For the past five years, the Billy Graham Center has been gathering senior pastors into cohorts that meet monthly to receive encouragement and accountability in their personal witness, and to be equipped to lead their churches in evangelism. There are currently about 60 involved in one of these cohort groups. What follows is one pastor’s experience. [Name withhold at his request.]
A little over a year ago, I hit a wall regarding our outreach as a church community. Historically, we had consistent growth year after year, but our attendance had plateaued and I wasn’t really sure what to do about it. I was aware of culture changing around us but wasn’t sure how to adjust our approach to outreach in ways that would be effective.
In the midst of that season, I stumbled upon Amplify 2016, an evangelism conference hosted annually by the Billy Graham Center. I attended with several individuals from my church and it was a game changer for us. At the conference, the Holy Spirit began to show me that as a church, we were putting a lot of energy into programs intended to help people find new life in Christ. Our involvement with those programs led us to think we were engaged in personal evangelism, when in reality, the busyness of our programming kept us from reaching out to people in our personal lives.
This was certainly true of me. I thought of the past several people I had personally baptized or was part of their decision for Christ, and I realized that in every case, I had met the person at our church instead of out in the world of my everyday life. This realization both convicted and challenged me, and I wanted to do what it would take to change that.
During one of the Amplify sessions that year, Lon Allison shared an illustration from the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The movie shares a story of redemption where the Grinch, whose heart is three sizes too small, experiences his heart growing as he recognizes the meaning of Christmas. Lon explained that when you deeply fall in love with Jesus, your heart grows and becomes like his; and when it’s like his, your heart will ache for people who don’t know God.
As I left the conference, I wanted to see if that would work, so I decided to pray for unchurched people each morning, even before my feet hit the floor to start my day. I began asking God to grow my heart for him and for people, and to use me that day to bless at least one person not yet doing life with Jesus.
As I leaned into prayer, I became more aware of the people around me, and I started to notice more opportunities to bless and encourage those in my day-to-day life.
As my life changed, so did the life of my church. At the elder level, we began reading through Kevin Harney’s Organic Outreach for Churches, and each month, the elders held one another accountable to share stories of their personal outreach. This was really awkward at first when our outreach temperatures were low and our stories were few. But we quickly got into a sustainable rhythm of personal evangelism, since we were spurred on for the coming month by each other’s emerging stories.
Earlier this year, I taught a message series in which I challenged our church to see that God has given us everything we need in order to amplify the love of Jesus with our imperfect lives. I shared how the key to staying focused on evangelism is coming to a fresh understanding that evangelism is 100 percent about our hearts becoming so broken for wayward people that we are motivated to put our compassion into action.
The journey toward immersing ourselves into outreach involves a personal heart journey, and it’s been amazing to see our church embark on that journey together.
A year ago, our congregation’s motivation to do evangelism was in a lull, but now the momentum is flying forward, and people are eager to find new ways to bless their friends and neighbors. I even hear members of our church sharing stories about their outreach in casual conversation. It is amazing to see what a difference a single year can make, and I am excited to see how God will continue to grow our hearts even more in the year ahead.
Matthew Rogers is lead pastor of the Christian Church of Clarendan Hills in suburban Chicago.