will be attracted to the God we worship.
Relational evangelism allows for unhurried and natural sharing of God’s love. In friendship evangelism, no one feels pressure to make anyone be baptized in a short period of time. A natural process takes place over time—and in the context of love and acceptance.
Relational evangelism provides natural support when the web member comes to Christ. The single most significant reason why people leave the church is that they do not have a support group to pray for them, disciple them, and constantly encourage them. But, when people are brought to the Lord by a trusted friend, they already have their own pastor.
Relational evangelism results in the effective assimilation of new converts into the church. Friendship evangelism serves as a means to assimilate people into the life of the church. All experts in church growth agree that assimilation is one of the hardest things to do. You need an accepting group of people and an interested group of converts. In the case of oikos—relational evangelism—both are naturally present.
Relational evangelism tends to win entire families.
Relational evangelism provides a constantly enlarging source of new contacts.
Friendship evangelism is about a chain reaction that has no limit to its influence and effectiveness.8
What should we do in the face of such overwhelming evidence as to the importance of friendship and relational evangelism?
Recognize that friendship and relationship evangelism remains as the most potent means of witnessing. Moreover, the home still serves as a catalyst to make the gospel real to people. We learn to apply the principles of the gospel to real life in the home. Relationship, when it is healthy and intentional, will also help us to see in a concrete way how to live the Christian life effectively and with joy. As people who associate with us see that we are better people because of Jesus, that we are better fathers or mothers or spouses or children, they will more likely be attracted to Christianity than just by sharing doctrine or theology.
Educate, train, equip, and motivate members to be effective in sharing their faith with others. The church should be a training ground, a motivating center. Every obstacle should be removed to make it as easy as possible for people to actively and effectively share their faith.
We often give the impression that witnessing is about going to strangers, knocking at their doors, and trying to witness to them. We should train and inspire our members to share their faith naturally in whatever context they are in, whether in the home, the marketplace, or the neighborhood. The most effective form of evangelism is the natural one—the one which takes place in the context of relationships. When this happens, the new believer has the added advantage of having their own pastor to minister to their spiritual needs.
Inspire and encourage personal spiritual growth of every member. The more passionate believers are about God, the more passionate they will be about sharing Him with others. Our churches should be sanctuaries, always encouraging and challenging people to grow in their walk with God. We cannot take for granted that people will somehow grow spiritually, and we cannot rely solely on the Sabbath sermon to do all the educating, motivating, and training to help people grow spiritually. We need to launch out into new ways of spiritual training and growth, and equip believers with as many effective tools to naturally and attractively share their faith.
Promote a paradigm shift from thinking of evangelism as an event to a process. As I talk to people about spiritual growth and evangelism, I often ask, “Who is the most effective evangelist in the world?” and the predominant answer I get is the name of a famous evangelist. But notice how the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20 conceives evangelism as not the task of a few but a way of life for all.
Ask the question, “Define evangelism and when did your church do evangelism?” The inevitable answer? “We had evangelistic meetings last year or three years ago or ten years ago.” Such an answer views evangelism as an event rather than a way of life that takes place any time, anywhere, by anyone, under any circumstances.
Adopt multiple pathways and entryways for sharing Jesus and helping people connect with the church. Though research has shown that the most effective way of evangelism is through relationships, we still need multiple ways to influence people for Jesus. Our research showed many programs scoring high effectiveness: public evangelism (36 percent), books (49 percent), television or radio (20 percent), Bible correspondence courses (19 percent), and Internet (7 percent).
Multiple ways serve at least three purposes: to create an avenue for the believer to share their faith in a natural way; to reach multiple groups of people when one method might not be the right one to reach all, to find new and receptive seekers who are out of our circle of relationships.
Personal and public evangelism must complement each other. Under the umbrella of public evangelism, the need to do personal evangelism definitely exists. Equally important is the need to do public evangelism under the umbrella of personal evangelism.
1 George Barna, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 55–76. See also Myrna Tetz with Gary L. Hopkins, We Can Keep Them in the Church (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2004), 42–47.
2 Win Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples (Pasadena, CA: Church Growth, 1982), 43.
3 Thom S. Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 73.
4 W. Charles Arn, How to Reach the Unchurched Families in Your Community (Monrovia, CA: Church Growth, n.d.).
5 Colin Brown, gen. ed., The New International Dictionary of the New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 255.
6 Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples, 45–53.
7 Arn, How to Reach the Unchurched Families in Your Community, 45–53.
8 Arn, The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples, 45–53.