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He came to the service to see his niece get baptized, but God had other plans. Ironically, the message was on marriage and his had just fallen to pieces. He was broken and crushed and ready for Jesus.

Over the next few weeks we tried to connect, then one night we started chatting via the computer. We had never talked face to face. God had something he wanted to show me. Through a 45-minute online chat, I heard about a man who grew up in the church but somewhere along the road, as he experienced hardships, he left God.

At the end of our conversation/chat I prayed. He then indicated that he would like to pray as well, and went on to type the following:

Dear Lord Jesus. I wish to accept you into my heart today. I will need your strength and the strength of your servants to help me, but I’m seeing that there are more people out there who can help me.

Open my eyes and let me see the true happiness that a life with you can bring. Bring this happiness to my children as well—they need it as much as I do. Thank you for bringing brother John into my life. I feel the tears slowing down as I pray to you. Thank you, Jesus, and thank you, John. Amen.

We had never seen each other or even talked on a phone. The experience showed me once again that it is God who brings people into relationship with himself, and we are called simply to love the people around us.

In the rest of this article, I’d like to look at how we as a church have viewed evangelism historically, present to you an understanding of the relationship between the Great Commandment to love and the Great Commission to tell the good news, then share what I believe this means for the church today.

It is God who brings people into relationship with himself. We are called simply to love.

My ultimate goal is to empower every person reading this to understand that we are simply called to love others. When we love others as we have been loved, God—through the power of the Holy Spirit—will move and draw people closer to himself.

I must also state a presupposition I have going into this: I believe that many members in our churches are afraid of evangelism because they misunderstand it, and that while many would like to lead someone else to Christ, they have resigned themselves to believing they never will. Perhaps this is where the first difficulty lies: we have lost faith that God might use us to lead others to himself.

Three Movements

In the past 40 years we have seen three major movements in understanding how the church should relate to unchurched people:

Evangelism Explosion: This model of evangelism came on the scene in the 1970s and was developed by Rev. D. James Kennedy. Evangelism Explosion centered on four questions that “evangelists” asked as they went door to door:

1.   If you died today, do you know for certain that you would go to be with Jesus in heaven?

2.   Suppose you were to die today and stand before Jesus and he were to ask you, “Why should I let you into heaven?” What would you say?

3.   [After a brief explanation of creation, fall, and redemption] Does this make sense to you?

4.   Would you like to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?

This movement was very “in your face,” and only the boldest people were comfortable participating in it. It did little to connect with the needs of people. Connecting people with faith communities also proved difficult, as there was little relationship established beforehand and little intentional follow-up afterward.

Willow Creek and the Seeker-Sensitive Movement: Started in the 1970s, the suburban Chicago church Willow Creek had by the mid-’90s become one of the largest and most influential churches in North America. Senior Pastor Bill Hybels felt that many church practices were irrelevant and meaningless to those “outside,” and if the church didn’t change, unchurched people would never be attracted to join.

Willow Creek reoriented itself to intentionally target people coming to church for the first time. This intentionality gave birth to the “seeker-sensitive” movement.

Today very few, if any, congregations in the Christian Reformed Church have not in one way or another been affected by Willow Creek—whether they have clear signs pointing to the nursery or services completely designed with the unchurched in mind.

Willow Creek and the seeker-sensitive movement woke churches up to the fact that other people might actually want to become part of their communities.

For the CRC, having been founded by Dutch immigrants, this was an especially difficult transition. Immigrant churches tend toward exclusion and preservation of an ethnic heritage and language. This is not an uncommon phenomenon, but it made for a difficult transition with which many CRC churches are still wrestling. We all like to think of our churches as welcoming and inviting, so when guests or visitors tell us otherwise, we’re often shocked.

Missional Renaissance: The movement that we find ourselves in the midst of today is perhaps best coined the “Missional Renaissance,” which is the title of a book by Reggie McNeal. This movement points out a flaw in the seeker-sensitive movement and invites the church to a new opportunity.

The seeker-sensitive movement was based on an attraction model: the goal was to get people to come to church. But many people are not at all interested in coming to church.

The Missional Renaissance invites people to see their local community as their church and to develop an intentionality in showing love to people, especially through acts of service. It invites churches to get involved in things that don’t necessarily increase the number of people walking through their front doors. Rather, churches engage with their communities and help create justice and mercy within communities and within the world, showing the kind of selfless love and service that the world needs. Even hardened skeptics can’t argue with that.

Biblical Understanding

I believe a critical difficulty has come from misunderstanding the relationship between the Great Commandment (Matt. 22:37) and the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20). I believe we have understood these two to have a relationship that I don’t think is correct or helpful.

We have understood the Great Commandment as a means to accomplish the Great Commission. We have loved people as Christ has loved us SO THAT they might become disciples of Christ. We have made our love conditional on whether or not the unchurched people we are building a relationship with seem likely to come to church.

I do not believe the Great Commandment and the Great Commission relate in this way, and I believe this misunderstanding has disempowered many people in our churches. It has led us to believe that even before establishing a relationship with people, before finding out basic things about their lives, we must try to figure out how to get them to Alpha or our Christmas service. This stops us from truly listening and understanding and getting to know them.

Moreover, we’ve been disempowered by thinking that our personal lives must be exemplary for us to convince someone of the intrinsic worth of belonging to the church and having a relationship with Jesus Christ. We shut down evangelism because we believe that it is our own life and witness that will bring someone into relationship with Jesus.

While I don’t want to say those things don’t matter, I believe Satan uses them as a trap to minimize our effectiveness for Jesus. I also believe that God can use our hurt and brokenness to draw others to himself.

One of the greatest gifts the church can offer to the world of the 21st century is a listening ear.

So I would like to invite every member in every church to get to know someone—with no strings attached. Ask questions; let the person speak. I find that people are so starved for someone to truly listen to them that they feel loved simply by your questions and active listening to their answers. For many people, I believe, the difference between being listened to and being loved is almost indistinguishable.

One of the greatest gifts the church can offer to the world of the 21st century is a listening ear. A listening ear that does not try to change people’s situations or assume that it can fix someone else. A listening ear that will love unconditionally, without judgment. A listening ear that will react in compassion and not disgust.

It amazes me how quickly and how much strangers will share when they sense there is a “safe person” listening. What if our churches could be filled with those safe people? What if we allowed ourselves to stop worrying about how others come to faith in Christ—and about what we might say or not say—and simply listened?

As a community we have been given the mandate to go and make disciples of all nations. This starts first and always with Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, drawing others into relationship with himself. I am often surprised at who God draws and how God chooses to do that. The story of my online chat illustrates this perfectly. The fact that God allowed me to be involved in leading someone into relationship with him by simply listening and praying over MSN once again shows me that our God is an awesome God.

So this week, go out. When the Spirit prompts you to start that conversation, do not quench him by acting in fear. Say hello to the person, ask how his or her day is going. Listen carefully to the response, and you will know what to ask next.

For Discussion

  1. Are you afraid of evangelism? Why or why not?
  2. Discuss the “Three Movements” that John Wildeboer describes. 
  3. How do you envision “Missional Renaissance” in your church and community?
  4. Wildeboer says that we have made our love conditional on whether people will come to church. Should there be any conditions attached to evangelism? What are they?
  5. Can messed-up people be evangelists?
  6. What does it take to listen without judgment, with no strings attached?

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