by Dave Ferguson and Todd Wilson
For the last year and a half, we’ve focused on discipleship, and this year we’ll continue that conversation, helping leaders to see evangelism as part of the discipleship journey. Specifically, we’re exploring how we as leaders can look to Jesus’ example and join Him on what He said was His core mission—to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
“If we’re going to imitate Jesus,” says 3DM leader Mike Breen, “we have to imitate Him as the one who came to seek and to save the lost. Jesus is the one who leads us in seeking and saving.”
To more effectively make disciples in our post-Christian culture, we want to help leaders rediscover, or rethink, five universal truths inherent to the “seek” and “save” mission: evangelism, outreach, witness, preaching and the Great Commission.
This theme and these five biblical truths are of critical importance to every church planter. Recent research tells us that one out of 33 Americans has not set foot in a church in any way in the past year, but Gallup reports that 92 percent of the U.S. population say they believe in God. These numbers and research are telling us we have to come to grips with the reality that we’ve lost our ability to connect to this group of people who actually believe in God. As a church, we have to rethink evangelism because we have to rethink how we reach this group of people who believe in God, but have not found a safe place in our churches to find their way back to Him.
Rethinking Five Biblical Truths for Evangelism
1. Rethinking Evangelism (Matt. 28:18-20)
What does “go and make disciples” mean? As leaders, we have a key role to help people see that evangelism is an integral part of discipleship. Evangelism and discipleship are inseparable. Understanding that evangelism doesn’t happen before someone is discipled as a Christ follower, but rather as part of the discipleship journey, is crucial for evangelism in a postmodern world. Scripture shows us that as we apprentice people in the ways of Jesus, we will make disciples who will make disciples who will make disciples. A strong discipleship culture in our church naturally produces evangelism.
Missional thought leader and author Alan Hirsch explains it well: “Discipleship is all about being drawn into the purposes of God. The Great Commission to ‘make disciples’ includes both making Christians and maturing Christians. We are called to be a disciple-making people. We’ve won a lot of people to faith through a seeker-sensitive model, but we just got decisions, not disciples. If we look at both the person of Jesus and how He lived—His life, His teachings, His example—it’s the whole Jesus phenomenon that is the Gospel, not just one or the other. We have no right to separate the two, to extract one from the other. That’s why we can’t separate evangelism from discipleship. As we recalibrate the church at this critical time in history, what we do now has radical ramifications for the church in the future.”
North Coast Church Teaching Pastor Larry Osborne adds, “Evangelism is the beginning of the entire Great Commission. If we’re not recruiting on the front end, there’s no way we can be discipling on the back end.”
2. Rethinking Outreach (Acts 2:42-47)
A generation ago, a church’s outreach strategy centered on personal evangelism with the training focused primarily on “saving souls” and “sharing.” Possibly the greatest approach to outreach we have is the “fellowship of believers” in Acts 2:42. The early church lived with everything in common, so much so that outsiders were drawn to become insiders:
“So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47 NKJV).
Like Paul tells the church of Corinth, we are to be the aroma of Christ to the world. To be effective evangelists today, we have to rethink how we function as a family of believers and challenge our churches to do evangelism as a community through both word and deed.
3. Rethinking Witness (Acts 1:8)
As church leaders, we have to rethink witness, equipping people to listen to others and share their God story versus a series of “canned” propositional truths. When people are equipped to genuinely engage in spiritual conversations and share their story, all people can become witnesses for the Good News.
“If we don’t equip our people effectively in everyday engagement with the unbelievers around them and helping them come to faith in Jesus Christ, we’ll never be effective in making disciples who make disciples,” says Soma Communities leader Jeff Vanderstelt. “That’s the No. 1 call that we’re all called to as pastors and leaders of churches, and we must be faithful to that call Jesus has given us.”
Everyone has a story that intersects with Jesus’ story—whether or not they realize (or acknowledge) it. While some of us have the gift of evangelism, all of us are called to be witnesses to the transformation Jesus has made in us.
“Sharing our story is not just for those of us who are leaders,” Vanderstelt says. “That’s for every member of the body of Jesus Christ. As leaders, it’s our job to equip everyone in that work.”
4. Rethinking Preaching (Romans 10:13-15)
In almost every context outside of the church, preaching is equated with bad news. Those far from God do not want to be “preached at” or talked down to. As church leaders, we know preaching is important to Jesus’ core mission. It’s one way we declare the good news of the gospel. Rather than pitting Jesus against society, we must learn to offer Him as an attractive hope for the answers society is skeptically looking for. Rethinking preaching in ways that ultimately lead to a new perception of preaching as good news to those who don’t yet know Him is crucial to effective evangelism that follows the example and teachings of Jesus and Paul:
“For whomever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:
“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:13-15).
Andy Stanley, one of the speakers leading this conversation at Exponential East, says that most preachers have “inherited” an approach to ministry and preaching. He cautions leaders to not let their approach turn off unbelieving listeners to their otherwise good message:
“If we’re not willing to adjust our sails and adjust our approach, you can spend your entire life … telling the truth and driving people away from it at the same time.”
5. Rethinking the Commission (II Tim. 2:2)
Every church leader struggles with balancing the tension between building community and family within the church (and a strong staff team) while also releasing and sending people to start new faith communities. In making disciples who are becoming more like Jesus, we have to intentionally create a culture of “next steps.” And part of these next steps is the sending and releasing of leaders to multiply and reproduce faith communities. As leaders, it’s vital we learn to celebrate next steps and reproduction. Rethinking the Great Commission equips us to define and articulate what it means to multiply disciples and move toward accelerating movements in and through their church.
Author and missional thought leader Michael Frost reminds us of Jesus’ “sentness” and His call to us to be “sent”: “It’s exactly what we see Jesus doing in the gospels,” Frost says. “He takes His followers on the road. It’s in the process of going that they forge community, that they truly learn to worship God and are discipled by the Son. One of the biggest problems for the church today is that too many Christians aren’t going anywhere—not even next door, or across the road, not downtown, or overseas—nowhere! If the church can again become a sent community, it will find in the gospels rich material for how to thrive on the road.”