Some time ago, George Hunter III described the North American Church landscape in sobering terms. He stated that of the 400,000 churches in the USA, 80 percent were either stagnant or declining. For the remaining 20 percent, most of their growth (95 percent) was either biological growth or transfer growth. In other words, congregations experiencing growth through conversions are a rare species. Hunter called this data “brute facts about old-line Christianity in the USA.” This should agitate us, since Jesus declared, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
George and I chatted about his contributions to mission in North America, and when talking about “apostolic congregations” he claimed that only 1 percent of North American churches embrace that paradigm. These are externally focused congregations that see their primary vocation as following Jesus into the mission field.
Both established churches and brand-new faith communities face the challenge of creating a culture of evangelism. So how will you commit to cultivating an evangelism culture?
Take Stock of Where You Are
Admiral James Stockdale was an American prisoner-of-war during the Vietnam War. Deprived of his rights and with no release date in sight, Stockdale spent eight dark years in extreme conditions. He maintained an unwavering faith that he would prevail and he survived, yet strangely the ones who did not survive were the optimists—because they failed to confront the realities of their situation.
You must have faith that the God who raises the dead can infuse an ailing, dead, plateaued, stagnant or dysfunctional church with new life and missional potency. At the same time, you will not hide from the challenges and obstacles on the change pathway towards a culture of evangelism. Before getting out of the starting blocks, you must have a clear-eyed assessment of the current state of affairs.
How would you describe the evangelism temperature in your congregation? Are prodigals returning to the Father? Are people stepping out of darkness into spiritual light? Are there stories of God at work; transforming, healing, setting men and women free? Are you simply shuffling sheep or are you seeing brand new people put their trust and confidence in Jesus?
How Are You Leading the Way in Evangelism?
Leadership has its thumb on the congregational thermostat when it comes to “evangelism heat.” You can lead the way into a new day of evangelism by living the way. How connected are you with lost people? How deeply enmeshed are you with pre-Christians in the rhythms and routines of your life? Are you following Paul’s exhortation to his mentee, Timothy “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim. 4:5). Are you doing the work of an evangelist relationally? Is your preaching evangelistic and invitational?
If you want to create a culture of hospitality, then you yourself need to practice generous hospitality. If you want to develop a congregation characterized by extravagant generosity, then you need to put fiscal skin in the game. If you want your fledgling church plant to become a “house of prayer,” then you need to lead the way on your knees. And if you want to cultivate a culture of evangelism, then you must exhibit evangelism yourself.
This involves having significant healthy relationships with pre-Christians. This means leading the way in gossiping the gospel and engaging in spiritual conversations. It also means you know and can show how to lead a searching soul to Jesus.
Prayer as Fuel
I have had the privilege of ministering at Willow Park Church in beautiful Kelowna several times over the past couple of years. On a recent visit I brought the word and invited people to respond and to come and kneel at the altar. There was a huge response and Phil Collins, the lead pastor commented, “It’s soft soil here, brother.” People are coming to Christ and the Word of God is landing on soft soil because Willow Park, under Phil’s leadership, has created a prayer culture.
Phil is a man of prayer and is actively leading his board, staff and congregation in a growing life of prayer. But it wasn’t always this way. After years as an evangelist, Phil had an epiphany in a strategic planning meeting that while he was in the thick of innovative outreach and had a significant preaching platform, he was no longer functioning out of the overflow of deep affection for Jesus. He took the remedial step of blocking off the first Wednesday of each month as a “day with Jesus.” He developed the pattern of long prayer walks, extended Bible reading, journaling and conversations with God.
You too can lead the way on your knees by seeking the face and heart of God and pursuing heaven’s empowerment. Phil’s journey reminds us of Jesus’ invitation in John 15 to abide in him and how fruitfulness follows an abiding life.
This article originally appeared on NewChurches.com.