Growing up in the church in North America (both Canada and the U.S.), my experience and understanding of what evangelism meant was shaped by the predominant idea that evangelism is something that Christians do with the goal of leading someone to conversion to Christianity. Evangelism (I was taught) was when you told people about the gospel in either an evangelistic crusade or during one-on-one witnessing. It was usually summarized as “Jesus died on the cross to forgive you of your sins so that you may spend eternity with Him.” Then, those people said a prayer to invite Jesus into their hearts. Now, my intent is not to demean or lessen the truths of that part of the gospel, but I always felt like something was missing. As a young boy, I remember telling my Sunday school teacher that in the past year, I had led five friends in “the sinner’s prayer” (a prayer people repeat after you, confessing their sins and inviting Jesus into their hearts). Looking back now, I realize I was treating those five friends as if they were notches on my belt for bragging rights. My Sunday school teacher asked me—in an understandable way for a nine-year-old—what my plan was for continuing to disciple them. My thought was, “I don’t know, that’s not my job; I guess I can invite them to church now.” All I knew was that five new souls were rescued from spending eternity in hell and would now inherit eternal life in heaven. Unfortunately, my thinking on this as a young kid was not very far removed from so much of the church’s approach to evangelism in the modern era.
There is an obsession in the church today with measurable metrics and a desire for quick results. The idea of playing the long game when it comes to discipleship and investment in people’s lives is not as intriguing as saying, I’ve led “X” amount of people to salvation this year. Often, even our Sunday morning church services get turned into big events to try and draw in the masses—plea made, hands raised and counted, prayers said, and reports filled in. My assessment of this model is that it often feeds into the more attractional type of evangelistic ministry, promoting a consumeristic mindset in the church. Bryan Stone, in his book Evangelism after Pluralism, writes:
The question for practicing evangelism in a postcolonial context can no longer be the imperial question of how we can reach more people, grow our churches, or expand our influence. The more fundamental question is whether the church can relearn how to bear public witness on the Spirit’s terms rather than the empire’s terms, recapturing some of the ancient church’s counter-imperial deviance while imagining ever new forms of faithfulness.1
It’s not that the early (counter-imperial) church didn’t grow exponentially. It did! But it seems that the way it grew was through a missional and incarnational2 approach that looked for where the Holy Spirit might be at work in people’s lives rather than much of the modern attractional (come and see) approach. After studying the first three centuries of the early church, it really does seem that the emphasis was more on a commitment to the literal language of the Great Commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20, to “go and make disciples,” not just converts who attend church events. Church missiologist Alan Hirsch says:
The missional church is incarnational, not attractional, in its ecclesiology. By incarnational we mean it does not create sanctified spaces into which unbelievers must come to encounter the gospel. Rather, the missional church disassembles itself and seeps into the cracks and crevices of a society in order to be Christ to those who don’t yet know him.3
Therefore, the call to go and make disciples is one to go and be amongst the people of our communities and, through word and deed, demonstrate what Jesus and His kingdom are really all about. We then invite others to join and learn these ways as well. It means that we are inviting people into our lives to learn how to follow Jesus as Lord. So, in essence, there is still an invitation to conversion. But this conversion, or surrendering to Jesus as Lord, involves coming out of the radical individualism of secular society and joining the kingdom community of Jesus. Once again, Stone writes:
Evangelism in our time is an invitation to conversion—but not a conversion from within an imperial imagination; rather it is a conversion from an imperial imagination to another one altogether. In the body of Christ, the universalizing, imperial claim to space is contested, and as citizens of heaven, the church is called instead to be a space in the world where the commonwealth of God can appear materially, locally, and bodily.4
In times past, there has been great success with attractional models in the church. In other parts of the world, attractional evangelistic crusades still gain a lot of traction and deliver results. However, in North America, with all the skepticism there is around the institutional church and much of our past “bait and switch” models, I don’t see evangelistic crusades or a big event-driven ministry at a local church as the most effective way for the church to evangelize moving forward. Hirsch writes about this challenge by stating, “The problem we face is that while as a sociopolitical-cultural force Christendom is dead, and we now live in what has been aptly called the post-Christendom era, the church still operates in exactly the same mode. In terms of how we understand and do church, little has changed for seventeen centuries.”5 The decline of the church in Western culture should be a warning sign for local churches to examine their ways, evaluate the effectiveness as well as the authenticity of their mission, and pivot accordingly to recapture the missional impetus that we were birthed with in the first century.
The good news is that I don’t think this pivot requires a lot of creativity or innovation, as we hear a lot of talk about these days. It may be much simpler than that. You see, after pastoring for 21 years in the U.S. on a major university campus, I’ve come to realize that many people outside the church aren’t just looking for big, flashy events that wow or entertain them. They are often looking for a place of belonging and stories of how lives are being changed by something transcendent that is beyond human effort. Even secular society is realizing that humanity’s best efforts can’t fix the obvious fraction and brokenness in our world. What a time for the church to arise and do what we’ve always done well—be a countercultural community that allows people to belong despite their brokenness and mess. We get to join in the journey as people allow Jesus to be Lord of their lives, and the Holy Spirit changes them from the inside out. They then get to testify and help others come to faith as well, thus uniting with the mission of Jesus and the work of the Spirit in the world. This, I believe, is what it means to make disciples. And when we as the church commit to making disciples, evangelism is inevitable in the journey.
At Glad Tidings Church in Burlington, Ont., where I have the privilege of pastoring, we recently took one of our church gatherings to the beach, away from our typical meeting place. There was nothing flashy about this service; we simply went to the beach where thousands of people go every weekend. We had a time of fun and fellowship together, worshipped together in an open-air setting, prayed for the leaders in our community, and then celebrated as 30 people were baptized in Lake Ontario. Many of those being baptized shared a story of how Jesus had rescued them from a life of hopelessness and despair. They were then baptized by the people who had been journeying with them in the context of discipleship and came out of the water to the joyous sound of hundreds of people cheering along with all of heaven. It was so evident that the Spirit of God was at work in our midst. Many onlookers would stop and watch and were just amazed at what was happening. Those who came to support their friends and family who were being baptized were overwhelmed—some to the point of tears. There was no hype, no flash, and no bait and switch. It was just the church doing what the church does—telling the great stories of our redemption and healing and then celebrating that together in community. What’s amazing is that many present spontaneously decided that they, too, wanted to be baptized, leading to 10 more people entering the waters.
I can’t help but think that this example embodies what it means for the church to fulfil the Great Commission mandate in our generation. Let’s commit to long-term discipleship, journeying with people as they learn to follow Jesus as Lord, and trusting the leading of the Holy Spirit to reveal where and how He is already at work. And may we go beyond closed doors and the walls of our church buildings and services, reaching out to our homes, neighbourhoods, cafes, parks and even our public beaches.
Timothy Woodcock is the lead pastor of Glad Tidings Church in Burlington, Ont. This article appeared in the January/February/March 2024 issue of testimony/Enrich, a quarterly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. © 2024 The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Photos courtesy Glad Tidings Church.
- Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Pluralism: The Ethics of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), 29.
- The idea modelled by Jesus to minister to people by being amongst them in normative life patterns.
- Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 12.
- Stone, Evangelism after Pluralism, 38–39.
- Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 61.