It is challenging for a church, using the traditional evangelism model, to preach the gospel to a postmodern audience. Scripture speaks of the tribe of Issachar as having leaders who “understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take” (1 Chron. 12:32, NLT). We must adapt to the times and use all available means of witnessing. By incorporating multiple evangelistic strategies year-round, traditional as well as innovative, our churches would have a greater opportunity to help people experience the gospel.
Knowing that we need new ideas and coming up with those new ideas are not the same. Fortunately, we have churches full of people from all walks of life who can help us generate and integrate innovative evangelism. The best creative evangelism is what the members come up with to meet the needs around them through loving relationships. Evangelistic ministries birthed by the members work best when there is a heart to reach people. It is not the ministry but rather the love and prayers that make the difference. The goal is not a quick surge in baptism or membership numbers but rather the fostering of long-term, Christ-centered relationships, with no strings attached.
Jesus called us to “ ‘Go’ ” (Matt. 28:19) out into the communities rather than waiting for them to come to us. As followers of Christ we, as individuals, are expected to do more than just speak Christ’s truth to the world; we are also to share His life. Jesus “affirmed that the worship of God is central to what it means to be a disciple. But . . . He did not make the building—or corporate worship—the destination. His destination was the people God wanted to touch, and those were, with few exceptions, people who wouldn’t have spent much time in holy places.”1 Jesus intentionally socialized at weddings, feasts, people’s homes, and even walking by the road or sea. Churches, therefore, would be best served when they are intentional about not relying solely on denominationally provided programs and evangelistic models.
I (Joseph) discovered the potential for member-generated creative evangelistic ideas when I saw this in action at one of the churches I pastored. A church member, Diane, saw an angel tree in the mall over the Christmas holidays. The tree was filled with names of poor families in the community. She took ten names back to the church. Within minutes the names were gone. Church members wanted to drop off the gifts for the families in person rather than having the angel tree organization deliver them in order to build a relationship with the families so that the church could look in on them and be there to help with any future needs.
The organization agreed, and Diane grabbed some more names off the tree to take back to the church. That winter, the church provided gifts for 100 families. The church was a beacon of hope for those families and a reflection of the love of Christ. Diane’s impulse to have individual church members fill a community need sparked in me a desire to tap into the creativity present in each of us for innovative ideas regarding evangelism. This led to the creation of a culture in the church in which eyes and ears were opened and encouragement was given for every member to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in order to take part in filling community and personal needs.
We want to invite you to take part in a paradigm shift in your thinking about evangelism and evangelistic strategies. This article will focus on the changing paradigms of how people come to the Lord, the need for a church to exist in more than just the building, and creating an innovative, evangelistic, idea-generating environment.
New paradigm: Show and tell
The old model of evangelism was a movement from facts (head knowledge) to faith to feelings (heart knowledge). In the age of modernity, being presented with facts would lead to a change in faith, which would then lead to an experience within a like-minded community. For example, proof texts were presented about the validity of the Sabbath. People agreed with and had faith in those facts, so they started keeping the Sabbath.
Today, our postmodern world is shifting to one of post-truth, where feelings hold sway more than facts.2 As such, the new model of evangelism should be a movement from feelings, to faith, to facts.3 This requires a larger commitment on the part of members. Relationships must be formed first; the unchurched need to see how Christianity works. They need to feel like a part of something, part of a community.4 For example, when we share about the Sabbath, proof texts and history lessons should not be the place to start. One should start with fellowship and relationship building, showing how living within a Sabbath rest helps strengthen family bonds, church communities, and an awareness of God. Let the unchurched have a shared experience of the Sabbath as a delight. They will want a repeat of that experience, which can lead to faith in the principles of the Sabbath. They then ask for facts about the Sabbath because they are already experiencing the joy of it. This is the “show and tell” paradigm.
The same is true for the Second Coming. People need to see how living in the hope of the Second Coming provides purpose and strength for everyday living. Once this is seen, the unchurched can begin to believe for themselves in the reality of the Second Coming. It is then that they will begin to ask for the facts.
Dr. Fredric Neuman observed in his psychotherapy practice that, for change to take place, more is needed than new information. If what we learn requires a change in behavior, we are less likely to embrace the needed change and more likely to reject the new information. But if we have already changed our behavior, it is much easier to adapt our beliefs to match.5
In a New York Times article, Maria Konnikova presents several studies about the ineffectiveness of facts to change peoples’ minds. Interestingly, it was found that when you feel good about yourself, you are more open to accepting new facts.6 In the realm of evangelism, this means we should not present the facts of the gospel without sharing the love Christ has for every individual. When someone finds their value and self-worth in God, they are more open to understanding and absorbing the truth of the gospel.
After-church activities, such as a picnic by the lake, a hike in the local forest, or a birding expedition, are wonderful opportunities to build relationships with those who do not feel comfortable in a church. Eating together is another way in which to build meaningful relationships and to share how Christ works in our lives.
Several years ago, Kristy was introduced to Alexis, the sister of a church member. The two women were the same age and became fast friends, even though Alexis was not a Christian. They spent time together talking and sharing meals. They would often go to the zoo on Sabbath afternoons, watching the animals and enjoying nature. Alexis began to understand the importance of taking a break from work and the busyness of life in order to rest and recharge. Kristy invited Alexis to church socials and tried to do a Bible study with her. But these did not increase Alexis’s interest in going to church services. Over the years, the women moved away from each other but still kept in touch. Without pressuring, Kristy would share devotional messages or Bible texts from her church newsletter that Alexis seemed to respond to and comment on. Recently, with no prompting from Kristy, Alexis signed up for the weekly church newsletter devotional and continues to reach out for general spiritual guidance.
“In the end Christians must understand that unbelievers will not accept what we say about Christ until they first see the truth manifested in our lives.”7 We must first show people what life with Christ looks like and why it is better, in order for us to earn the trust necessary to be believed—that we are able to share the facts that people may not even realize they were searching for.
New paradigm: Go and do
In the past, writes Michael L. Simpson, people would come to the church for answers: the church became their path to God. Today, few people seek out a church for answers to life’s questions.8 Therefore, “evangelism must often take place as an encounter outside the church. The church’s role is to prepare Christians for these encounters and provide safe entry points for new believers to enter into church life.”9
Ethan saw people converging at a local park. When he discovered that they were preparing to put on a triathlon, he wondered what he could do to help. The organizers said that they could always use more water. Feeling inspired, Ethan gathered some church members, who donated water for the triathlon. For those who wanted to help pass out water, the triathlon’s sponsor covered the insurance and training of volunteers. Because Ethan saw a need, church members were able to meet some great people and fill a need in the community. Church leaders could encourage members to join with other organizations as volunteers. This may be just one way in which we can “go and do.”
In meetings, Andy Stanley “will go around the room and ask staff members to report on who they are spending time with. If staff members are not talking to people who are hell bound, then something’s out of balance in their schedule and priorities.”10 He even encourages pastors to spend more time with the unchurched than with their members.11 Ellen White also spoke against ministers who focused their time only on their churches because “the ministers have other work to do. They must carry the message of truth to those who know it not.”12
In fact, everyone should make an effort to spend time with unchurched people as a normal part of their day. When we intentionally spend time with people, our eyes will be opened to their needs. When coupled with an evangelistic heart, members will be able to “establish ministries that allow the church to be present in the community, and have a process by which they are able to draw these unchurched people into the safety of Christ and a local church.”13
Jesus’s method of one-on-one, personal contact was representative of the “special place in His heart for those shunned and rejected by society regardless of their socioeconomic level.”14 You do not need a ministerial license to have the Holy Spirit work through you to reach people. “Angels of God attend you to the dwellings of those you visit. This work cannot be done by proxy. Money lent or given will not accomplish it. Sermons will not do it. By visiting the people, talking, praying, sympathizing with them, you will win hearts. This is the highest missionary work that you can do. To do it, you will need resolute, persevering faith, unwearying patience, and a deep love for souls.”15
Shortly after he was baptized, Peter was asked to help out with Pathfinders. He was surprised to see only about 15 kids in the club, and all were from the church. Peter envisioned a club with half of its members from the community. He had the kids invite friends to come and join Pathfinders. They worked to make the club known within the community. He opened the gym to the community, had monthly social events for the kids and their families, and had the Pathfinders actively involved with church services on a regular basis. Under his committed leadership and creativity, the club tripled in size in less than three years, with less than half being from the church. Several families came to be church members through the influence the club had on their children.
Peter helped his church develop a paradigm shift for not only the Pathfinders but also the church as a whole. The members learned the value of having nonmembers included in ministries and taking those ministries outside of the walls of the church.
In the research done for this article, we found several examples of churches going outside their walls to meet with the community. Many churches meet at a local park for vespers, programs, Sabbath lunches, or even to do Vacation Bible School. Small groups are held in members’ homes, and youth groups meet at the local coffee shop or restaurant. Some churches incorporate community service projects into the calendar for months with a fifth Sabbath. Others host block parties, have church at the beach, or go camping in the mountains. One group opened a prayer café in a local strip mall.16 All of these ideas involve going out and being available, consistently, outside of the church building.
Robert Henderson shares his dream of what this type of church without walls would look like: “a congregation of down-to-earth, wholesome Christian folk who are ‘radioactive’ with their love of Jesus Christ, who are alert to and praying for all of their non-Christian friends, and who are able to enter into gentle conversations with these friends which would bring them to the knowledge of the Lord in sensitive ways.”17
Considering the amount of loneliness in our world today, we would do well to focus on building relationships and connections with others. These connections will help people realize that we are sharing with them out of genuine concern and love for them with no strings attached. This means befriending coworkers, neighbors, the parents of your child’s friends, etc.
Ellen White encourages believers: “Wherever you can gain access to the people by the fireside, improve your opportunity. Take your Bible, and open before them its great truths. Your success will not depend so much upon your knowledge and accomplishments, as upon your ability to find your way to the heart. By being social and coming close to the people, you may turn the current of their thoughts more readily than by the most able discourse. The presentation of Christ in the family, by the fireside, and in small gatherings in private houses, is often more successful in winning souls to Jesus than are sermons delivered in the open air, to the moving throng, or even in halls or churches.”18
It is through the forming and growing of relationships that you gain credibility and the right to be heard.19
Some of those reading may be saying, “But all of my friends are Christian!” Bill Tenny-Brittian counters that “a Christian without an unchurched friend is like a dash of salt in the ocean: it doesn’t do anyone any good, and no one even knows it is there.”20 Forming lasting friendships takes time, energy, and intentionality—things that are often in short supply in today’s Instagram and Twitter world.
New paradigm: Live and imagine
Have you ever considered that all worship and evangelism is contemporary? At least it was when the services and programs we now consider traditional were first instituted. They were new and innovative. “The challenge and opportunity, however, is to shape liturgy and church life [and evangelism] in ways indigenous to the cultures in the community, in this generation.”21
Churches need to celebrate ministry regardless of outcome, encouraging believers to zealously make use of every evangelistic ministry and opportunity. However, we must remember that “humans do not convert nonbelievers; only the Holy Spirit does that. Consequently, our responsibility is to serve as capable conduits of God’s love through a clear expression of the gospel message. Whether or not the person accepts Christ is beyond human control.”22 However, still aim for excellency; put your best effort into all that you do. An evangelistic ministry that is poorly planned or executed can work as a disservice to the glory of God and leave people with a bitter taste.23 Take the time to bathe your ministry in prayer and properly prepare, doing all in service to Christ.
Harry had a passion for missing members. He knew that many were still in the community but had stopped coming to church. With permission from the pastor, he started a Saturday morning breakfast specifically for former members. No topic was off limits—they could even bash the church while drinking their coffee. What was important was listening without judgment and rebuilding relationships. He was a little worried about how the members would respond to this new ministry. But the pastor told him to go ahead; he would deal with any member complaints. After several years of spending time in this group, some of these former members started rejoining the larger congregation.
What worked for Harry was his focus on relationships and the desire to share himself with former members; that, coupled with a grace-filled and welcoming church congregation. When we take the time to be trained in relationship building (how to be a better spouse, parent, friend, and neighbor), evangelism will be a natural outgrowth. If people do not like you or know you, why would they want to worship with you? If you are unlikeable, what does that say about the God whom you serve and want others to know? On the other hand, if you are compassionate and empathetic to people’s needs and genuinely care about them as individuals, that is the God they will see through you. As believers in relationship with Christ, we are to do our best within the church to create “environments where people are encouraged and equipped to pursue intimacy with God, community with insiders, and influence with outsiders.”24 Maintaining an intimate relationship with God will help you to be in tune to the imaginings He puts in your heart for ways in which to reach out to His children.
When we encourage church members to live with intention in regard to others, they are better able to discover new and innovative ways in which to reach those around them. In this way, they can “live and imagine,” using their God-given creativity for evangelism. Members can then “take seriously Jesus’ command in Mark 7 to avoid letting traditions get in the way of obeying God or ministering to people. Creativity is part of their thinking, and change is integral to their strategy. They’re willing to take risks for the sake of those who are lost, but they learn from their mistakes and constantly readjust their course.”25
Friendship must be at the root of all kinds of evangelism. It is through long-term relationships that we are able to see and meet the unique personal and community needs of those in our sphere of influence. Taking the time to see and sympathize with these needs is at the heart of innovative evangelism. This type of commitment is necessary, if we are to model Paul’s actions of identifying with people in order to share the message of salvation (1Cor. 9:19–23). It is the task of each one of us to look for ways in which to reach the unchurched.
1 Sally Morgenthaler, “Worship as Evangelism,” REV! May/June 2007, 53, nancybeach.typepad.com /nancy_beach/files/morgenthaler_article.pdf.
2 “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is . . . POST-TRUTH,” https://www.oxforddictionaries.com /press/news/2016/12/11/WOTY-16, November 16, 2016 [accessed November 17, 2017].
3 For the unaffiliated and Protestants who change to another Protestant religion, it is not about the religious or moral beliefs but about people and institutions. “Faith in Flux,” Pew Research Center: Religion and Public Life, revised February 2011, www.pewforum.org/2009/04/27/faith-in-flux/.
4 Rick Richardson, Evangelism Outside the Box: New Ways to Help People Experience the Good News (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 55.
5 Fredric Neuman, “Why Do People Hold to Their Beliefs So Stubbornly,” Psychology Today, February 16, 2014, www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fighting -fear/201402/why-do-people-hold-their-beliefs -so-stubbornly.
6 Konnikova, “I Don’t Want to be Right.”
7 Dave Earley and David Wheeler, Evangelism Is . . . How to Share Jesus with Passion and Confidence (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2010), 150.
8 Michael L. Simpson, Permission Evangelism (Colorado Springs, CO: NexGen, 2003), 17, 18.
9 Simpson, Permission Evangelism, 18.
10 Andy Stanley and Ed Young, Can We Do That? 24 Innovative Practices that Will Change the Way You Do Church (West Monroe, LA: Howard Books, 2002),7.
11 Stanley and Young, Can We Do That?,12.
12 Ellen G. White, Pastoral Ministry (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 121.
13 Gary McIntosh and Glen Martin, Finding Them, Keeping Them (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 22.
14 Earley and Wheeler, Evangelism Is . . . , 218.
15 Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 9 (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1909), 41.
16 Royston Philbert and the Inter-American Division staff, “Café Serves Up Prayer in U.S. Virgin Islands,” Adventist Review online, February 6, 2016, www .adventistreview.org/church-news/story3682-cafe -serves-up-prayer-in-us-virgin-islands.
17 Robert T. Henderson, Joy to the World: Spreading the Good News of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 178.
18 Ellen White, Evangelism (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1946), 436, 437.
19 Steve Sjogren and Rob Lewin, Community of Kindness: A Refreshing New Approach to Planting and Growing a Church (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 76, 77.
20 Bill Tenny-Brittian, Hitchhiker’s Guide to Evangelism (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2008), 28.
21 George G. Hunter III, Radical Outreach: Recovering Apostolic Ministry and Evangelism (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), 90, 91.
22 George Barna, The Habits of Highly Effective Churches (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1999), 115, 116.
23 Stanley and Young, Can We Do That?,154.
24 Stanley and Young, Can We Do That?, 33.
25 Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg, Becoming a Contagious Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 208.