Evangelizing Adults: The Misleading Statistic

Some months ago a friend of mine mentioned to me that most churches no longer have active evangelistic programs aimed at reaching adults. One reason for this may be a misleading statistic that’s been bandied about, about how most believers in our churches came to Christ by their late teens. Child Evangelism Fellowship, for instance, uses this statistic to emphasize the need for support for their ministry, to reach children with the gospel when they are young. Many churches may therefore have neglected ministries to reach adults in favor of ministries to children and youth – and unfortunately, many times these don’t reach very far outside the families of regular attenders and leaders.

I don’t think that this statistic actually means very much as a guide for ministry. It reminds me of the pro football color commentator who said something dramatically about a team, that they would be in trouble if they went into the final quarter of the game trailing in the score, since they hadn’t scored very much in the fourth quarter all year. The truth is that team hadn’t scored very much in the final 15 minutes of the game in a few previous games didn’t form an impassible barrier to them scoring enough to win in the final minutes of the games. If that was linked to something concrete like that team not having sufficient physical or mental stamina to play through the final quarter to win if they were trailing or a deep enough series of plays to do different things to win, then it would have meaning – and then good coaches and teams could deal with that to produce a win. But the previous record of something having happened in a certain way does not mean that it cannot happen differently if the people involved look at the determining factors thoughtfully – and in the case of evangelism, scripturally and prayerfully.

I can remember one source that looked at the same statistic, and came to the conclusion that churches rather need to develop more effective methods to reach adults with the gospel. Certainly that is the more reasonable conclusion in view of the basic reality that that statistic simply is absolutely no justification for any church to abandon evangelistic ministry to adults. In fact, except for the incidents mentioned in the gospels where Jesus placed his hands on children and prayed for them, the ministry of Jesus and the apostles was directed mainly to the adults around them. It was rather the apostolic instruction for parents to evangelize and disciple their own children – to bring them up in the nurture and instruction of the Lord. And Christian leaders and churches throughout the ages who have impacted their communities and nations have put their efforts into evangelizing adults.

For instance, the evangelistic ministry of John Wesley evangelized adults, from the coal miners who came to his open air preaching to the many others who heard the gospel from a man who had come to Christ as a adult, in his account of his famous Aldersgate experience of trusting in Christ alone.

Billy Graham himself, who came to Christ in his late teens, also concentrated on evangelizing adults. Though he also sought to reach students, and held special youth crusades, many, many adults have come to Christ through his crusades.

In addition, Dr. D. James Kennedy likewise did seek to reach students, but he primarily sought to evangelize adults with the Evangelism Explosion ministry. That ministry equipped many for witness and brought a clear presentation of the gospel to many casual church visitors and attenders through a church centered evangelistic ministry. Perhaps many churches need to admit that they let that ministry die more because it became unfashionable compared to the fad of ‘seeker friendly’ churches and because many believers found it required more self discipline than they were willing to invest.

Here are, I think, the factors that come into the effective evangelization of adults, from those that I know who came to Christ as adults:

  • Prayer: The Christian relatives and friends who cared about the salvation of someone prayed about it for weeks and months.
  • Realization of the ultimate need of salvation for eternity through Christ: The Christian relatives and friends who shared the gospel believed that the real and ultimate need of the person for which they were concerned was eternal life through Jesus Christ – not to be brought into conformity to someone else’s expectations.
  • Faith in the power of Christ to change lives through the gospel: The Christian relatives and friends who shared the gospel believed the first and foremost change in the person for which they were concerned would come through Christ, not their guilt trips, manipulations and Christian button pushing.
  • Power of the Spirit: those who shared the gospel recognized that the real power of evangelism is the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • Complete, scriptural gospel: The people who shared the gospel took care to present the gospel from the scripture and allow the Word of God to speak for itself. There were certainly different presentations and gospel outlines used – sometimes not from an ‘official’ training program, but rather from the scriptures, such as Luke 24:46-49 and I Corinthians 15:-11. The common emphasis was on presenting Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord, the Savior and the Son of God, and the response of repentance and faith in him as the scriptural response to receive eternal life. There most certainly was very little attempt to dumb down or over-explain or paraphrase scripture and scriptural terms, but simply to present the scriptural gospel. Often enough, the real cost of discipleship was presented, and those who heard were allowed to wrestle with the claims and call of Jesus.
  • Answering questions and objections: There was an honest attempt to explain questions and objections from the scripture, since there was a recognition that there is a real offense to the scriptural gospel when someone hears it for the first time, and the need to deal honestly with objections and questions as a part of scriptural persuasion.  
  • Patient and loving follow-up with those who had come to Christ: There was a recognition that a person who has come to Christ as an adult does not have every habit destroyed and every difficult personal, family and vocational situation immediately fixed as a result of simply saying the Jesus prayer.

Pretty much these kinds of elements are common now in the Alpha Course, and have been in some other group Bible study programs and materials. Other personal witnessing programs, such as Evangelism Explosion, have incorporated these elements. Historically, though, leaders, churches and the everyday witnessing believer have all found that these elements are well within scriptural teaching and practice and have sought to follow them even without an explicit program and set of steps and formulas.

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Small Groups: the Methodist Class Meeting

As part of my interest in seeing a renewal of small group ministry in North American churches, I did some looking back at the class meetings of the Methodist church. These were started in the ministry of John and Charles Wesley in the 1700s, and remained a big part of the ministry of the Methodist church for generations. Below are some things that I found. It is convicting how much more seriously they put the matter of living for Christ daily before the people who wanted to be a part of their churches.

Here are the questions for personal reflection and discussion that were given to those who wanted to be a part of a class meeting:

  1. Have you the forgiveness of your sins?
  2. Have you peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ?
  3. Have you the witness of God’s Spirit with your spirit, that you are a child of God?
  4. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart?
  5. Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you?
  6. Do you desire to be told of your fault?
  7. Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home [to the point]?
  8. Do you desire that every one of us should tell you, from time to time, whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?

Here are the general rules of membership. I believe that they are the work of John Wesley himself. The list certainly goes into details of how a person is living as the evidence of genuine salvation. It’s notable that he did not go into much inquiry on how a person claimed to have been converted, but rather on the changes that were expected in the lives of those who were genuinely converted. I wonder at the reaction of many today would have to the general rules, to such things as avoiding self indulgence and to fasting.

THE GENERAL RULES

There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:

The taking of the name of God in vain.

The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.

Drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.

Slave-holding; buying or selling slaves.

Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling.

The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty.

The giving or taking things on usury—i.e., unlawful interest.

Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.

Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.

Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:

The putting on of gold and costly apparel.

The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.

The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.

Softness and needless self-indulgence.

Laying up treasure upon earth.

Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.

It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

Secondly: By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men:

To their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.

To their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all we have any intercourse with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine that “we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to it.”

By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.

By all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed.

By running with patience the race which is set before them, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should say all manner of evil of them falsely, for the Lord’s sake.

It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:

The public worship of God.

The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.

The Supper of the Lord.

Family and private prayer.

Searching the Scriptures.

Fasting or abstinence.

These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.

What It Takes to Participate in a Small Bible Study or Growth Group

Years ago, I can remember hearing Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California in an interview. He said something quite profound about his role as a pastor: “I realized that healthy sheep reproduce. Sick sheep don’t. I made it my goal, then, to produce healthy sheep in my church.”

Very often, participation in small groups is part of making a healthy church through producing spiritually healthy church members. It goes back to the small house churches, such as the church which met in the house of Philemon, that were the churches of the New Testament. My seminary classmate Joel Comiskey has made this small groups the core of his worldwide ministry – but unfortunately, many churches in the USA seem to be neglecting this possibility. It’s a path to edification of each other in the body of Christ.

Here’s a very basic outline to start.

This is the opportunity that the small group provides:

  • The opportunity to work with others and grow together with them.
  • The opportunity to grow deeper in fellowship with other believers.
  • The opportunity to learn the Bible with others and to learn how to apply it.
  • The opportunity to learn skills in ministry to others.

This is what the small group requires:

  • Faithful attendance.
  • Active participation.
  • Understanding and patience with others who are different and who have strengths, needs and desires which are different.
  • Study and preparation of any Bible study lessons or ministry assignments.
  • Keeping what others share confidential, within the group.

Here’s what to provide people with the invitation:

  • Time and place of meeting.
  • Time to consider attendance.

Here’s an extremely basic guide on how to prepare and lead:

  • Learn the historical and background and theological meaning and significance of the passage to be discussed at the group meeting. Avoid, though, letting the meeting become concentrated on an academic understanding of the passage.
  • Ask questions to get the people in the study to dig into the passage. Write out questions beforehand; the Serendipity Bible is an absolutely excellent resource for searching questions. This keeps the meeting from becoming a lecture by the leader. Moreover, it helps to get the people into the habit of searching the scriptures for themselves. Too many believers are stunted in their growth, and have remained stuck in immaturity for years and sometimes decades because others have spoon fed them all the scripture they get.
  • Ask anyone who throws out pat answers to look at the scripture again. Often someone may throw out something that may be either a platitude or something that scripture says elsewhere, but in this case the leader needs to direct that person back to the passage under discussion.
  • During a time of prayer, seek to follow corporate prayer etiquette and the circle of faith among the members.
  • If there is a need that someone shares, care first!