3 Evangelism Lessons From the Front Lines

Recently, the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College hosted a gathering of leaders from churches, denominations and parachurch organizations to discuss how to become more effective in evangelism in our present context of disillusionment with the institutional church and the rising number of “nones,” those people who when asked about their religious preference or affiliation state “none.”

The two-day event culminated with a presentation by Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life. His comments reflected the findings in our research as well as the results in our work with over 350 churches in Billy Graham Center senior pastor cohorts.

When you listen to him speak, you realize Warren has been on a lifelong and laser-focused search for effectiveness in the ministry and mission of the local church. One of his early mentors was Peter Drucker, who in some ways created the whole field of maximizing effectiveness in leading larger organizations.

With 30,000 members, Saddleback certainly qualifies. But one of the most refreshing things about Warren is that he continues to learn and apply insights that keep Saddleback at the forefront of discovering how local churches can reach and disciple people and send them out into ministry and mission. Here are three lessons that he shared.

1. Identify Receptive People.

Many people in today’s culture are not receptive to hearing the gospel, opening up to Christ or entering into a congregation. It is not that we should ignore these people—we ought to build relationships, cultivate trust and care for them. At the same time, however, we must focus on identifying people who are experiencing a window of receptivity.

Warren emphasized that people are most receptive when they are in pain. And everyone sooner or later will suffer pain, be it in the form of losing a spouse, having a troubled child, suffering a loss in employment or employability, experiencing a serious health crisis, getting divorced, experiencing abuse, facing financial hardship, dealing with times of transition, and more.

All of these painful situations create windows of receptivity that can last a while, or can be short-lived. But the church and the people sent out by the church need to be continually attuned to the pain quotient in the lives of others. We need to be ready to pray for them, care for them and offer an opportunity to connect to an experience through which they can encounter God during those times.

Warren and his team at Saddleback took that insight and began to reflect on how they could train others to be aware of these times of receptivity in the lives of people around them. They then taught their people a very simple process: When people are in pain, you identify with them in their pain. If you’ve experienced the same thing, share that. If you haven’t, share that you cannot understand that kind of pain, but you know that it was very difficult for you when you went through a similar time of loss. Then say something like, “I’m part of a church and a group of people who love to pray for folks when they most need it. Would that be OK if we pray for you?” Often, the person in pain is open to prayer, and even more so if there has been a trust relationship built.

Saddleback went on to identify the key points of pain in the lives of people in their communities and developed small group retreats centered on these specific difficulties, for example, for those who had just gotten divorced, lost their jobs, had a family member facing mental illness or had suffered abuse.

The chuch trained point people to facilitate these retreats and equipped the people of the church to invite those facing these situations to join in order to encourage and support them. Many people connected with Christ and the congregation through these retreats as a result of the authenticity and the stories of commonality and grace.

2. Be Hospitable.

“Hospitality was the secret sauce of the success of Saddleback Church in reaching people,” Warren said. “Twice a week for the first few years of Saddleback’s life, my wife Kay and I had people over to our home whenever they started to attend the church.”

The Warrens would ask people these two questions: “Why did you first visit the church? And why did you come back?” By the time they got around the table, everyone was convinced that Saddleback was the best place they could possibly be. That hospitality of a simple meal and the opportunity to connect and share helped Saddleback become the church it is today.

Interestingly, we also found in our research at the Billy Graham Center that the top predictive factor for churches that are reaching people is that unchurched people feel warmly welcomed and at home when they visit. So they return and keep returning.

3. Instill the Practice of Evangelism in New Believers.

The best people reaching other people are new Christians. They still have all their relational networks intact, and they are fresh with the sense of having a changed life. They don’t feel inadequate about what they don’t know, and they haven’t learned yet that for too many Christians, sharing the gospel is the weakest area of their discipleship.

When new Christians are equipped and encouraged to share their stories and reach their friends, they are very effective. We also saw this in our research when we interviewed previously unchurched people. In the first three years of their new life in Christ, many turned around and reached family members and friends, and brought other people to Christ.

Too often, however, we wait to teach, encourage and equip new Christians to share their faith. As soon as people come to Christ, they need to be helped to share their story, talk about Jesus and invite others toward faith and toward Christian community.

Starting with these three insights is a great place to begin to turn the tide of your culture outward toward the harvest that is all around us. And if you’d like to learn more about our senior pastor cohorts, visit CEICohorts.com.

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Rick Richardson
Rick Richardson

Rick Richardson is director of the Billy Graham Center Institute and its Church Evangelism Initiative, and professor of evangelism and leadership at Wheaton College Graduate School.