Drew Coons is a retired missionary and family ministry speaker residing in Port Orchard, Washington, United States.

How many grooms do you know of who have shared the gospel of Christ with the guests at his own wedding? I did, because when you understand the gospel, you cannot help but use any opportunity to promote it.

Several years later, my wife, Kit, and I started a biblically based marriage enrichment ministry as unpaid laypeople. Our intention was to share the gospel. Nonbelievers came because they felt a need for better marital relationships. Their marriages improved as they applied scriptural principles, and that experience gave them confidence in the Bible. They then believed what the Bible says about Jesus. Hundreds came to understand the gospel and trusted Christ for salvation. Others were renewed in their childhood faith.

The felt need for family relationships attracted nearly 20,000 believers and nonbelievers to our activities in eight years. At first, we felt frustrated when Christians took spaces we had planned for nonbelievers. Our attitude was wrong. Christians came because they had needs in their families too. Christians who experienced improved relationships readily became volunteers in the ministry.

We learned that Christian marriages are also important to evangelism. Things that work get noticed. Nonbelievers are frequently drawn to Christian couples who enjoy rewarding relationships. We have heard nonbelievers ask, “What makes their marriage so good?” Godly marriages are a key part of God’s plan. Conversely, Christian marriages that fare poorly discredit Christ and the church. The relationship between a husband and wife is compared to Christ and the church in Ephesians 5, and this is not an accident. Verse 32 refers to it as a mystery, but we can be certain that godly marriages are a key part of God’s plan. Conversely, Christian marriages that fare poorly discredit Christ and the church.

After learning that selfishness adversely affects a relationship, I determined to become an unselfish husband. Then one day, an engineer with whom I worked came into my office. “Drew,” he said, “what you did for those guys was unselfish!” Whoa, I thought. My marriage has spilled into my life! As I tried to be an unselfish husband, God used that decision to make me an unselfish person.

Jesus’ example

Jesus demonstrated a pattern for effective ministry. His strategy included events, small groups, and training. Jesus frequently taught in front of gatherings of people or at events: “He was teaching in their synagogues” (Luke 4:15).1 And so “the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God” (Luke 5:1). Jesus’ public teaching is what initially drew disciples to Him. His miracles authenticated His messages. In the same manner, changed marriages authenticate our source, the Bible.

In addition to speaking to crowds, Jesus frequently met with smaller groups of seekers, talked to them, and answered their questions (Matt. 9:35; 19:16–22; Luke 10:38–42; John 1:45–51; 4:1–30). Later, Jesus spent private time training the disciples. Jesus’ example of events, small groups, and training is what the disciples understood they were to do when He gave them the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, 20.

Jesus’ example works particularly well revolving around the felt needs of couples and parents. We used an ongoing cycle of events, small groups, and training to mobilize hundreds of laypeople whom God used to change people’s lives.

Churches follow Jesus’ example—but with different words and forms. Nearly all emphasize events, mostly worship services. Many utilize small groups or community groups. Some deliberately use seeker groups and train laypeople (Eph. 4:12) to be effective ministers within their community.

The example of Joe

Joe does not want to participate in marriage ministry. He is afraid he will be forced to publicly acknowledge deficiencies. More threatening, his wife will publicly share his shortcomings. Joe is wary that you will create high expectations in his wife or subject him to unachievable standards. He is afraid you will open issues he and his spouse have been avoiding, thereby making their relationship worse, not better. In many cases, Joe and those like him have not put their faith in Christ.

Joe does not characterize every husband. Sometimes the wife is the reluctant one. Either way, you must keep participants from feeling threatened. Presenting God’s truth with “gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15, 16) will help nonbelievers consider the gospel more carefully.

Events

Church worship services are events. Some are seeker-friendly, but most are oriented toward the faithful, which is needed. However, events focused on felt needs and designed for people like Joe can be more effective at reaching nonregular churchgoers. Such events can include a gospel message and expose attendees to biblical marriage principles, leading them to join a small group.

We want Joe and his wife to feel as comfortable as possible, regardless of their religious background, and even if they are not married. In 1 Corinthians 9:19–22, Paul says that he accommodates the values of others “so that [he] might save some.” This means avoiding religious jargon and trappings. Staying away from divisive political issues is necessary, and it can be done by keeping the focus on improving each couple’s marriage or parenting.

Also, nonbelievers will have ideas that are not biblical. Do not correct them in subsequent discussions. Give God’s Spirit and Scripture time to work.

Even meeting in a church facility can turn some off. A pastor once asked us to conduct a marriage event for his community. I suggested that we would probably get a better response outside the church building. The pastor engaged a local tavern as our venue. In the afternoon, the regular patrons began arriving. Some, surreptitiously, were listening to our program, and some who attended in that venue came to Christ. We once led a seminar on a United States military base where 50 percent of those attending indicated a decision for Christ. On another occasion, our pastor asked us to conduct a seminar in our church building. Visitors—mostly from other churches—filled our fellowship hall. A few Joes attended, and nobody received Christ. That does not mean our pastor’s seminar was a failure. Strengthening Christian marriages is also a worthy objective.

Events need to be both meaningful and entertaining. The speakers—preferably a husband-and-wife team—should speak with humor. Speakers can establish a relationship with the audience by sharing personal mistakes. This creates an atmosphere of, “We’ve all made mistakes.” Joe is comfortable with that.

Small groups

I had explained to a dedicated pastor how his large, already-successful suburban church could utilize family outreach concepts. He turned us down, but later, having met with a couple who had been helped by our seminars, he called me back and said, “If you can get couples like that involved, I want to be part of it.”

“I’ll mail some materials to you,” I promised and coached him a bit over the phone. “The best groups are discussion oriented. And husband-and-wife teams make the best leaders.”

“Got it,” he replied. A few months later, the pastor called again. The group had gone very well—I could hear his enthusiasm. But much of his excitement was about his own wife. “We never ministered together before,” he explained. “I found out that my wife is great.”

Discussion is better than a lecture because the participants take more ownership of the applications.

Also, putting all one hears at a marriage seminar into practice can be like trying to swallow an elephant. Small-group studies are like cutting the elephant up into bite-sized pieces. Participants usually have an entire week to apply just one principle to their lives.

Small-group leaders, usually lay couples, do not need to have perfect marriages or be expert Bible teachers. God can use their prior failures more than He can an elegant teacher who impresses them from a distance. Try Googling “small-group marriage study” to find a selection of resources. The best materials are biblically based and foster discussion among the participants. Discussion is better than a lecture because the participants take more ownership of the applications.

What about expert guidance? Good materials gently lead participants to biblical principles. And although nobody knows all there is to know about marriage, everybody knows something that has or has not worked. Together, we can be the equivalent of an expert.

Kit and I have helped to start over 450 marriage discussion groups. Each was unique, based on the participants’ needs. Ministry leaders should not attempt to force groups into a standard form.

Our church Sunday School teacher typically lectured while we all listened quietly. Between topics, Kit and I proposed trying a seven-week marriage curriculum. As it progressed, discussion enlivened the group. Attendance climbed. After the seventh week, the class considered the next course of study. One young woman said, “We’ve covered a lot of materials in this class. But this time, our lives are different.” So, the class did another marriage course. Eventually, the class studied other materials but never returned to being passive listeners. The class doubled in size. The class doubled again and had to be split into two classes.

Strong friendships between couples develop in small groups. This trust relationship is the best context in which to share the gospel. We recommend waiting to share the gospel until the group has bonded and respect for Scripture has been nurtured. Then the leader can simply take a few minutes before a session to present the good news. In some cases, we shared with a couple privately outside the group. Many leaders simply invite the couples to an event where the gospel will be shared.

I have often seen individuals profess Christ but never go through follow-up or get connected to mature Christians. A joyous advantage of using small groups is that when individuals trust Christ, they are already in a Bible study. Christians in the group invariably invite them to church.

One warning, however, about church attendance and Joe-oriented small groups: sometimes a church is disappointed when unchurched couples come to their group and then attend a different church, often because a spiritual awakening will first lead them to their childhood denomination. I can offer no guarantees regarding new church members. Having said that, I also know of a smaller church whose marriage groups tripled the church in a year. Treat participants with love and respect, help them build relationships, and rejoice that God is using your small group to change lives. Leave church growth to God.

Training

Training is essential. Yet it is more than listening to Bible teaching. Training means developing how-to skills—sharing the gospel, leading small groups, speaking effectively, organizing events, and more—that God can use to change lives. Good training is systematic with repetition, exercises, and practice. In marriage ministry, training begins with learning about and then applying biblical principles to your own marriage. But it must continue with skills to help others.

Another warning: Satan will attack those God can use. Training makes the difference for football players when the game is on the line. Training makes the difference for soldiers on a battlefield. Training makes the difference for lay ministers when Satan attacks.

In Luke 10, Jesus instructed 72 disciples and then sent them out. This was part of their training. They came back excited about what they had seen God do. Verse 21 describes Jesus as being “full of joy.” I have been privileged to experience such joy when I have seen the excitement of trainees after God uses them to change lives.

Excitement and joy

Kit and I were a churchgoing lay couple without any special training in marriage and family relationships. But by using this biblical strategy of events, small groups, and training with biblical materials, we saw thousands of marriages restored and hundreds of people come to Christ.2 God also took our marriage and personal growth in Christ to higher levels than we had realized possible. If you are a layperson, God can use you to change many lives and eternal destinies in the family, church, neighborhood, and community. And you will experience excitement and joy from those you lead when God uses them to change lives.

  1. Scripture is from the New International Version.
  2. For more information, write to us at [email protected]

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