Servant Evangelism: Opening Closed Hearts to God’s Love
by Steve Sjogren
To earn the right to speak words of love, we must first willingly demonstrate deeds of love with the hurting people in our cities.
It was the Friday evening before Labor Day and rush hour traffic was backed up for nearly a mile at the corner where our church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cincinnati, sits. The temperature was 95 degrees with matching humidity. About ten of us from the church quickly went into action to touch several hundred hot, frustrated motorists with God’s love. We iced down 400 soft drinks and set up signs just down the road: “Free Drinks Ahead.” As the cars came to the stop sign, we asked, “Would you like diet or regular?”
“Regular or diet what?” was the skeptical reply.
“We’re giving away free drinks to show people God’s love in a simple and practical way.”
“Just because God loves you.” Reactions varied greatly–some people smiled, some shook their heads, several mouths dropped open. Most were a little stunned to receive something for free. A UPS driver drove away saying, “But I don’t even know you guys. Why would you do this for me?” In less than an hour, we spoke with about 600 people, gave away all the drinks on hand, and even made it on a local radio station’s traffic report.
A Slow Start
I met Christ in the revival atmosphere of the “Jesus People” movement in Southern California. A lot of evangelism was going on, but most of us doing it at the time were high on enthusiasm and low on understanding about how people come to Christ. We had an over-simplified picture of what bringing someone into relationship with Christ involved. Our model for evangelism worked extremely well in Southern California, but it depended upon highly gifted leaders doing evangelism in public meetings. Little person-to-person evangelism was going on outside of corporate gatherings. We naively thought we could reproduce the same approach elsewhere with identical effectiveness.
We joked that you could sneeze at meetings and a dozen people would accept Christ! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out God was doing a sovereign work of evangelism then. Doing evangelism during the Jesus Movement was like fishing during a salmon run: About anyone with minimal availability could “catch fish.”
Today we are no longer fishing in a salmon run.
The day of “easy evangelism” hasn’t been with us for more than a decade. People aren’t nearly as open to listening to evangelistic appeals as they once were. In their hearts, many non-Christians say, “You have no right to tell me about your God until you have shown me you have integrity.” The scandals of prominent leaders in the Body of Christ have made it more difficult than ever to share the gospel. For whatever reason, unchurched people are jaded. It’s tough sharing Jesus with skeptics.
Ten years after I came to Christ, I found myself in a very different spiritual environment than the fertile fields of the Jesus Movement era. After receiving training at a large Vineyard church in Southern California, I moved my family to Cincinnati, Ohio to plant a new church. We began in this conservative, Midwestern community with five people. Cincinnati is friendly, in its own skeptical way. New ideas don’t catch on quickly here. That mindset prompted Mark Twain to write over one hundred years ago, “When the end of time comes I want to be in Cincinnati, because everything happens ten years later there.”
During my first 18 months in Cincinnati I shared my vision for planting a church with 1,000 people. Yet for all that effort we started our first Sunday with 35 people. That’s enough rejection to give Norman Vincent Peale a challenge. At that point we were unenthusiastic about evangelism. Mentioning the “E-word” caused us to feel guilty and reminded us of our failure at reaching out to the community.
Seeing their Pain
One day while sitting at a restaurant, having just told our vision for starting a church to a visitor–and being rejected again–I felt the Lord speak to me: “If you will befriend my friends then you’ll have more people than you know what to do with…”
Until that day, I wondered if there would be any people to pastor. Now God was saying I would have more people than I knew what to do with if I would befriend his “friends.”
I began to look in Scripture for the kinds of people Jesus spent his short ministry interacting with. I began to see something new: though Jesus loved everyone, he apparently enjoyed spending the better part of his time with three types of people: the poor, the sick and the lost. Even the apostles came from the hurting of society. All the apostles came from Galilee, the most hurting part of Palestine.
I began to see Jesus’ friends as the ones who are in pain–pain from bad decisions they have made, pain from rejection, and pain from living in a fallen world that knows little of God’s acceptance, forgiveness and love. Everyone has their own version of pain–those tension points that make life somewhere between difficult and impossible to live.
I realized that almost no one is having a good time in life. I went to the mall one day to go people watching. As I looked into the faces of person after person, I realized almost everyone is experiencing a significant level of misery. Jesus desires to touch and heal their pain. Somehow my job was to be around and minister to those people. But how? I’m too shy to go door knocking. Besides, people seemed more skeptical than ever. I already had several hundred people tell me “no” to the invitation of being involved in this new church.
Then the idea began to form. If we could somehow lighten some of the pain these people are going through–even for a moment–maybe we would get their attention. By serving our way into their hearts, maybe we could gain their ears.
As the idea of servant evangelism crystallized, we organized an “absolutely free car wash.” We stationed a couple of former cheerleaders on the corner with signs to direct dirty cars to the rest of the crew. We had several washers, some doing windows, some vacuuming, and a couple of “designated evangelists” to share with people why we were doing this. Amazingly, many wouldn’t believe we would do something for free–no strings attached. The first car was a station wagon driven by a single mom with six squirming kids. She cried as we shared with her and prayed for her.
The owner of the second car turned out to be a well-known Cincinnati businessman man. We told him we were doing this for free. He said, “That’s nice…” As we finished he asked, “To whom shall I make out my check?”
“No sir,” someone replied, “we aren’t receiving any money for washing your car. We did this just because God loves you.” It was one thing to see the mother cry, but I wasn’t ready to see this powerful businessman wipe away the tears.
I believe he was touched because we went around all of his established defenses that had kept people–and God–away from his life. If we were to “battle” at a philosophical or theological level we would not have gotten through to this sophisticate. In a sense we broke the rules and were not “fighting fair.” We sneaked in the back door of his life where he was least expecting it–his heart–and made a significant impact.
When the afternoon was over, we had washed 40 plus cars. Surprisingly, almost everyone accepted prayer when we offered it. Our group stood in a circle, prayed and cried together. We began to feel the pain of those we had served that day.
Since that time six years ago we have tried over forty creative outreaches. Almost all of them have worked extremely well at putting us in touch with the community.
Reaching out to touch the community has been the key to the significant growth we have experienced. Last year alone we touched over 60,000 people in our community. Our fellowship has grown from 35 people six years ago to about 1,600 in three services on Sundays. We have also planted six other fellowships in the Cincinnati area. What has happened here has caused us to see evangelism with new eyes.
Seeing the “Process” of Evangelism
Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3:6 transformed our view of evangelism: “I planted, Apollos watered, and God gave the increase…” Paul saw evangelism as a process, a view unlike our American mindset that focuses mainly on “closing the deal.” According to Paul’s agricultural analogy, harvesting comes after much planting and watering. Americans naturally value the harvest aspect of evangelism. Our culture extols results and “the bottom line.” Paul, however, valued the early stages of evangelism groundwork, as well as the final loop of the evangelism process.
Paul states a general principle of farming: the more you plant and water,the more you will eventually harvest. Because of the American church’s credibility gap, we must first willingly demonstrate love before we’ll earn the right to share the words of love with our society. We must learn to value what I call the “first 90%” of evangelism–the planting and watering–before we begin to see significant harvesting.
I define evangelism in this simple way:
Deeds of God’s Love
Words of God’s love
Deeds of kindness and love give us entrance into peoples’ hearts. We design our deeds to relieve their pain and cause them to ask us, “Why are you doing this for me?” The deed of love or service is the initial seed planted in the hearts of people. As we serve people we tell them of God’s love by sharing the gospel message to whatever level they are open. Then, after a season (that amount of time is unique to each individual), the Holy Spirit begins to work on the hearts of those seekers.
(See chart of suggested outreaches at end of article)
This approach to evangelism puts the pressure squarely on God instead of pressuring people or a program. I don’t think people can take that sort of pressure–I have found that people become guilt ridden when pressure for doing evangelism is put on their shoulders. We determine to have fun when going out to serve the community and leave the results with God. We have adopted a motto coined by George Bernard Shaw: “Anything worth doing is worth doing wrong.”
To date we have seen many come into relationship with Christ. By coming to “pre-Christians” with a desire to serve them and relieve their pain we avoid battling in a mental or verbal arena and go right to their hearts. I haven’t seen much fruit in trying to convert people at a head-to-head Level–apologetics, telling, arguing–but a heart-to-heart witness is hard to resist. As we go for the hearts of people we bypass their defenses.
Paul echoed this thought in Romans 2:4 “it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance…” Kindness is a key that opens hearts. Kindness opened one man’s heart to God when we were doing a “Free Lawn Care” outreach. We had loaded a couple of mowers and rakes into a truck and drove around until we saw long grass. We approached his house and knocked on the door to tell him what we were up to. Through the screen door this man barked, “What do you want?” We gave him the brief explanation; without even looking up, his response was simply, “Yeah, whatever…”
He sat motionlessly in front of the TV watching a Reds baseball game. We mowed enthusiastically–we sometimes call it “Power Mowing” in the Vineyard–and finished in about 30 minutes. We stopped by to tell him we were done and ask if we could pray for any needs in his life. He said he didn’t have any needs. As we stepped away from the door, one young man in the group said he was sure this man was in great emotional need and that we ought to insist on praying for him. We turned around and prayed a
simple little prayer, “Come Holy Spirit and touch this man’s pain, whatever it is.” The response was instant and surprising–he erupted in deep sobbing, grabbing the nearest person in the circle and wetting his shoulder with tears for some minutes. As the crying died down, he told us his son had been arrested the night before for stealing a car to support a drug habit. That day God’s presence and power penetrated this man’s pain and isolation in a tangible way…because we were willing to cut a little grass.
You and your church can begin to reach out to your city in significant ways through Servant Evangelism outreaches. This approach can be condensed in the phrase: “Low Risk–High Anointing” activity.
Risk – “the cost”: emotionally
Anointing – the “God factor”
Risk has to do with the “cost” of the given outreach. Cost comes in a variety of ways other than money–emotional, time, energy. The “anointing” factor has to do with how much of God’s blessing and presence in the given outreach is necessary for something significant to happen. I have done ministry that has been so heavily programmatic, there was little need for God to show up to insure success in the ministry. We need to sponsor outreaches that are easy enough for the average layperson to succeed in and almost impossible to fail at. If our approach to ministry requires an Olympic level of skill then we will have only a small percentage of our people reaching out.
In other words, it doesn’t take much gifting, or much money or even much boldness to begin to affect large numbers of people. But as we step out to do these acts of love, God in his mercy shows up in “high anointing” ways. So how do you get started in opening closed hearts to God’s love?
1: Begin to ask the Lord to show you the pain of your city.
Ask the Lord for the gift of knowing and identifying your community’s pain. Every city is unique in its problems, hurts and pain. What Cincinnatians feel as a need will differ from the needs of your city. Cincinnati has long and wet winters that leave road salt on cars. During the cold weather months we offer free de-salting washes. Cold weather also gives us a chance to give out free coffee at grocery stores. There’s a park in Toledo where many parents walk about with their families on pleasant summer days. A Vineyard pastor there has photo teams that walk about the park offering to take a picture of the families for free–“just because God loves you.” They place a sticker on the back of the picture with the church name and phone number. I believe those families will save pictures taken of them for years. Every time they look at that picture they recall the kindness of the Christians that served them.
One thing is for sure: As you begin to address that pain with the mercy and compassion of the Lord, you will draw a crowd. Few of the unchurched are looking for church. Everyone is looking for relief from their pain.
2: Begin to meet the practical needs of your city.
In other words, scratch them where they itch. Robert Schuller says, “Find a hurt and heal it.” As you to begin to look at the needs in each stratum of your city, you’ll begin to see some of what God sees.
A friend of mine pastors a church in a college town in Colorado. They do servant evangelism by going door-to-door in the dorms offering to clean dorm rooms for free “just because God loves you.” They are beginning to see a lot of curious college students coming to their fellowship. They have a second outreach to the students of providing free tutoring to students and then praying for success on the upcoming test.
3: You step out first. Most pastors I know aren’t natural evangelists. However, we have all been called to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5). Your people will listen to all you teach and talk about, but they really won’t do more than you as the primary leader does. By nature, pastors are often more Bible ‘studiers’ than Bible ‘doers.’ When I take personality inventories I consistently come up a borderline introvert, but I find these low risk outreaches feasible for me.
I look forward to mobilizing more outreaches into the community. We are now using our small groups as our primary force for doing these projects.Just think what could happen if it became commonplace for each small group to do an outreach like that monthly. It’s exciting to consider thesort of impact a church could make if it’s organized to serve its way into the hearts of the community.
Steve Sjogren is pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cincinnati North. Steve hopes to expand his ideas on servant evangelism into a full-length book sometime in the next year.
The chart that originally appeared with this article has been “translated” as follows:
The PROJECT is followed by:
1. Concept – short description of the project
2. Equipment needed (The “cards” mentioned refer to business cards that should have your fellowship’s name, phone number, meeting times and easy-to-follow map on the back)
3. People needed
PROJECT: OUTDOOR WINDOW WASHING
1. Wash 1st floor windows
3. 2 or more
4. One time purchase of squeegees – not too expensive
5. 50 or more
PROJECT: YARD CLEAN-UP
1. Look for messy yards
2. Cards, trash bags, rakes
3. 2 or more
PROJECT: EASTER BASKET GIVE-AWAY
1. Every child wants an Easter basket
2. Cards, baskets. We put in candy, Christian literature, Christian tapes.
3. 2 or more
4. Costs vary from $3 to $5 per basket
PROJECT: RAINY DAY GROCERY ESCORT
1. Help shoppers to cars with packages
2. Cards, gold umbrellas
3. 2 or more
5. Rainy days
PROJECT: POLAROID PICTURES IN THE PARK
1. Find lonely people or couples at the park and “shoot” them
2. Cards (or use stickers for back of photos), cameras
3. 2 or more
4. Film & initial outlay for cameras (About $ .75 per photo)
PROJECT: WINDSHIELD WASHING AT SELF-SERVE GAS STATION
1. Revive the practice of free windshield washing with fill-up
2. Cards, squeegees, squirt bottles, red rags, cleaner
3. 2 or more
4. Initial purchase of equipment – minimal
5. Prefer clear weather. If it’s too hot the cleaner will evaporate.
PROJECT: HOUSE/APT. REPAIR
1. Fix broken things.
2. Cards, basic tool kit
3. 2 or more capable repair people. Don’t send unskilled – they can make things worse.
4. Limit your work to your budget. We do a lot of winterizing at low cost.
PROJECT: HOUSE/APT. DORM CLEANING
1. Who doesn’t need their place cleaned?
2. Cards, vacuum cleaners, brooms, trash bags
3. 2 or more
5. Any weather – may need to call ahead or work from referrals
PROJECT: WINTER CAR WASH
1. Spray off salt and road grime
2. Cards, coffee, wands to spray off underside of cars.
3. 10 or more
5. Don’t attempt this is weather below 20 – could freeze door locks
PROJECT: SUMMER CAR WASH
1. Free car wash! We use banners that say “Free Car Wash – No Kidding”.
2. Cards, basic wash equipment, banners. Can also serve drinks, play music, provide lawn chairs.
3. Minimum of 12 – prefer 25-30. We do 2-3 cars at once. Designate an “evangelist” to talk to the people.
4. Minimal – We often use a sport bar’s parking lot and pay for the water.
5. Above 60. Overcast days don’t work well. People won’t stop if it looks like rain.
PROJECT: LEAF RAKING
1. Who like to rake leaves? We do it for them.
2. Cards, rakes, bags
3. As few as 2 – the more the merrier and easier
4. Minimal – you can own your own rake for $3.98…
5. About any type, but it’s tough raking leaves in wet weather
PROJECT: CHRISTMAS GIFT WRAPPING
1. Everyone needs their Christmas gifts wrapped. Do it at the mall for free!
2. Cards, wrapping paper, tape, scissors, etc. Build simple kiosk or booth. For suppliers call 513-671-0422.
3. Lots of people needed. Depending on mall traffic, you will need a variety. Use 3-10 per shift.
4. Though costly, can cost as little as $.10 per gift with the right suppliers. Scissors, etc. can be used again.
5. If wrapping at an inside location, weather is not a problem.
PROJECT: LAWN CARE
1. Find unkempt lawns and go for it.
2. Cards, basic mowing or more, depending on your desire (edging,trimming, etc.)
3. 2 or more
4. Cost of gasoline, oil and bags
5. It’s easier to mow dry grass than wet grass
PROJECT: COKE GIVE-AWAY IN TRAFFIC JAMS
1. On a hot day, nothing refreshes like a cold drink in Jesus’ name.
2. Cards, drinks, ice, clean plastic trash cans for storing cans on ice, table.
3. Minimum of 10
4. About $.10 per unit, when buying in quantities. We give out 400+ drinks. Ice varies.
5. Warm or hot weather
PROJECT: FREE COFFEE AT GROCERY STORES
1. Set up tables at the store exit and serve hot coffee on cold days
2. Cards, table, 2-3 containers, cups, creamers, sugar, stirrers, sign: “Free Coffee”.
3. 3 or more
5. Cool or cold weather (Unless in Seattle where coffee goes over year-round)
PROJECT: FREE COFFEE AT SPORTING EVENTS
1. Hit football, basketball, hockey events in parking lot
2. Cards, table, 2-3 containers, cups, creamers, sugar, stirrers, sign.
3. 3 or more
5. Cool or cold weather
PROJECT: WINDSHIELD WASHING
1. Go to a shopping center, and hit every car in the lot.
2. Squeegees, squirt bottles with cleaner, red shop rags, cards (should read: “While you were away from your car, people from the Vineyard Christian Fellowship washed your windshield. We hope we did a good job.”) – Of course, if you do not belong to a Vineyard, you may want
to substitute your own fellowship’s name…3. 1 or more – It’s more fun with more people
5. Does not work well in weather over 75.
PROJECT: GROCERY STORE BAG PACKING
1. Go to a self-bagging grocery store and help people bag groceries
2. Cards, maybe matching apron button – “just because…”
3. 2 or more
4. No cost
5. Good inclement weather project
PROJECT: PICTIONARY IN THE PARK
1. Start playing pictionary and strangers somehow show up.
2. Cards, white board and markers, pictionary.
3. 5 or more
5. Warm weather – Spring or Summer
PROJECT: BALLOON GIVE-AWAY
1. Go to a park and give balloons and cads to children with parents
2. Cards, helium tanks, balloons
3. 2 or more
4. Balloons & helium are about $.10-.15 per child.
5. Any weather when people are at the park
This article was originally published in “Equipping The Saints,”
the quarterly magazine of Vineyard Ministries International. For
a one-year subscription (four issues), send $8.00 to Vineyard
Ministries International (VMI), P.O. Box 68025, Anaheim, CA
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