Equipping the Church to Reach a Hurting World
Evangelism principles to keep in view as we navigate this crisis
Like and share! This phrase has become the necessary rallying cry for many churches over the past few months. With church auditoriums empty and invitation cards gathering dust, church leaders pivoted and rightly directed their people to livestreams, where pastors have kept Christ followers connected to one another and to the Word.
Encouragingly, these methods have advanced the gospel as many disconnected and the spiritually curious tune in.
In the short-term, the digital strategy has been essential with most of America sheltering in place. Now, some church leaders are preparing to pivot again as their state and local governments ease restrictions and discuss a return to live services.
The response to in-person services will likely be as mixed as the opinions on social media. Some people are eager to gather again. Others are understandably concerned.
Despite the ambiguity, church leaders may naturally return to the strategies of the past. But should we? On the other side of COVID-19, church leaders must decide whether to resume business as usual or steer their congregations in a new direction.
At the beginning of this crisis, a mentor who served as a pastor and district leader for many years told me he believes churches need a fresh approach. He explained that his greatest hope for this disruption was for the Church to become less dependent on the pastor-centered model of evangelism. His words caught my attention.
Since that time, stories of my unchurched neighbors have also captured my heart. Over the past month, I have engaged in transparent talks with four men in my neighborhood. They’ve shared thoughtful questions, real hurts and desperate situations.
After connecting on patios and decks — six feet away, of course — it’s evident that right now they need my ear and my own personal story more than an invitation to church, or even a link to watch a service online.
Make no mistake, I want my neighbors to connect with the local church, and I will continue to share links to services on social media and keep invitation cards handy. But connecting with people who are hurting and grappling with hard questions has reminded me that the responsibility of sharing Christ begins with each and every Christ follower.
This crisis has forced me to see that the complexity of problems in the lives of the unchurched demands more than what a 90-minute service can provide. Post-pandemic ministry should empower and equip believers to personally connect with friends and neighbors, hear their stories of hurt, and then share the who and how of becoming a follower of Jesus.
I can only imagine the stories Christians across the nation are encountering in their own spheres of influence. How will the Church meet the many diverse needs on the other side of the crisis? And how can church leaders seize the opportunity and reconceptualize their evangelism strategy?
Jesus’ ministry offers some clues:
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:13-16).
I see two principles in this passage I believe church leaders should embrace as we move forward in ministry.
Make Ministry Personal Again
After hearing the devastating news about the death of John the Baptist, Jesus retreated to find a quiet place and grieve, only to find a large crowd waiting for Him on the other side.
On the other side of COVID-19, church leaders must decide whether to resume business as usual or steer their congregations in a new direction.
But notice Jesus’ response to the crowd: He compassionately identified the hurting people and healed them. Instead of moving the crowd to a hill for another Sermon on the Mount, Jesus looked for the people who were in desperate need of a healing.
Imagine the power in each personal moment as Jesus looked someone in the eye and said, “You are healed.”
Whether their needs are emotional or physical, so many people are longing for such an encounter. But these powerful moments cannot be limited to church gatherings on Sunday mornings. We must find ways to share the hope of Christ outside the walls of the church every single day.
For years, many churchgoers have treated evangelism as if it were all about getting people to church so they could hear the pastor. Today, there are two problems with that approach. First, most messages are now online, so people can hear the pastor without even walking into the church. Second, though a relevant sermon series can speak to many needs, the list of needs amid this pandemic is daunting.
Community members are struggling with depression, financial stress, job loss, anxiety, health problems, and substance abuse — just to name a few. A year’s worth of sermons cannot address all the issues people are facing.
To meet these needs, pastors must fully embrace Ephesians 4:12 so parishioners will be prepared to walk their friends and co-workers through the myriad challenges they are facing. Consequently, church leaders should consider swapping, “Invite a friend” for, “Here’s how to share hope with your friend” and, “Sign up to lead a group.”
We need to challenge our congregations to identify the hurting and hungry around them. We must motivate our people to own their faith and personally introduce Jesus to their friends, neighbors and co-workers. This entails a strategic shift from corporate evangelism to personal evangelism. With the latter approach, leaders equip congregants to introduce people to Jesus before inviting them to church.
Shift the Focus of Leadership
With thousands of hungry people in front of Him and the disciples feeling helpless, Jesus pointed to these disciples, directed them toward the crowd, and trusted them with His miracle.
The focus of this miracle began with Jesus front and center and then moved out into the crowd as the disciples distributed the baskets into the various groups of people.
Think about that moment. With most of the crowd looking at the One who had healed so many, Jesus sent baskets of food out with His disciples. As the food started to make its way around, the crowd’s gaze must have shifted from Jesus as they watched the baskets and the men who carried them. This was pivotal for the disciples as they actually participated in the miraculous feeding of the 5,000.
Like the thousands who were hungry for a miracle that day, many today are in need of miracles. Pastors must decide who will be the focal point: the crowd in the auditorium or the hungry crowds outside building walls waiting to be fed? Both are important, but church leaders will determine which crowd their people will fixate on.
To keep the focus on the hurting and hungry, pastors can emphasize small groups and compassion ministries as churches relaunch. We can train our people to evangelize and disciple. In essence, we must pivot from, “Invest and invite,” to the more urgent call of, “Go and disciple.”
However, this isn’t an either/or approach. Weekly worship and teaching are essential for continuity and church synergy. But the work of meeting individual needs, praying for the hurting, and discipling the many unchurched who are primed and ready for the gospel will require distributed leadership.
The focus of the church will then shift from the pulpit to patios and living rooms, where individual discipleship and ministry can be delivered throughout the community.
No one can accurately predict what the other side of the pandemic will look or feel like. But we do know there will be crowds of hurting and hungry people. So, following the leadership example of Jesus is a good place to start.
Replicating His leadership will require that pastors look to send before gathering. Neighbors, family members, friends and co-workers are hurting.
People aren’t looking for a link to a program, and they surely are not hoping for a postcard in their mailbox. They need a personal story of hope and a familiar face to lead them to the Source of that hope.