In 1983 I left teaching in a large comprehensive school to work full time as a travelling evangelist.
Before then, evangelism had been my life, so that when God called me into this work, it was a natural progression from what I had been doing. In the last quarter of a century there have been huge changes not only in society and church, but also in methods of evangelism. Some of this has been rapid.
Event based outreach
One of the differences in evangelistic approach over recent years is the development of event-based and targeted evangelistic meetings. Undoubtedly, focusing our outreach for particular groups of people can be effective. So events aimed specifically at men, women, the young or the elderly, lawyers, students, sports people, diabetics, gardeners, etc., does seem to help to draw along a group of unconverted people.
As a schoolteacher I had been involved in preaching missions in tents and churches which lasted for 16 days or more, as well as barbecues, coffee bars and the like. The trend, though, was moving away from the traditional missions, and food-based evangelism was in vogue. In fact, there were whole missions based almost entirely on this style of outreach. Undoubtedly, these attracted good crowds of unbelievers because it was easier for Christian people to invite their friends to such events without embarrassment. However, they did not prove to be great reaping opportunities, and churches were often disappointed at the lack of fruit, even after much prayer and hard work.
Focus on afterwards?
The length of missions today would very rarely be more than eight days, for there is a feeling that the patterns of life for people vary, making it harder to keep up the momentum of a longer period of time. The style of missions today is often a hotchpotch of events, which are deemed attractive to different groups of people, followed by an epilogue explanation of the gospel. The aim is to get people enrolled into a follow-up course such as Christianity Explored, rather than the expectation of seeing conversions of real strangers to the church.
Abandoning mission weeks
But many churches have simply abandoned mission weeks completely. In January 1989 a Boeing 737 crashed at Kegworth in Leicestershire. An engine had caught fire and the pilot tried to get into East Midlands Airport. Unfortunately, it later emerged that he had shut down the wrong engine and didn’t have the power to get to the airport. Similarly, it seems to me that churches, recognising their weakness in reaching the lost, have shut down the wrong engine and stopped running evangelistic missions. There is an impression given that we have lost confidence in the power of the gospel being preached to bring people to Christ. Changing the metaphor, we have enlarged the bait and blunted the hook in our proclamation of Christ and Him crucified.
I am convinced that the most effective missions are the ones where the focus is on the direct proclamation of the gospel, rather than a tag-on epilogue, or an after-dinner talk to a group of people who have really gathered for other reasons. Not that such events are of no value. Of course they are, but ideally they are pre-mission occasions rather than part of a week which is designed to proclaim the gospel to non-Christians in such a way that we can expect to see greater reaping.
Let me suggest an alternative mission strategy.
The mission week could be called ‘Real Lives’ and last for seven or eight days. The main events begin each evening at 7.45 pm and last for about 75-85 minutes. The people who gather are not asked to join and do anything, but rather follow a programme that is presented to them. They may be seated in rows, or around coffee tables with drinks and snacks available on their table throughout. There may be a background jazz band or pianist, or just ‘piped’ music until the commencement of the programme. After the welcome, there will be a musical item or two from a soloist, or band, etc. Then we go into the first main ingredient of the evening, the 20-25 minute interview with the guest.
Throughout the gospels there are numerous conversion stories, each illustrating God’s power to save. Paul’s conversion is recorded in the Book of Acts and the Epistles, and he tells his testimony repeatedly, using it as a means of gospel proclamation. In this postmodern age, too, people love stories (think of magazines like Hello or OK or Rugby World). Publicity for the mission would have as its main title, Real Lives, but details of each event would be listed, so that the story of a Christian, with an interesting conversion testimony appealing to non-Christians, becomes a real attraction.
With the two of us sitting in armchairs (Michael Parkinson-style), I interview somebody to draw out their testimony. This may be a well-known character, such as singer and Radio 2 host, Paul Jones, or the Olympic rower, Debbie Flood, or it may be a local Christian or visitor who has a powerful story, such as Andy Cardy, whose daughter was abducted and murdered; or David Hamilton, converted terrorist. I have interviewed over 40 times John Mosey whose daughter was killed in Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie. Each evening will have a headline type title, so, on this occasion, it may be ‘Lockerbie father wrestles with disaster’. Then there would be another musical item, or PowerPoint presentation, before the preaching of the gospel, which would last for about 30 minutes.
There is no separate Bible reading as such, but I would incorporate this into my message. If the reading is from Matthew, John or Acts, I may show the DVD version of the passage being read and enacted. I would then preach the gospel for 25-30 minutes, trying to relate my message to the testimony. Again, we would have no opening prayer — the praying should be done before when believers are gathering together — but I would close in prayer, which will sometimes be a prayer of repentance, faith and commitment so that those who want could join in. After that, as refreshments are enjoyed, people who want may come to talk to me, so that I, or someone from the church, can speak, maybe pray with them, and give them literature.
Of course, there are local variations on this pattern, but my experience is that Christian people see the format, and have confidence to bring along their unconverted friends. I have found too, that non-Christians come repeatedly throughout the week, and are therefore repeatedly hearing the gospel and stories of God’s power to change lives.
On the Sundays, I think it best to meet in the normal church venue, more or less follow a Sunday service order, but also to include in it a shorter testimony. Both services will be evangelistic in aim.
During the weekdays, there can be targeted events, such as business or work place lunches, coffee mornings in homes or the church, school assemblies, etc. The aim is not just to fill the evangelist’s day, but to strategically reach people who may then come to evening events. I also make myself available to meet with people who want to talk further.
Careful follow up to the mission is essential. Every Christian rejoices to see immediate fruit of people coming to faith in Christ. However, I refuse to manipulate people’s emotions to try to get instant responses. I tremble at the thought that I could damage someone spiritually by inducing a ‘new birth’ before it is right. I publicly urge each one to trust Christ, and expect some to do so. However, if instead a person enrols for a follow up course, I know that the church will take great care in regularly meeting with him or her. So I strongly recommend using Christianity Explored or The Stranger on the road to Emmaus course, which is suitable for those with less background knowledge of the Christian message.
Part of the value of a mission for me is to distribute good quality Christian books, so I bring with me on missions a bookstall which has many evangelistic books for both adults and children, as well as Christian biographies and literature designed to build up the believer. All these are sold at between 33% and 80% discount. I make no profit on literature.
I am absolutely convinced of this style of mission, and really do recommend it to you. It is being used in the winning of people to Christ, and I believe is honouring to the Lord because it is not based on gimmicks, but on a testimony and biblical, gospel proclamation. My promise is that in all my preaching I will seek to proclaim faithfully ‘Christ and him crucified’ to the glory of God alone.