I Sat in the Pew Frustrated, Again!


As the pastor preached that morning, I felt guilty about my lack of effort at soul winning. Yet every time I gathered my courage and forced myself to witness, it produced little except to raise my blood pressure and frustration.

For most of my life, this experience has represented my feelings about evangelism. I grew up in a Bible-teaching church where we were chided to “witness,” but I don’t remember many people actually doing it. Then I went to a Christian college and later to seminary, where we were challenged about the plight of “lost people.” Still, only a handful of bold students tried to evangelize. I forced myself to share the Gospel with complete strangers a few times, but that was the extent of my efforts.

I didn’t know how to evangelize back then. And my 15 years as a pastor have shown me that many others don’t know how to “witness” either. We talk about evangelism, and we proclaim the Gospel. We celebrate when people come to know Christ, but evangelism for most of the folks in my church is something we hope “the other guy” will do.

This troubled the elders and staff of my church, so we evaluated the situation a few years back. Ours is a good-sized church that has consistently grown each year. But our research revealed that our growth came from Christians leaving their churches and coming to our church, not from new converts. Frankly, it bothered us that a church our size did not know how to bring more people to Christ.

Primary Purpose

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to Peter, “… Upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it” (New Living Translation). Certainly, whatever the church is about, doing battle against the forces of hell is at its heart! Ted Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, came to the conclusion that, “I did not have the privilege of just reading my Bible, praying nice prayers and pastoring a pleasant little church. I had to rescue a lot of people from impending eternal disaster”. (Primary Purpose, pgs. 29-30). That led Haggard and his church to conclude that their primary purpose was to make it hard for people of their city to go to hell.

Evangelism must be more than something we honor by talking about it, or something for those people especially gifted with boldness or skill at relating the Gospel. It must lie at the heart of why we exist as a church. And it must be something in which everyone (whether you have the gift of evangelism or not) is involved. This means that I, as a pastor, must take the lead and evangelize as well.

Learning How To Evangelize

Our church was full of people who cared that others were lost and going to hell, but we never learned how to evangelize effectively. We didn’t know how to reach out as a team and help unbelievers enter into a relationship with Christ. We didn’t know how to care for people over time, through loving relationships. This is one of the discoveries that propelled us to begin our transition to a cell-based church. Cells are the perfect place to mobilize all Christians to reach unbelievers.

While cell groups are the most natural environment to enter this journey of relational evangelism, nothing is automatic. We learned that groups must take intentional steps to reach out and grow.

The first step developed out of our need to be intentional in our relationships with unbelievers. So our cells created lists of people
whom group members believed God wanted to reach through them: neighbors, co-workers, friends and relatives, people with whom they spend time and develop relationships. These people form the immediate circle of relationships that make up each cell member’s oikos (Greek for household or sphere of influence). This is e cell’s oikos list. Everyone in the cell needs to pray for one or two unbelievers to come to know Christ.

Secondly, we realized that the battle is spiritual! The most important thing we can do for lost people is pray for them. Praying for our oikos should be a regular part of a cell gathering. 2 Corinthians 4:4 says, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” “The only reason someone can’t see a need for Christ is because he or she has been blinded by satan. Only a person with a distorted vision of the truth can refuse a Savior who loves them so much that He gave His life to redeem them.

The solution is to battle through prayer. Our groups pray specifically against the roadblocks that stand in the way of these unbelievers seeing their need for Jesus. Maybe they’re stumbling over the spiritual hypocrisy of others. Perhaps it’s their own insecurity, foolish pursuit of fun or life on their own terms. It could be selfishness, or any number of strongholds such as addiction, lust, unforgiveness or pride. As the Holy Spirit gives discernment, we call out against the demonic grip that Satan has over these people and ask Jesus to break it so that their eyes may be opened.

As a cell gets serious about praying on behalf of oikos members, the list will cease to be the person “you” are burdened for and become the people “we” are burdened for. At this point, each cell member is evangelizing.

Get in Their Boat

While praying, cell members also must increase relationships with the people for whom they are seeking the heart of God. Luke 5:1-3 reveals a great example from Jesus’ life. “One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the word of God, He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon Peter, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then He sat down and taught the people from the boat.”

Jesus was teaching, but Simon Peter, for whom Jesus had a burden, was off to the side not listening. In order to get Peter’s attention, Jesus got into his boat. To reach people for Christ, get their attention by “getting in their boat”: build relationships, become their friend, and increase your connection with them.

After we moved into our new home last May, our children would stand on the wood pile behind our house and peer at the neighbor’s kids over the wooden fence that separates our back yards. As the kids all started playing together, my wife and I felt called to get into the boat of our neighbors, Tod and Sandy. We prayed for them to come to Christ and built a relationship with them. We invited them over for burgers and ice cream. We went camping with them, and our kids continued to play together. Tod and I built a gate in the fence so we could easily walk between our back yards.

Meanwhile, our cell included Tod and Sandy on our oikos list for prayer. Each week we prayed for Tod and Sandy, even though no one in the cell knew them. Our cell members encouraged us to continue working on the relationship. Week in and week out, we did just that.

Cell Bridge Events

After spending the summer building the relationship and praying for Tod and Sandy, we invited them to a cell bridge event, our Labor Day picnic. A bridge event can be a game night, picnic, dinner outing, etc. The important things are to hold these regularly (many of our cells aim for once a month), and for all members to understand that their job is to interact with the guests and help them feel welcome.

Tod and Sandy agreed to come to the cell’s picnic, though they wanted to drive their own car so they’d have an escape. They didn’t need it! They had a wonderful time, and the cell members were excited to meet the couple for whom they’d been praying.

It is important to understand how our cell worked together as a team. My family was working to get into Tod and Sandy’s boat, but everyone in our cell was praying for and had a burden for Tod and Sandy. Everyone took ownership in our joint effort to love Tod and Sandy to Christ. And not only Tod and Sandy, but also the other unbelievers who were being reached by other cell members.

Now we had a relationship with Tod and Sandy, and so did others in our cell. The members grew those relationships. The women invited Sandy to go shopping with them and sent her notes of encouragement. The men invited Tod to play golf. Tod and Sandy came to our regular cell events. Then they began to ask questions about spiritual things. One Saturday night in November, Tod asked whether his family could join us at church on Sunday. When they arrived, they were greeted by their friends from the cell who sat with them and talked with them every step of the way.

Tod and Sandy started attending our cell. A few months later, Sandy prayed to receive Christ as her Savior. Tod did the same with one of the members of our cell in the church lobby after worship. Our entire cell went out to lunch afterward to celebrate with them. This family was reached because everyone in a cell worked together to see them come to know Christ. It started with a heartfelt burden for people who are spiritually lost and included a specific plan of prayer, relationships and regular cell events. We all worked together to evangelize.

Re-Learning Evangelism

We’re still learning to approach evangelism this way as a church, but the number of stories similar to those of Tod and Sandy is growing. Evangelism finally is a joy instead of a frustration. And it isn’t something we just talk about. We partner with others in our cell to do something about it. We target people and challenge each other to get into their boats because we believe God will use us to reach them. It doesn’t happen automatically. It takes purposeful, Holy Spirit-driven intervention. I am learning and relearning this over and over.

For example, I came home late from work the other night and a neighbor was out working on his car. I was tired and wanted go inside, take my shoes off and rest. But I knew my cell was going to ask me whether I was getting into Bill’s boat. So I went over and crawled under the hood of his car with him. Another time, my wife wanted to invite my daughter’s entire soccer team and their parents over for a potluck dinner. I initially thought of the hassle it would be. Then my wife reminded me again of the need to build relationships with these people, most of whom are lost. It is something we have to remind ourselves of continually.

But it works! It’s exciting to see people effectively evangelize when they formerly thought they could never reach others for Christ. They learn to work together as a team – praying specifically, challenging one another, having events, and working hard to incorporate these people. They discover what really impacts unbelievers in positive ways so that they are open to the Good News of Jesus. They finally realize that guilt is not the way God motivates us to reach their friends.

I’ve met very few unbelievers who know they are lost. What’s more, they aren’t looking for God. Few non-Christians have friends who really care about them in a selfless, loving way. When your cell works together, you literally have the opportunity to love people into openness to the Gospel and into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

There is nothing more fulfilling than experiencing the joy of reaching out together. Just ask Tod and Sandy!