“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
When God commissioned the church to reach the world, He told them to start at home – in Jerusalem. He’s concerned about the lost people in your world: where you live, work, and play. If God’s passion is the salvation of people and His method for reaching them is other people, surely the Spirit-given ability to win people to Christ is very important. But what does the gift of evangelism look like? My ambition was to be a pioneer church-starting missionary among those who had never heard the gospel, but I was a schoolteacher. So I prayed earnestly for the gift of evangelism. And I went to work, preaching on weekends and during vacation. Sometimes many would come to Christ, sometimes no one would respond. I pled with God, sometimes with tears, to give me the gift of evangelism. After all, the Spirit had told me through Paul to do that: “Eagerly desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor. 12 :31).
My problem was, I had the wrong idea of what the gift looked like. I thought of “evangelism” as a public meeting in which the gospel is proclaimed, an invitation given, and people respond. That is one type of evangelism, but it isn’t the only form.
A witness is someone who has a personal experience and talks about it. Think of the term witness as used in a court of law. If I’ve only heard about the crime but haven’t seen it, I’m no witness. If I’ve seen it, but won’t talk, I’m no witness.
In the last of the great commissions (Acts 1:8), all disciples are commissioned as witnesses. Disciples have experienced God and are to tell others the good news. But not all are given the gift of evangelism (1 Corinthians 12 :29- 30). All believers are part of a “team” that brings people to faith. In that way the church grows. And God does expect His church to grow-”I will build my church,” said Jesus (Matthew 16 :18). The Book of Acts records how He did it: the Spirit won large numbers to Christ and started local congregations all over the Roman Empire through many witnessing Christians and a handful of pioneer evangelists. Every church should be baptizing new believers unless there are special circumstances.
When I agonized over not having the gift of evangelism, my definition of “evangelism” was too limited. Perhaps God heard my prayer, was giving me the gift, and I just wasn’t smart enough to recognize it. When we got to Japan, we found we could live in a community and love people in Jesus’ name and many would come to faith. In a land where the average church has 25 members, even after decades of existence, we were baptizing 20 new converts a year. God had answered my prayer for the gift! Or had He? I rarely prayed with someone to receive Christ, and we never gave a public invitation. Then how did they come?
I call it body-life reproduction. We discovered that the Spirit-led or Spirit-filled church as a body can bring new believers to God’s family. If church members are living authentic, Spirit-filled lives, and talking about it, people will come to faith. Ordinarily, every church should be baptizing new believers. Church-growth experts say that in the typical American community a church should be growing at 5 percent a year. This 5 percent should not be through baptizing its own children or from believers coming from other churches. New converts should account for a 5 percent increase. If a church isn’t reaching new believers, something is wrong. Here are some possible reasons:
- The church may be spiritually ill, incapable of reproducing, in need of revival. Members may not be modeling an authentic Christian lifestyle that’s attractive to unbelievers. The passion for lost people may have died out, or united prayer for the lost may be weak.
- Not many members may be sharing the gospel – too few faithful witnesses.
- Too few members have the gift of evangelism. Analysts say that in most churches that are growing through new believers coming to faith, about 10 percent of the members have the gift of evangelism.
- In some cases, the people to be evangelized may be especially unresponsive. For example, a missionary working among Muslims in New York City would not likely get this kind of growth.
The problem is that we often use unresponsive people as an excuse. Wherever I am, if people are not being saved, I’m tempted to proclaim it to be “hard soil.” Assuming that we aren’t rationalizing, unusual hardness in a given community can be a cause of little fruit.
How is the “birth rate” in your church? Do you measure it? Do you think God is pleased? We don’t want to be judgmental, but as spiritual “fruit inspectors” it wouldn’t hurt to make a general estimate. In fact, I think it’s important to be honest in evaluating our own church life as best we can.