For over 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. Denny Johnson of Annandale (Minnesota) Evangelical Free Church is one of about 60 pastors currently in an evangelism cohort.
Two years ago, our church family was in desperate need of a course correction. After a difficult season of staff turnover, theological battles and a statewide referendum on gay marriage, our compass was fluttering. Jesus kept the mission so simple: “To seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). But it felt like our missional focus had gotten foggy, and we didn’t know how to get back on track.
One day, I found myself crying out to the Lord, “We’re like a dog chasing its tail. Help us, Father! Help us turn the ship in the right direction.” In the midst of this prayerful outcry, God graciously responded by refocusing us on evangelism in two amazing ways. The first answer to prayer came through a person named Jeff Doogsma. Jeff, who has a huge heart for relational evangelism, was returning to the United States after serving as a missionary in Brazil for 10 years. After a prayerful process, he joined our church staff as the associate pastor.
Jeff had barely settled into his new role when a pastor friend invited us to join a cohort of pastors focused on rekindling a heart for evangelism. Feeling uncharacteristically spontaneous, I quickly answered, “Sign us up!” There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this invitation was a second answer to prayer.
As we began to meet with the other pastors in the cohort, we learned about the importance of our own personal evangelism. Coaches explained, “It all starts with you. If you aren’t modeling relational evangelism for your people, it ain’t gonna happen.” We then went around the circle and each shared about the last spiritual conversation we had with someone who needs Jesus.
We were also asked to subjectively rate our evangelistic temperature on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being “on fire” in sharing our faith. “Three for me,” I answered decisively. I knew I was a three because I had to scramble to come up with something to share, but I made a mental note not to be caught like this again. Although it’s not always fun to be honest about where we are, this kind of gracious accountability was just what we needed to move forward in this process.
That meeting was the beginning of a two-year journey of intentionally growing in evangelism, both for our church and myself. Jeff and I began praying with people in restaurants and bars and on the streets. As we reached out to others, we also held each other accountable and shared our stories with one another—our successes, our failures and everything in between.
As we integrated evangelism into our lives, we also began incorporating it into the lives of the leadership of our church, and gradually our church culture began to change. We launched a God at Work flyer, which shared evangelistic stories with our church family.
During leadership meetings, we also began inviting our other church leaders to share a “bridge-building” conversation they’d had with a non-Christian in the last month. This type of storytelling accountability is helping to keep our mission before us.
Through the evangelism cohort, we found gracious accountability with other pastors in the area, and continued to spur each other on in growing in evangelism. We also began cultivating healthy accountability within our church staff and leadership teams. This accountability has brought clarity to our missional focus. As we have continued to share stories of how God is at work through evangelistic conversations we have, it has cultivated a sense of anticipation throughout our whole church body. We have begun to ask ourselves, “What is God going to do next, and how can we be a part of it?”
It’s exciting to get glimpses of how God is using us to bring others to himself. May we all experience a growing sense of holy anticipation as we hold each other accountable in the area of our witness.
To learn more about Billy Graham Center pastor cohorts, visit Wheaton.edu/BGC.