In a heartfelt note to me, Al described
himself as a "former highly driven, money-motivated entrepreneur." He usually worked sixty hours a week at his consulting business. Though he was raised attending church, he says he "evaporated" shortly after his first
communion service as a teenager. And while he had possessed a childhood faith, he had long since forgotten God by the time he got into his late thirties. Looking back now, he says, his spiritual condition was as cold as
the blustery winter night when he ran into some people from our church doing a coffee outreach.
Along with several hundred other moviegoers, Al was waiting in a long line on the opening
night of a popular movie. The frigid weather made the wait downright painful. To his surprise, a number of people were making their way through the crowd offering hot drinks to the movie fans as the line snaked its way
into the theater. He was more curious about these people than just the free drinks they were offering. When they came up to him, they offered him a hot chocolate or coffee to show him "God's love in a practical
way." He said no thanks to the drink but took the card, which had information with the church's name, phone number, and location. His skepticism came out immediately: "Oh, I get it, you're doing this so I'll come
to your church, right?" He wasn't ready for their response.
"We'd be thrilled if you came to our church, but no, we're not doing this for that reason. We're here because
it's cold and you look like you could use some warmth! Besides that, God really loves you!" He could have fended off about any other response than that. He said he was so moved by their compassion, authenticity,
and dedication that he could scarcely enjoy the movie! He did come to church the following weekend and the weekend after that and so on. It's been three years since that winter night, and Al has not only come to Christ,
he also has grown immensely in his Christian life. He is now one of our most prolific leaders in reaching out with servant evangelism. In fact, he travels to other cities to teach churches how to do servant evangelism!
Chuck was an alcoholic for years. Like many veterans of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), he had an experience with his "Higher Power" and thankfully stopped drinking. "But there is a difference,"
he says, "between stopping the negative patterns and filling yourself with something positive. I was no longer drinking, but I was empty inside."
An outreach team from my church
met Chuck one Saturday afternoon at a soft drink outreach. As he came into the stadium, like hundreds of other fans he received a drink with a small card that read, "You looked too thirsty to pass up! If we can be of
more help to you, please give us a call." A few weeks later Chuck used the card as a map and made his way to church. Within a month of hearing about the love of God he decided to take the plunge - he received
Jesus. That inner emptiness began to be filled with the presence of Christ.
Not long after coming to our church, Chuck heard about servant evangelism outreach opportunities.
One of the principles from AA that he had never really worked on was "You get better as you serve others." He told me, "I don't know if I can do this stuff. I'm not much of a talker."
I encouraged him: "Why don't you come and just carry things at first. We'll take it a step at a time." So Chuck began to attend our Saturday outreaches faithfully and to
carry what we were using in our outreach projects. Over the past six months he's gotten more confident. On a recent Saturday morning I asked him, "Are you still having fun?" I loved his response:
"Now I'm showing and telling people about the love of Christ."
I met Bill at the mall at our church's Christmas gift-wrapping outreach. He
was the leader of the crew of twelve. I'd never really talked with him before, so to break the ice I asked, "How did you find your way into our church?" He explained that the church had literally come to him a couple of
years back while he was busy at the engineering firm where he works. An outreach team met Bill one day as they were doing a restroom cleaning project. He was a bit taken aback when they offered their introduction:
"Hi, we'd like to clean your toilets for free - just to show you the love of Christ."
"That's kind of a polarizing opener," Chuck says. "You tend to either laugh, thinking this
must be a joke, or you just recoil in shock. Personally, I was totally surprised by the offer."
He was so moved by the project that he decided to check out what kind of
church would clean toilets. The minute he walked into our church, he connected with what we're all about.
"I had always had a concept of God, but it was kind of vague," Chuck
says. "Your outreach got me hooked enough to come and check out what was going on. I received Christ, and my life was changed in some amazing ways since then. I mean, look at me - I'm helping lead the charge now
by wrapping presents at the mall. I know it doesn't take an engineer to wrap presents, so hey, I get the job done."
Yeah, But Can Anyone Do It?
Al, Chuck, and Bill have all come to Christ through a
simple approach to outreach called servant evangelism. This is an approach to sharing Christ that anyone with a heart of availability to God can do.
I didn't always think of
evangelism as a such a doable task. As a new Christian I was highly motivated to see my friends and family come to Christ. I was madly in love with Jesus, and more than anything in the world I wanted everyone else to
have that same love in their hearts.
Though I had a great heart motivation, at times my methods left a lot to be desired. I was willing to try any evangelistic approach at least
once. As I look back now I shudder at some of the shenanigans I pulled. Don't get me wrong - I'm all for any approach that I will get the good news out to people, but I went a bit overboard at times. For example,
when invited to a friend's house for dinner, sometime during the evening I'd excuse myself to use the bathroom. Then I'd unroll the toilet paper several feet, place in it a frightening gospel tract, and roll it back up.
(I called that a "gospel time bomb" - in about twenty-four hours, boom! they're going to get it!) I'd go to restaurants and stuff all the menus with tracts. For years, anyone who got a Christmas present
from me was sure to receive some sort of study Bible as a gift. (Now I think, Why would a not-yet Christian want a study Bible?)
Anyone who has spent time in the church has
probably been exposed to a variety of approaches to evangelism. In my twenty-five years of following Christ, I honestly haven't yet found an approach to evangelism that I don't like. As a pastor, one of my frequently
repeated teaching phrases is "Any evangelism is good evangelism." More than anything, it's faithfulness that counts. I think we should be all for any approach to sharing Christ with our lost and sin-entangled world.
However, the older I get as a leader in the body of Christ, the more I ponder the question, "Is what we're doing with evangelism transferable enough that others can also do it?"
Effectiveness in accomplishing the goal of leading others to Christ is only part of the equation for consideration. Here's a second, and equally valid, question for all leaders to ponder: "Is what we are doing
sustainable by the common follower of Christ?" Far too often, the way we construe evangelism is off-putting - as something only those gifted as evangelists in the body of Christ can pull off.
It was one thing for me to be a little wild in my approach to evangelism, but leading others down a similar path proved to be difficult. A few years into my stint as a pastor, I took
an assessment of my leadership effectiveness in the area of evangelism. While I was excited about seeing others come to Christ, I'd never enlisted more than a handful of die-hards in the regular action of evangelism in our
church. Try as I did in message after message, I was never able to get more than 1 to 3 percent of my church to be actively involved in evangelism. In my travels to other churches, I find a similar pattern of leadership
- pastors who long to see their congregations involved in vital evangelism but who are somehow unable to muster more than a trace of their troops.
So, if there's a desire among pastors
and leaders and a commitment of some sort in the hearts of the people, then what's the problem?
Servant Evangelism: It's an Adjective Thing
A few years ago I began to ask myself, "How can I accomplish a
couple of goals: (1) include a much higher percentage of Christians in the action of evangelism and (2) reach out in significant ways to a lot of people in my city?" As I prayed and pondered and talked with others, it
occurred to me that part of the problem was the words I was dealing with.
"Evangelism" is what I call a biblical bipolar world. In other words, it both excites and depresses us
when we hear it. It's something we all feel called to do because the love of God compels us and the Word of God commands us to do it. As disciples we are thrilled with the idea of seeing others come to Christ. But
on the other hand, we're depressed when it comes to the outworking of that value. We don't have a clue as to how we can realistically pull off that task. So there's a big "Yes, let's do it," but also a big "No, let's
not do it the way we've been doing it" going on in our hearts.
I began to experiment some years ago with evangelism projects that were based less on speaking gifts and more on serving
gifts. At first, I enlisted a few people and attempted a totally free car wash. Because people are by nature a bit skeptical, the signs read, "Absolutely Free Car Wash!" Those who were served almost insisted on
giving us a donation - in spite of our sings. When we refused to receive their donations, those we served were so stunned that they asked, "What's the catch?" We said, "God's love is free, so this gift of service is
totally free in the same way."
That first project was so exciting it led to another one the next weekend. Within a month another group of a few guys got the idea that they could
expand our serving to include a windshield washing outreach at a local grocery store. This time we were able to touch several hundred with just one small group who masterfully wielded squeegees as they roamed the parking
lot. After they cleaned each windshield, they left a card explaining their project.
Those two projects snowballed into a soft drink giveaway, where one team touched several
hundred people in just one outreach. I was amazed by this approach we'd stumbled on. After one of our early outreaches, I asked one of my leaders why he thought this was an effective way to do evangelism. I found
his response memorable: "It's just two words: Simply effective." To put it another way, by adding the adjective "servant" to the noun "evangelism," the average person was activated.
The adjective "servant" empowers the "common" person in the body of Christ. While only a small percentage of us may picture ourselves as prototypical evangelist types, 100 percent of
us have gifts of serving. How do I know that? The Spirit of the Servant dwells inside of us. As we encourage and unleash the gifts of serving present in each believer, and then aim those gifts toward the world,
powerful forces for good begin to draw those we serve into a relationship with Christ.
101 Ways to Reach Your Community by Steve Sjogren. NavPress, 2001.