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The Church’s Forgotten No. 1 Priority

BY LUIS PALAU

Recently, a supporting church’s finance committee notified us that they were cutting their support of our evangelistic association by 50 percent. Paraphrased, the letter said, "We love you. We think the world of you. But giving is down. May God provide for your needs." Nothing unusual. I’m sure every missions organization gets letters like this.

The church’s weekly bulletin was in the same envelope. One announcement caught my attention: "The pastor and 20 men in the church will be leaving this week with their wives for a golf tournament in the Bahamas. Please pray for them."

Now I’m all for golf tournaments, and these 21 couples can spend their money any way they want. But I confess it bothered me that this church seemed to place greater emphasis on chasing a little white ball than on evangelistic ministry.

I believe evangelism is the main work of the church. I’ve debated that point with friends. One of my mentors believes if you build up the church and worship right Sunday morning, emphasizing solid biblical exposition, church members will automatically witness at work and in the community throughout the week.

In 1966 at the World Congress on Evangelism, a respected evangelical statesmen said, "Evangelism happens when the people of God walk with God." But 30 years of experience tells me it doesn’t work that way. I know many worshiping people who don’t share their faith—for them evangelism never happens. If evangelism happened naturally, the Lord wouldn’t have commanded it repeatedly.

NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT

For a Christian, evangelism is the most important act of obedience to God’s revealed will because there is nothing more important to God "who wants all men to be saved" (1 Timothy 2:4*; cf. 2 Peter 3:9).

Jesus’ mission is plain: "For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). We know His final command to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19) as the Great Commission, not the great suggestion.

It’s a commission largely ignored today.1 There are pockets of action, but evangelism isn’t a priority, let alone the No. 1 priority, for thousands of churches and Christians in America. Since 1990 when our association began to focus on the reevangelization of America, my team and I have led evangelistic crusades in more than 15 U.S. cities. In each city, those most opposed to evangelism have often been Christians. It takes a tremendous effort to persuade some Christians to come to an evangelistic meeting, let alone to pray for unsaved friends, practice friendship evangelism, and invite friends to come along to hear the gospel.

Before a recent crusade, my son Kevin gave a presentation in a large church. After he explained the upcoming opportunity to share the gospel with relatives, friends, and neighbors, he asked those in attendance to write down on the friendship evangelism prayer card five names of people they would invite to the evangelistic event. Although this evangelical church was generally supportive of the crusade, only 1 person out of 2,000 turned in the response portion of the prayer card.

I understand that the crusade evangelism method is the focus of some churches’ misguided opposition, not evangelism itself. But in the months of preparation with churches and getting to know the pastors, our team members discovered that most churches devote very little time to evangelism of any kind.

Sometimes opposition to a particular method of evangelism cloaks defensiveness about the content of the gospel. Some church members who are embarrassed about the gospel prefer to keep the "light under a bushel" and remain politically correct.

Arguing against a method is almost always a smoke screen for inaction. D.L. Moody’s response to one critic of mass evangelism methods was: "I don’t like them too much myself. What methods do you use?" When the critic indicated he didn’t use any evangelistic tools or activities, Moody said, "Well, I like the way I do it better than the way you don’t."

PLEASE EXCUSE ME

Critics and nonparticipants abound. Here’s just a few common excuses we hear from churches (and our responses) for not getting involved in evangelism:

• "We are too busy." But are you busy about the Lord’s most important work?

• "We don’t believe in evangelism." What exactly do you believe? Is your church a Christian church?

• "Right now our church is into prayer ministry." Are you praying daily for your unsaved neighbors, relatives, and friends? Together let’s tell them the gospel.

• "We have to build up our saints first before we can do evangelism." What better way to build them up than by getting them involved in helping fulfill the Great Commission! According to the apostle Paul, God uses the gospel "to establish" believers (Romans 16:25).

• "We are in the middle of a building project." Great! Let’s work together to build God’s kingdom at the same time and fill up your church with new babes in Christ.

George Barna issues a wake-up call to Christians to "get into the game and share the good news, now!"2 He adds: "How ironic that during this period of swelling need for the proclamation of the gospel and the healing powers of the Church, the ranks of the messengers have dissipated to anemic proportions."3

ZEAL FOR THE GOSPEL

Evangelistic fervor is found most often in young people. After discovering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, they usually become instant evangelists similar to Peter and John after the Day of Pentecost: "We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

But for most Christians, the zeal to spread the gospel disappears far too soon. Perhaps they fear being considered "fools for Christ" (1 Corinthians 4:10). Fanatics. Religious zealots.

Zeal requires sacrifice and a willingness to go anywhere, give up anything, and endure all things for Jesus, while relying on His indwelling resurrection life.

Helen Roseveare demonstrated the life of a zealous Christian. While serving as a missionary doctor in the Belgian Congo (now Zaire) during a civil war in 1964, Helen was captured by rebel soldiers, beaten, and raped. After her release and furlough, Helen returned to her work in Zaire for 7 more years.

"I want people to be passionately in love with Jesus so that nothing else counts," Helen said. "The world thinks I’m foolish for going there. But if God sent me to Africa with my family, He’s going to look after us.… If I get AIDS, it’s because He wants me to witness to others who’ve got it. How’s that for success?

"I’m a fanatic. Nothing counts except knowing your sins have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus. We only have this short life to let others know the same truth."4

Many of today’s churches are not convicted to proclaim the simple, unadorned gospel of John 3:16–18 and 1 Corinthians 15:1–3. Every time we preach we must let people know God loves them and is actively seeking them.

SINGLE-MINDED RESCUERS

My friend Jim Reapsome compared the church’s mission to the Marines’ heroism in rescuing Air Force F–16 pilot Captain Scott O’Grady. He felt many churches waste energy in battles over peripheral matters—for example, praise choruses vs. traditional hymns.

He said: "The devil is having a field day, because every such intramural fight is a gain for his schemes to keep us from doing our primary mission—breaking down the walls of his kingdom of darkness and rescuing people for God’s kingdom of light. [The Marines who rescued Captain O’Grady] did not sit around and argue about which arrangement of the Marine Corps hymn to sing. They pursued a single mission—rescue a downed pilot—and they allowed nothing to sidetrack them."

Jim concluded his article: "As the old saying goes, we must keep the main thing the main thing, which is to throw lifelines of hope and peace to people trampled and overcome by despair."5

Thanks to missionaries who threw a lifeline to people in South America, both my father and mother are in heaven. Thank God for the gospel message and for the missionaries who sacrificially brought it to our family with the assurance of eternal life (cf. John 10:28).

DESPERATE TO PERSUADE

In today’s church, there’s no urgency to evangelize, partly because we don’t deeply believe the lost are really lost. We don’t deny it, but we don’t embrace it either. If we did, we would be desperate to persuade lost and dying people to turn to Christ (cf. Psalm 39:5).

A friend of mine whose mother is dying without Christ doesn’t seem to feel the same despair I feel, and she’s not my mother. I know my friend cares, but if my mother were dying without Christ, I’d spend every day on my knees by her bed until she surrendered to the Savior.

George Barna tells about a Bill Hybels sermon on the rich man and Lazarus (cf. Luke 16:27,28): "To this day, more than a decade later, I recall that lesson and the horror that filled me as I realized, perhaps for the first time, how horrific a life in hell would be, how significant the death of Christ had been for me, and how imperative it is to use every resource available to share the real truth about life, death, sin, and grace with every person I know."6 Barna’s life as an evangelizer hasn’t been the same since.

Fellow evangelist Clyde Dupin said, "There is nothing more important to God than rescuing what He created." All of us need a renewed tenderness and a revived love for those who live and die without Jesus.

I want a greater passion from God for the souls of people who still live in selfishness and sinfulness and are on their way to eternal perdition. I have a burden for friends who don’t grasp that the No. 1 responsibility of a Christian is not to retire young in order to spend endless hours chasing a little white ball. If only they could get as excited about building the kingdom of God as they do about their handicap on the golf course.

How can I convince them they can have even more fun and fulfillment in evangelism? Evangelism is spiritual warfare, so we can expect a few doors slammed in our faces and more severe attacks personally and to our families. But there’s joy in obeying the Lord. Just get me doing evangelism—I can never have more fun. There’s no greater thrill than to spread the gospel and lead people into the eternal kingdom of God. Give evangelism all you’ve got. This life is your only chance.

*All scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

Adapted from The Only Hope for America (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1996).


Luis Palau is an evangelist reaching people in 95 countries via the media and evangelistic crusades. He has written over 40 books and booklets.


ENDNOTES

1. Barna, George, Evangelism that Works (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1995), 35–36. "The typical American adult, who has undoubtedly been exposed to this long-standing challenge many times, has no recollection of the content of the challenge"

2. Barna, 15.

3. Barna, 22.

4. "The Cost of Loving Jesus," Christianity Today, 12 May 1989, 45.

5. Jim Reapsome, "Captain O’Grady’s Lifeline," Pulse, 21 July 1995, 8.

6. Barna, 12–13.

FACTORS THAT MAY HINDER A CHURCH’S EVANGELISTIC EFFORTS

• The absence of vision for church-based evangelism;

• The lack of churchwide ownership of evangelism as a core value and activity;

• The absence of churchwide prayer for evangelistic efforts;

• A lack of significant relationships with nonbelievers;

• An attitude of disinterest in non-Christians;

• The goal of facilitating decisions rather than conversions;

• Too much reliance upon the pastor to make evangelism happen;

• Not enough strong leadership by the pastor in evangelism;

• The absence of a strategic plan for outreach;

• No accountability for meeting evangelistic goals and standards;

• The inability to change from existing methods to more effective methods;

• Poor-quality ministry activities;

• Having only one way for nonbelievers to enter the life of the church;

• Inadequate training of evangelizers;

• Allocating responsibility without giving authority;

• Failure to celebrate stellar efforts, obedience to God’s call, and His blessings;

• Division among churches.

— Adapted from Evangelism That Works by George Barna (Ventura: Calif.: Regal Books, 1995) 139. Used by permission.

 

PORTRAIT OF THE EVANGELISTIC MALAISE

We found that churches have an interest in growing numerically but have a very limited commitment to investing in evangelism. Results from a recent study indicated:

• For every dollar devoted to outreach activities, the average Protestant church spends more than $5 on buildings and maintenance.

• Only 28 percent of senior pastors stated that seeing nonbelievers turn their lives over to Christ was at or near the top of their list of primary joys of pastoring.

• Only 12 percent of senior pastors strongly agreed that "most Christian adults are capable of effectively sharing their faith with nonbelievers."

• Less than 50 percent of senior pastors believed they were doing either an excellent or good job at leading their churches in evangelism.

• Less than 25 percent of pastors said their church could be described as evangelistic. Of the 14 attributes examined, evangelistic received the lowest rating.

• Seven out of ten senior pastors ranked evangelism third in their list of priority choices for the coming year.

• On average, senior pastors said they devoted about 2 hours each week to evangelism activities.

• Only one out of three churches offered any kind of formal evangelism training.

• Only about 2 percent of the gross annual revenues received by the typical church were allocated for all of its local evangelistic endeavors.

— Adapted from Evangelism That Works by George Barna (Ventura: Calif.: Regal Books, 1995) 84. Used by permission.