If Evangelism Doesn't Work, What Works?

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A frustrated pastor called me not long ago, he was crying and said, “my church board just voted another Evangelistic Meeting for this year, just like we did last year, $20,000.00 to pay mostly for flyers and a guest speaker to hold meetings for four weeks.” He added, “I already know the results, four weeks with a handful of people in attendance and they will complain because others are not attending every night, the evangelist breathing down my neck so I can get him some baptisms, 5 people will be baptized, three of whom are church children, and two people from the community. The three we baptized last year are no longer here. There is so much to do in this city and the only thing two or three of our very powerful board members want to do is to mail out flyers and bring in someone to speak for four weeks, as if this is all there is to evangelism.”

As I travel across North America, I have asked the following questions among pastors, church leaders, and members: 

(1) What do you think of when you hear the word evangelism? The consistent answer, ranking right at the top always has to do with an event that happens, for a few weeks, once a year or once in a blue moon. (2) Who does evangelism? The number one answer is always the same, it comes out quickly, regardless of the group I am talking to, “the pastor” or “a guest evangelist”.

As I hear these replies in our Division, almost without exception, the following thoughts come to my mind. If evangelism is something that we do for a few weeks once or twice a year, what do we do the rest of the time? If the pastor or perhaps the hire gun, guest evangelist, is the only one who does evangelism, what do the rest of us do?

Needless to say, the word evangelism has become a difficult term to repeat in some of our circles; there are pastors who dread it, groups of church members who are frustrated by it, treasurers who talk about the huge investment for such low returns, even among our full-time evangelists, church secretaries who notice that for every 100 people we have brought into the church in the last 50 years, 39 have ended up leaving, and some who have decided to write off the word, just totally delete it from our vocabulary.

But what if rather than deleting the word, we redeem it? What if rather than seeing evangelism as an event, we begin looking at it as a lifestyle? What if evangelism became something that not just a few can be involved in, but something everyone is excited to be engaged with? What if evangelism became something we are, 100% of our time, rather than something we have to do once in a while? What if evangelism was more than just words, but also action? What if we get to be not only the mouthpiece of Jesus, but His eyes, heart, hands, and feet in our communities? Would this work better? Would the results be any different? Would our attitudes change?

During the last three years (2015 - 2018) we have worked on a definition of evangelism for North America, we have also identified five outcomes which will help to make evangelism and mission a much more pleasant, relevant, and successful lifetime journey. I did not come up with these on my own, neither did our team, the process included thousands of pastors, church planters, members, and church leaders whom we surveyed and interviewed. 

We worked on a definition because we understand that it is hard to live out evangelism if we don’t even know what it is. This is a working definition, which can still be improved, 74 percent of the people who responded, scored it 7 or higher in a 1-10 scale. Here it is:

“Reach, Retain, and Reclaim the people of North America (substitute North America with your city or community) with Jesus’ mission and message of compassion, hope, and wholeness.” 

This is not a statement of beliefs or a mission statement, we already have those. This is a concise, practical, and broad definition of what evangelism can mean in North America. As a church, we are not only here to reach, we must retain those who we reach, and we are also called to reclaim those whom we have lost. Imagine a baseball team with great offense, but poor pitching and non-existing defense; it does not matter how many runs you score, if your team cannot pitch and defend well, the other team may always outscore your team. 

Jesus’ mission and message” are both vital. For years, we have been the church of the message, we have emphasized “telling the world”, but for some reason have forgotten to show the world. According to Christ’s Method, or Christ’s Ministry, how I like to call it, we must show the world before we tell the world, and always. It is not just tell, but “show and tell.” At times, it almost feels as if we have a big mouth but amputated arms and legs. We can quote the method of Christ till we are blue in the face, but nothing relevant will happen till we start doing what Jesus did as He walked this earth.

Compassion, hope, and wholeness must both be included in our lifestyle and our message. People need to know that we love them, people must experience our hope for the present and the future, and they must realize that we care about them and their families in their totality, which includes but is not limited to their spiritual lives. The Gospel that can transform the lives of  individuals and lift up families needs to be seen, felt, experienced, as well as heard in our communities.

Please, share this definition with your colleagues, your church leadership, and your church at large and brainstorm for practical ways to make this definition of reaching, retaining, and reclaiming your community with Jesus’ mission and message of compassion, hope, and wholeness, a reality where God has called you to serve. If we make of evangelism what it is intended to be, and not just continue to make it what it has been, there is no need to delete the word, and perhaps it can be redeemed.

1 See Secretariat Report for North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists Year-End Meeting 2016, www.nadsecretariat.org/2016-nad-yearend-meeting/

 2 In 2016, after consulting with several focus groups, the Ministerial Association of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America sent out a survey to over 8,000 pastors, elders, members, and church leaders across North America. Feedback from the survey and further focus groups work was utilized to craft a Definition and five Outcomes of Evangelism for North America. A working Definition and the Outcomes were vetted for a year and voted during the 2017 ehuddle (North American Division Evangelism Visioning and Leadership Team meetings) in Orlando, Florida, thus providing a work frame for the re-launch of a missional culture in Adventism across the North America.

 3 See White, Ministry of Healing, p.143-144

Pastor Jose Cortes Jr., is an Associate Director of the Ministerial Association and leads Evangelism, Church Planting, and Adventist/Global Mission for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.