by Bill Easum
In part one of this series on How to Grow A Small Church I said the following: “You want to know the most important ingredient for growing a small church? It’s a pastor who has one-on-one conversations with non-Christians that leads to their conversion to Christ.” In part two I want to elaborate on these conversations.
When I began my ministry in 1957 (I was 17) I could lead a person to Christ on our initial conversation. I could cold turkey meet someone, talk with them about their relationship with Christ, and lead them to Christ on the spot. These spiritual conversations were mostly a monologue where I did most of the speaking and they listened. Not only that, most of the conversions I witnessed were immediate and dramatic, much like the conversion of the Apostle Paul.
Boy, has that changed over the years.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s I began to notice more and more people who didn’t know enough about Christianity to make a decision regarding Christ. Some of the children in our Sunday School had never even heard a Bible story before attending our church. So my conversations had to start at the beginning and the actual conversion didn’t always happen on the spot.
In the late 1980’s I began to notice more and more adults were skeptical about any form of personal evangelism and required me to spend more time developing a relationship with them before ever talking about their spiritual condition.
Since I left the local church ministry in 1993 all of these changes have evolved exponentially. Now most conversions require a great deal more time developing relationships before much spiritual conversation. Changes in a person’s spiritual condition seem to evolve to the point that it’s often hard for a person to say when they became a Christian. It’s almost like they look back over a period of time when they incrementally moved from a skeptic to a convert.
These observations are not limited to my experiences. Brian McLaren poked around at these changes in his book More Ready than You Realize. Rick Richardson shared similar conclusions in his book Evangelism Outside the Box. “The times, they are a chagegin” even when it comes to the most important issue a Christian faces – how does conversion take place.
So, if the primary way to grow a church under 500 in worship is by the pastor personally calling on all the first time visitors, how does one lead someone to Christ these days?
First, we must make evangelism a personal priority not only for us but for our church. This means we must be open and sensitive to the many opportunities that come our way each day. Every one of us, especially laypeople, come in contact with dozens of people every day who either do not go to church or who are non-Christians. Bill Hybels puts it this way in his new book – Just Walk Across the Room. All that many of us have to do to begin spiritual conversations is just walk across the room. But we have to make time for these conversations.
The more time you spend in your office the less likely you are to have opportunities to develop the relationships that lead to conversion. I never led a person to Christ in my office or at a church meeting. You have to make it a priority to spend as much time in the non-churched community as you do with those within the church.
In the early years of restarting the church I was at for 24 years, I spent as much as 80% of my time in the community, visiting newcomers to the church and the community, talking with realtors, going to community affairs, speaking at civic groups such as the Lions Club, participating at school functions, etc. For a number of years I spent most late Friday nights at one of the local watering holes.
Second, we must understand that evangelism is an honest dialogue between two friends. For this to happen, trust has to develop between the Christian and the non-Christian. It has been my experience this can take two to four years. And to top that off the actual recognition of the actual conversion might not happen in your presence. It might happen in ones bedroom, or on the golf course, or in a worship experience. But the relational experiences developed over a number of months cause the light to go on in the non-believers heart. The end result began months ago when you screwed up your courage and walked across the room to attempt the beginning of a relationship.
One of the problems you must guard against is spending years developing relationships and never getting around to real issue. Tom Bandy makes a great point about this in one of his posts to our advanced leadership forum – we must never forget the urgency of our intervention, especially when dealing with someone in danger from their addiction. Click here for more.
Third, the goal of your conversations is to get into their life story, to get them to share themselves, not sell them the Gospel. So the best conversation is filled with questions, not answers. You must frame questions designed to get them talking about themselves. That way you can find the places where God has been at work in their life. You will find, like Peter, that God has already been at work in their life and you can make that the center of the conversation. Your role is to help them see what God has already accomplished in their life. Randy Newman in his book Questioning Evangelism writes, “By asking questions in our evangelism, our conversations can lead to conversions, rather than presentations that lead to preconceptions.
So, here are some example questions but it is best if you come up with your own:
What is your main goal in life?
What will make you feel fulfilled in life?
What is your number one need at the moment?
When you think of God what images come to mind?
What place does faith have in your life?
What brings you the most joy in life?
If you could change one thing about your life what would it be?
Did your parents go to church or talk with you about God?
Often people will respond to your questions by asking for clarification. This response is great because it’s a sign that God’s at work in their life and it’s your opportunity to go deeper into the conversation.
Also, when they show up for a small group or worship, realize this is God at work in their life because of the seeds you have planted. God’s calling them and your role is to interpret what is happening. We must never forget that God’s always at work in a person’s life long before we show up: The Father is drawing people to himself (John 6:44). The Son is seeking the lost (Luke 19:10). The Holy Spirit is convicting the world (John 16:8).
Next, keep in mind that not all such conversations have to take place out in the public. Most outward focused churches regularly plan events that entice non-Christians to “taste and see” what Christianity is all about. In these settings it’s good to have your spiritual giants trained and ready to enter into conversations with these seekers. By showing up to one of your events they are telling you God’s at work in their lives and they are open to spiritual conversations. Even then, soft approaches are always better than the old fashion confrontation models such as the Four Spiritual Laws.
Finally, as your relationship with the non-Christian deepens feel around for whether or not they are ready to hear how God has worked in your life. When the time is ripe share your story of transformation and how it has changed your life. But never preach or leave the impression you have all the answers, or are superior to where they are in life. Just share your joy.
If you’re new to relational evangelism you might want to check out the following resources on our website.