Firing up for evangelism

All pastors want to see their congregations become more ‘evangelistically minded’. Gordon Cheng outlines one simple strategy for making progress.

How can a pastor get evangelism going in his church? To ‘evangelize’ literally means to ‘proclaim news’. Thus, when the President of the IOC stands to say, “The games of the 33rd Olympiad in 2012 are awarded to the City of London”, he is evangelizing. To do Christian evangelism is to tell the news that “Jesus Christ is Lord”.

So perhaps the best way for a pastor (or anyone really) to get evangelism going is to evangelize. This is because the only way to tell people news is, not surprisingly, to tell them. When it comes to the work of evangelism, mime artists and people who drop hints need not apply.

However, there is a second best way for pastors to stoke the evangelistic fires in their congregation, and that is by church planting. And actually, for people who like telling people about Jesus, church planting is not that hard. A church is, literally, a gathering, and the way Christians are gathered is by hearing and responding to God’s word. Martin Luther puts it like this:

Now, wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, “a Christian holy people”, must be there … for God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.1

So if you have told someone the gospel, and they’ve responded by becoming Christian, you may already have accidentally planted a ‘church’. After all, it only takes two or three to constitute a church, and when it meets, Jesus is there in the midst (Matt 18:20). Now, having planted a church is not a cause for panic. Rather, praise God and keep at it! Keep meeting with your church and teaching him or her the Bible, as this is the only way God uses to ensure that it will endure to judgement day.

If this sounds simple, it is. The only equipment required for church planting is the gospel (supplied by God) and a mouth to speak it with. If you care to compare it with terrorism, it is considerably easier and cheaper to achieve, and it has more powerful results and longer lasting (i.e. eternal) consequences.

Nevertheless there are certain costs associated with church planting, and we are not talking here about building funds, organs, organists, choirs, wall plaques and windows. Sadly, church planting—like terrorism—will arouse fear, hatred, loathing and blood on the carpet wherever two or more denominational officials are gathered in bureaucracy’s name. This opposition is what Jesus was referring to when he said:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:18-19)

Over the years, I’ve witnessed at close hand the planting of at least half a dozen churches, and am currently involved in planting another. Some years ago, a friend made the attempt to plant a church under difficult circumstances. He had funding from his own denomination, and had their strong support as well. Thus he went to various friends and contacts to explain what he was doing and to ask for their support in the venture. The reaction was swift and angry. He was accused of lying and of seeking to undermine local churches. He was said to be representing the imperialistic ambitions of other Christians and Christian organizations. One of the ministers who had been approached for support felt his work might be affected by the church plant, and so began a campaign of letter writing and phone calls to see that the plant would be stopped. The positive argument that was put forward was that this church plant did not fit in with the evangelistic strategy so far adopted by Bible-believing Christians in the area. Because it cut across the strategy, it could not possibly be helpful in promoting the gospel. Eventually, due to the extent of controversy, gossip and slander that had been generated by other Christians, the man cancelled his plans.

This story, unfortunately, could be repeated with slight variations in many places. So why would anybody bother to go to the trouble of starting a new church when there is so much that can be done in our existing structures?

There are, in fact, at least five good reasons.

First of all, for someone who believes the gospel, it is hard not to start churches. If the church is a group of two or more gathered around and by God’s word (and this is the way the word is used in the New Testament), we are starting and building churches all the time when we speak the gospel. It would require a real and serious shift away from gospel priorities to decide to be opposed to church planting.

Secondly, existing churches may not be gospel churches. There are all sorts of churches and denominations around that, while claiming to be gospel churches, have no place for the teaching of the Bible or calling people to trust Jesus and submit to his Lordship. We shouldn’t send people to such churches.

Thirdly, even if existing churches are doing a brilliant job, we need more. This conclusion is reached by nothing more than basic arithmetic. For example, my current church is overcrowded, has already planted a number of churches, and has needed to begin new churches in other buildings in order to accommodate actual and hoped for growth. Adding the attendance of all of these congregations reveals that, currently, there are not yet even 1,000 people regularly attending this healthy and growing group of congregations. But even allowing for other good local churches also doing their work, there are literally hundreds of thousands of people in our area who do not attend church, and should even a noticeable fraction of them decide to start, they simply would not fit into the buildings currently owned and used by the churches in the area.

Fourthly, even if people by a divine weekly miracle of bodily shrinkage could be made to squeeze, Tokyo-train-like, into our buildings, still there are some people who would not be moved within this lifetime to attend our particular church or group of churches. I am quite certain that this would be true even if the congregation offered to paint themselves blue and sing the Hallelujah chorus in order to provide an extra level of entertainment for the benefit of visitors.

Now, it may well be that there is no church anywhere in Christendom that such potential visitors would be interested in attending. However, there is no biblical reason to assume this is so until we have tried and tried again to preach the gospel to them, and in so doing, done everything we can to see that our structures and practices, like the Apostle Paul, attempt to “please everyone in everything … that they may be saved” (1 Cor 10:33-11:1). Given the flexibility required, there is no alternative. We must plant new and different churches.

Fifthly (and that will have to do for this Pastor’s Brief before it becomes a Pastor’s Long), starting new churches, especially small churches, is a most wonderful way to mobilize previously passive and stagnant Christians to action. Apart from the gospel itself, suddenly seeing 30 members of the church depart to start a new project is a great stimulus to change. With the right encouragement, it will stir people up to begin to consider how those 30 people might at least be replaced. And those 30 people will themselves have gone out with a purpose, and will realize that in order for their group to survive, they must do something. The wise church planting pastor will be there to remind them that this ‘something’ is evangelism.


1 Luther’s Works, 41:150.

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