By Luke Cawley
Feeling the Tension
It was a line graph. A smooth blue curve showed the next 10 years in the life of the church. Apparently this little church of 100 people was going to grow to over 1,000 in the next decade. So the diagram told me. Next to it was a series of images picturing how the church’s building would expand over this period to accommodate all the new people.
I was impressed. I’d never seen anybody so certain of their own future evangelistic success. But I was also confused. As I looked at the graph, and as I later also chatted with the church’s leaders, it seemed they were unshakeable in their conviction that the plan would work exactly as they had described it. Only their own failure could prevent the plan from unfolding exactly as the blue line projected.
It was all quite different from a gathering I’d attended a couple of months earlier. It was a meeting of several different churches. Between them they had baptized less than ten people over the preceding decade. Many were wondering if they would still be functioning congregations in a few years’ time. They all shared how difficult it was to reach out in their local area. They also expressed their sense that perhaps large-scale evangelistic fruitfulness was not what God required of them right now. Perhaps he simply wanted them to just plough on and be faithful.
Somehow neither situation left me entirely comfortable. I certainly didn’t think that evangelism was a mechanical process that could be controlled and predicted with the kind of precision suggested by the graph. Neither did it seem quite right to ascribe periods of fruitlessness entirely to the difficulty of our mission field or the sovereignty of God. Somehow I needed a third option that combined an emphasis on our personal responsibility with an acknowledgement that evangelism is a messy and unpredictable process. I wanted to find a different way.
Facing Hard Questions
Lots of people feel caught in a similar dilemma. They want to hold themselves and their communities accountable for their evangelistic practice and fruitfulness. But it’s difficult to figure out quite how you do that without falling into the twin traps of either reducing evangelism to pure human effort or overlooking our role completely. It’s no wonder that senior leaders in several major Christian organizations have told me that they stall on implementing any kind of internal accountability regarding evangelism. If we don’t control the outcomes, they reason, then how can we make any meaningful judgment in this area?
Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts. If so, then I have some bad news for you: I’m not really going to resolve the tension for you. Assessing our individual and corporate evangelistic performance is tricky. There’s no simple way to do so. Yet we still need to try. One reason it’s so important is the consistent New Testament theme that when we regularly invite people to follow Jesus there will be some positive responses. Paul describes “the gospel” as “bearing fruit and growing throughout the world” (Colossians 1:6), and urges his readers to speak to others about Jesus in the expectation that these conversations will trigger more of the same. He asks:
“How can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them?” (Romans 10:14-17 MSG)
For Paul, the very point of telling others about Jesus is that they decide to follow him for themselves. If such individual decisions are not taking place—and if the gospel is not “bearing fruit and growing” in our local context—then we need to stop and ask why. Is there something we are doing wrong which needs to change?
Results will be different depending on our situation. After Jesus’ ascension, for example, there were just 120 people gathering for prayer in his name (Acts 1:15). Not long afterwards, on the day of Pentecost, a short talk by Peter brought around 3,000 newcomers to faith (Acts 2:41). Who was the more effective evangelist: Peter or Jesus? Obviously it is a ridiculous question. We can’t boil evangelism down to mere statistical comparisons. The whole thing is much more complex. But both Jesus and Peter have one thing in common: A key characteristic of their ministry was people coming to faith for the first time. Shouldn’t this also be a feature of ours?
There are several ways we can begin to ask hard questions of our chapters—and also of ourselves—with regard to evangelism. Here are a few directions worth considering:
1. Count Conversations, Not Just Conversions.
People trust in Jesus because they have heard about him. How many people on your campus are actually getting to hear—and talk—about him? Keep some stats on how many people stop and chat at Proxe Stations, how long they stay for, how many people attend invitational events, and how many are in GIGs. Figure out ways to increase all these numbers.
2. Conduct an Internal Survey.
Find out how frequently chapter members have an opportunity to speak about Jesus. Then, work out how you can help them develop those conversations into something more. A few years ago, I interviewed 20 students from our chapter and discovered that they each have a meaningful conversation about Jesus at least once every couple of weeks. They all felt that many of those conversations offered natural opportunities to invite their friends to read the Bible with them or join a GIG. They never offered this invitation, though, because they weren’t confident in leading GIGs themselves. This simple discovery helped me shift my focus to training the students in leading seeker small groups. As a result, a number of GiGs were launched within months.
It may be worthwhile for you to conduct a similar internal survey (face-to-face) with a sampling of students from your chapter. It could help you identify key areas for change.
3. Create a Story-Swapping Culture.
Make it a natural feature of chapter life that you tell one another when you’ve had a great conversation about Jesus. Swap stories about what happened. Then, pray for the person with whom you spoke. You could create a regular space to swap such stories during small-group meetings.
These are a few examples of how you can ask questions of your chapter’s evangelistic practice and then make adjustments. You may not be able to create a line graph of how many people will come to faith in coming years. But neither do you have to sit back and accept the status quo. You can figure out ways to increase the number of campus-based Jesus conversations, help train chapter members to develop those conversations into something more, and create an environment where it feels normal to have great discussions about Jesus with friends every week. When all this happens, it will be near-unavoidable that more new people will start following Jesus. You can’t control or guarantee this outcome. But you can create conditions which make it possible.
What other tips do you have for evangelism accountability? Leave them in a comment below.