It is a sad but common thing for churches to grow lukewarm in their zeal to bring the unsaved to Jesus Christ.
Evangelism and prayer are perhaps two of the most difficult things to maintain in the Christian life, and the reason is that they involve spiritual warfare. Every time we engage in intercessory prayer and every time we share the gospel, we are engaging in warfare with God’s avowed enemy, a fierce and determined foe who is called the “god of this world” and the “prince of the power of the air” (2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2).
We should not be surprised when we find a church in a spiritual decline, but we also should not be lethargic about it. Fruitful church life requires continual spiritual revival. In the New Testament epistles, what we see is an emphasis on continual, daily revival and progressive spiritual growth, not special, once-in-awhile revival. To be filled with the Spirit is not something that is to happen as a special experience; it is something that is to happen continually and daily (Eph. 5:18). To be filled with the Spirit is not an experience we seek; it is a commandment we obey. We are to put off the old and man and put on the new as a daily experience (Eph. 4:22-24). The believer has everything he needs for spiritual life and victory, and his part is to grow in these things (2 Pet. 1:4-8).
But when daily revival ebbs and backsliding ensues, it is time for special revival, and the Lord Jesus Christ is ready and able to revive His people when they meet the requirements.
"Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent" (Revelation 2:5).
“Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee” (Rev. 3:2-3).
"As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent" (Revelation 3:19).
What can a pastor do if he finds that his church has become lukewarm or worse in the matter of soul winning?
We are focusing on the pastor's role because he alone has the authority necessary to bring church-wide changes. This is not to say that pastors alone are responsible for the evangelistic zeal of a church. The responsibility is upon the shoulder's of every born again Christian. Every child of God is called to be an ambassador for Christ to carry the gospel to the unsaved (2 Corinthians 5:20).
After reviewing this article, one pastor offered this observation: “The pastor must have the cooperation of the people to do his job. If they realized they have a HUGE impact on how we [pastors] feel and act, more people would do a better job!”
This is true, but sheep can’t lead themselves.
The following are some suggestions for pastors who want to revive their congregations in evangelism:
1. The pastor must revive himself and provide leadership in word and deed.
A pastor cannot effectively demand that the people do something that he is not doing himself. He must provide the leadership in evangelism. He must carve out time from his schedule for evangelism, the more the better.
It might be necessary to repent publicly before the church if his own lack of zeal in this area has contributed to the overall decline.
2. The pastor must make the people understand that this is a serious matter.
He can do this in many ways.
One is by preaching on evangelism and using it in his applications. If he focuses on this and really makes a major issue of it, the people that love the Lord will usually come around and wake up and get involved. It will also expose the hearts of the lukewarm and rebellious, but that is the work of the two-edged Sword of the Spirit in this fallen world.
The pastor can make the church understand the seriousness of evangelism by requiring that the workers be involved. A church member cannot necessarily be forced to participate in visitation or to dress properly during the week or to separate from worldly music or such things, but a church can certainly require that its officers and workers (deacons, SS teachers, etc.) be examples of what God’s will. The officers and workers set the tone for the whole church. They set the tone for what new converts will become. If the pastor does not require that the workers model what he preaches from the Word of God, he is undercutting the preaching.
The pastor can impress the people with the importance of evangelism by emphasizing it frequently, during announcements, etc.
The pastor can demonstrate before the congregation that evangelism is at least as important as the many other programs and activities the church pursues.
A church in New York goes out on the streets every Sunday afternoon for gospel work. One man wrote to describe this as follows:
“The [leaders and workers] of the church always go out with us and thus set the tone for the importance of the outreach. The outreach is always published FIRST in the church bulletin and announced by the pastor from the pulpit every Sunday morning.”
3. The pastor should set up a training program to educate and challenge the people--young and old--in evangelism.
This will focus everyone’s attention on evangelism and keep the attention focused for a period of time.
The training should be given to all of the teens and adults, because evangelism is the work of every child of God.
We recommend the course Sowing and Reaping, from Way of Life Literature. This course is currently available in print format and is scheduled to be published in video format in December 2013.
4. The pastor should develop an outreach program that will encourage the participation of the largest number of people.
A good start would be to set up the "Visitation Night Stations" which are described under the section of this book on “The Visitation Program.” This encourages people to get involved in evangelism in a variety of ways and does not try to force everyone to do the same thing.
This is only a start, though. The goal should be to get every church member, young and old, involved in fruitful evangelism throughout the week.
5. The pastor should evaluate the existing evangelistic activities with the goal of making them more fruitful.
Even many churches that are not very aggressive about soul winning usually have some evangelistic programs, such as Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. These are good places to start in evaluating and reworking a church's ministry. The pastor needs to ask himself how these can be made more fruitful.
A Vacation Bible School, for example, can simply be a part of the church's traditional program, something that is carried out without much enthusiasm, or it can be a true soul winning endeavor that is carried out with great zeal and potentially much fruit.
I think of one particular church that had a Vacation Bible School each year, but little or nothing was done to advertise it in the community, no special prayer proceeded it, no effort was made to train and challenge the people to use their private automobiles to bring children and young people and adult visitors to the VBS, no thought was given to possibly running the church bus each day to bring people to the program, etc. All the pastor did was chose a curriculum, organize the VBS activities, and then put up a sign in front of the church, apparently hoping that some unsaved people would show up. It is not surprising that there was no fruit from this effort.
Another example of this is with special evangelistic or revival services. It is not uncommon for churches to have these and yet to do little or nothing in preparation, apart from choosing the speaker and preparing for the meals. A revival or gospel service that is preceded by earnest prayer and by special visitation in the community to invite the unsaved will be much more fruitful than one that is simply conducted as a tradition.
6. The pastor should seek ideas and suggestions from the church members.
Toward the goal of getting everyone involved and creating effective evangelistic outreach, it is wise to find out what the church people think, to get feedback and ideas from the people. The church is a body, not merely a head, and each member is an important part. Each member is gifted by the Spirit of God (Rom. 12:4-8), and should be encouraged to participate in the church ministry within the bounds of Holy Scripture and under the direction of the leaders.
If I were the pastor of a declining church, I would get together with various groups within the church and invite candid discussion on the subject of evangelism. I would try to find out what hinders people from being involved. I would try to find out what they think of the current evangelistic efforts. I would ask them to analyze each part of the church’s evangelistic program and to give feedback about how to make things more fruitful.
I would have the teen and adult members read the book Ideas for Evangelism to help them have new ideas, and then I would challenge them to think of ways they could get the gospel to the unsaved. (Ideas for Evangelism is available in print and as a free eBook from www.wayoflife.org.)
Of course, for this type of thing to work, the pastor must show the people that he is open to their ideas and suggestions. I don’t mean that he should accept every idea, but he should show that he is not tied to the old “rut”!
I would focus my attention on any church members who are burdened to carry the gospel to lost souls. It is possible that they are already thinking about these things and have ideas. In fact, in many cases it is church members who pray that the Lord will touch the pastor's heart that he might wake up and lead the congregation in evangelism. In such cases, some of the church members might be far ahead of the pastor, and if so, they can be a great help if the pastor is wise enough to use them and to seek their counsel and help.
7. The pastor needs to stir up prayer support for the church's evangelism efforts.
Prayer is essential for spiritual revival, for removing demonic barriers, and for breaking the stony hearts of the unsaved.
There are many ways a pastor can lead in the matter of prayer. He can work to make the mid-week prayer meeting more focused on evangelism. He can start new prayer meetings, such as before the preaching services, as Charles Spurgeon did. He can organize prayer meetings in the homes of the church members. He can start new women’s and men’s prayer meetings that focus on spiritual revival in the church and the salvation of the lost.
The Baptist churches in Ireland in the 17th century established a special time of prayer and fasting on the first Wednesday of every month for the purpose of confessing their spiritual slothfulness and backsliding and seeking the power of God (Joseph Ivimey, History of the English Baptists, I, p. 248). God hasn’t changed. If our churches today will take spiritual slothfulness and backsliding this seriously; if we will truly humble ourselves before God and confess our sins and earnestly seek His mercy, power, and blessing, the spiritual deadness will be healed.
Christ has made it clear that He absolutely hates spiritual lukewarmness (Revelation 3:15-16), and the fact is that a great many members of Bible-believing churches aren’t merely lukewarm about evangelism; they are absolutely cold. We don’t have to wait until the judgment seat of Christ to know what this means.
“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).
If Christ will spew out the lukewarm, what will He do to the cold?
Church member, how does your zeal for souls hold up in the light of God’s Word?
In the book Effective Evangelistic Churches, which contains the results of a survey of 576 growing churches, Thom Rainer observes that intercessory prayer is a crucial component.
“So often churches get stuck in a rut in their prayer. A Florida pastor shared that their Wednesday evening prayer services ‘had become Who’s who in the hospital. Our young people avoided the service like the plague.’ Many churches, perhaps most churches in America, focus their corporate prayers on physical needs: sickness, bereavement, and hospitalizations. While these prayer needs are valid and need intercession, the eternal needs of those without a relationship to Jesus Christ are even more critical” (Rainer, Effective Evangelistic Churches pp. 74, 78).
“Most churches that are effectively reaching the lost have broken out of the ‘rut’ of prayer-as-usual and have experienced wonderful results brought about by effective emphasis on praying for the lost’” (Rainer, p. 74).
“Focusing the church’s attention on intercession for the lost has brought the Lord’s blessings time after time. One pastor shared the thought that, ‘Praying for the lost did more to refocus our church than any single factor. We became a church with an outward focus after being an inwardly focused church for years’” (Rainer, p. 69).
“Fasting has often been a key factor not only in focusing the people but also in bringing about spiritual power. One pastor wrote, ‘I pray and fast one day a week. Though I do not advertise it, the church has become aware of it and many have followed my example’” (Rainer, p. 75).
“I reviewed my consultation notes of dozens of churches I visited over the past few years. Most of them were in a slow decline. Perhaps more than any single factor, the absence of dynamic corporate prayer ministries was the contrasting element. I could not find one declining church that had an ongoing prayer ministry specifically for the lost. Perhaps these dying churches have not because they ask not” (Rainer, p. 77).
Pelham Baptist Church in South Carolina was pastored by Harold B. Sightler from 1942 until 1952. Consider the following testimony about the power of prayer in evangelism:
“In 1946 only three people were baptized at Pelham, and so in early 1947 a week of prayer meetings were held at night at the church, prayer only, for revival and salvation of souls, with no preaching or singing. People began to get saved, and the church grew. The prayer meetings continued, and by 1949 were being held on Sunday nights after church in a pasture. These often drew a hundred people and sometimes lasted until one o'clock in the morning. A rock altar was built around a tree. Each represented a person being prayed for by name” (James Sightler, “Observations on Dr. Harold B. Sightler’s Early Ministry and the Heritage of Tabernacle Baptist Church”).
The problem is that we are not treating the sin of omission as the great sin that it is before God. Disobedience to the plain commandments of God is treated casually. In my experience, the average member of the average Bible-believing church does not seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness according to Christ’s commandment in Matthew 6:33 and cares more about the things of this world than about fulfilling the Great Commission. At least that is what his lifestyle says. This is a great sin and it should be treated as such.
8. The pastor needs to evaluate his own activities and the church's activities in light of the Great Commission.
Many Christians are too busy with other church programs, which might be good in themselves. And this is often true of pastors themselves. The suggestions we have given for reviving a church that has lost its evangelistic zeal require time. It takes time to have prayer meetings. It takes time to seek the lost. All of the methods of evangelism discussed in the book Ideas for Evangelism require time. If a church is too busy with other things, it is impossible for it to do everything that should be done for evangelism.
A Christian School ministry, for example, can be a serious drain on a church. By no means are we opposed to church-operated Christian schools, but it is common for pastors who have schools to be heavily involved in attending sports programs, music programs, awards ceremonies, lunches, and a hundred other things that are not directly part of his biblical calling and responsibilities before God. As a result, the true calling is neglected.
Thom Rainer warns that "weekday ministries" such as Christian schools and day care, can be a hindrance to evangelism.
"Our respondents indicated that evangelistic growth rarely occurred as a result of these ministries. What are the reasons for the disparity? Further questioning revealed some fascinating attitudes about weekday ministries. First, the church leaders indicated that such ministries can be effective for church growth but rarely for conversion growth. The programs tend to attract other Christians, but their evangelistic value is questionable. Some pastors, a sizable minority, told us that their churches' weekday ministries actually detracted from evangelistic emphases. One pastor lamented, 'We spend so much time putting out fires in two of these ministries that we take away valuable resources that could be used to reach the lost. They really drain our resources.' Another staff member, whose responsibility includes the coordination of the weekday ministries, commented, 'I don't doubt the value of what we do. Many Christians truly benefit from our ministries. But it is really time consuming. We struggle to know the right balance between ministering to Christians and evangelizing the lost'" (Effective Evangelistic Churches, pp. 40, 41).
(Note: Rainer is a Southern Baptist and we do not recommend his New Evangelical philosophy or his acceptance of such things as Christian rock.)
Missionary Doug Hammett reviewed this article prior to its publication and observed:
“I would suggest that you consider camping a little more on the problem of putting out fires for other ministries as well as the drain that schools, etc., have on the overall ability to get the folks moving toward evangelism. I am convinced most pastors want evangelistic churches but are tied up in so many other ministries to keep people happy that the evangelism is left out in the cold.”
We must not forget the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. He explained the priority of His earthly ministry in these words: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). The Lord showed the priority of evangelism in the repetition of the Great Commission (Mat. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:44-48; John 20:21; Acts 1:8). He gave us the example of this priority in the ministries of the apostles as recorded in the book of Acts. Can you imagine the apostle Paul not having time for gospel work!
A church that doesn't have time for evangelism is sinning against the Lord of the Harvest and will doubtless give account at the judgment seat of Christ.
9. The pastor must be consistent and persistent in pursuing evangelism with the church.
It often happens that the pastor will get a burden to start or restart something in the church and will emphasize it for a short time, but then he will drop it before there has been time for the Lord to work in people's hearts. When he encounters resistance, he buckles to the will of the people and and deeds his God-given leadership over to backslidden people.
Turning around a backslidden congregation takes time and serious, serious commitment. Consider the example of a church in central Florida that had declined in membership for 20 consecutive years. In 1980 the church called a new pastor, and he immediately sought to revive an evangelistic fervor. It took years, though, for this to happen. Following is the testimony of a deacon:
“‘Our pastor did not just tell us to be evangelistic. He lived it! It took his example and leadership over five years before the church caught on. But we eventually got excited about sharing Jesus.’ Thom Rainer says, “The church has grown consistently for over a decade, with a significant part of the growth from conversions” (Effective Evangelistic Churches, p. 43).
I recall a kind and seemingly godly pastor who had allowed his church's visitation program to die. The reason he did so was lack of concern and interest on the part of the people. Just prior to canceling the Thursday night visitation program altogether, several weeks had passed with only he and his wife in attendance. No other church members cared enough to attend. He was torn between a fear of forcing the people to do things out of a mere sense of duty instead of a heart-love for their Savior and his responsibility before God to command the people to obey the Great Commission. Caught in this supposed dilemma, he allowed the church’s organized visitation to die. (Actually, there is no dilemma. Scripture emphasizes many right motives for serving the Lord, including fear of God and simple obedience to God. Christ’s instructions about preaching the gospel to every creature and being His ambassador to the unsaved are not suggestions; they are commandments.)
After a year or so of inactivity, he announced to the church that he was deeply concerned about the matter and was convicted that he had not done the right thing. For several services he told the people that the organized visitation would start again and that he wanted large participation. In several sermons he preached that it is wrong for deacons and Sunday School teachers or choir members, etc., never to try to reach the unsaved. He had meetings with his deacons and told them that he wanted all of them to participate in the organized visitation.
After a few weeks of this he started up the visitation program again on a Thursday night. Alas, only a handful of people showed up. There were no deacons or Sunday School teachers in attendance. After a few weeks of this, with little or no noticeable increase in the number of church members who came out for visitation, he basically let the matter drop.
He kept up the visitation program in a low-key manner, but he did very little to push it and he stopped or challenging or rebuking the people about the matter.
In fact, even though most of the men refused to come out on visitation and had thereby brazenly expressed their rebellion to God and to the church leadership (Hebrews 13:17), this pastor let the men start a new inter-church softball league on Saturday evenings just a few weeks after starting the new visitation program! He promoted the softball league with almost as much enthusiasm as he had devoted to evangelism.
Through all of this, the people received a loud message: “The pastor will preach about some things that might make you uncomfortable once in a while, but you don't have to take it seriously. If you simply ignore him he will eventually let it slide and things will be back to normal.”
It’s the same message that parents give to their children when they set out rules and don’t punish the children effectively when they break the rules. If a father or mother tells a toddler to sit down and then allows the child to continue to stand, they are training the child to disobey. In such a case, the child, in fact, is training and leading the parents.
Would it not have been more glorifying to the Lord if the above-mentioned pastor had used the softball league suggestion to face the men plainly with their misplaced priorities? Would it not have made a strong impression on the people if he had stood before them and said:
“It has been suggested that we start a men’s softball league. I have considered this prayerfully, and I don’t think we have time for such a thing when it is obvious that most of our church members are already too busy to give even two hours out of their weekly schedule for soul winning visitation. The Lord Jesus Christ does not command us to play softball, but He does command us to preach the gospel to every creature. Until we obey His express commandment to reach the unsaved, I believe it would be presumptuous for us to start another form of entertainment for the saints.”
I have sympathy for this pastor and for the countless others who are in similar situations. He tried to lead the people in evangelism, but they refused to follow.
At the same time, such pastors are committing the sin of Saul, who, when he did not keep God’s commandment, used the excuse that “the people” made him do it (1 Samuel 15:20-21). The prophet Samuel warned that such a thing is a great sin, “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Sam. 15:23).
There are many other things this pastor could have done to bring a change in the hearts of the congregation.
And if he had done everything he could and they still refused to obey the Lord, he could still impress them with their disobedience by rebuking them in no uncertain terms and refusing to act like it is business as usual when the people are so obviously backslidden and rebellious to the One they profess as Lord and Saviour.
I will tell you one thing, my friends, those deacons and teachers and church officers would have lost their positions if I were their pastor. I would rather have no officers and teachers than to have stubborn, rebellious, backslidden ones. I would far rather have 30 church members who are true disciples of Christ than 300 who are lukewarm. God can do far more with the 30 than with the mixed multiple that forms the membership of the typical “Bible-believing” church today.
Someone says, “They would have voted you out of the pastorate.” So be it! I raise my hand to heaven and declare that I would rather have the Lord’s approval and blessing than be the pastor of a rebellious church, no matter how large. I have learned from 40 years of experience, that God will take care of me when I stand for His Word and glorify His Son.
We need to get serious about obeying Jesus Christ and stop “playing church.”
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