Servant Hearts: The Key To Effective Evangelism

Servant Hearts: The Key To Effective Evangelism
By: Steve Sjogren

It was the Friday evening before Labor Day and rush-hour traffic was backed up for almost a mile at the comer of our church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cincinnati. The temperature was 95 degrees with matching humidity. About 10 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 drivers came to the stop sign, we asked,

“Would you like diet or regular?”
“Diet or regular 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. 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 onto a local radio station’s traffic report.


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 were high on enthusiasm and low on understanding about how people come to Christ. We had an over-simplified picture of what it meant to bring someone into a relationship with Jesus. Our model for evangelism worked extremely well in Southern California, but it depended on gifted leaders evangelizing 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 results.

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. Evangelizing during the Jesus Movement was like fishing during a salmon run. Almost anyone with minimal availability could “catch fish.”

Today we are no longer fishing in a salmon run. We haven’t seen days of “easy evangelism” for more than a decade. People aren’t 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 show me that you have integrity.” The scandals of prominent leaders in the body of Christ have made it more difficult than ever to share the gospel. Whatever the reasons, unchurched people are jaded by Christianity. 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. After being trained for the ministry at a large Vineyard church in Southern California, I moved my family to Cincinnati, Ohio, to start 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. Mark Twain observed it more than 100 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 starting a church with 1,000 people. Yet for all that effort we began our first Sunday with 35. That’s enough rejection to challenge Norman Vincent Peale. At that point we were unenthusiastic about evangelism. Mentioning the “E-word” caused us to feel guilty and reminded us of our failure to reach the community.


One day while sitting in a restaurant, having just told a visitor our vision for starting a church, 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 looking in Scripture for the types of people Jesus spent his short ministry with. I started to see something new. Although 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 Galilee, the “hurting” segment of Palestinian society.

I began to see Jesus’ friends as the ones who are in pain-pain from bad decisions they have made, pain from rejection, pain from living in a fallen world that knows little about God’s acceptance, forgiveness and love. Everyone has their own version of pain-those tension points that push 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 watch people. As I looked into the faces of person after person, I realized almost everyone was experiencing a significant level of misery. Jesus desired to touch and heal their pain. Somehow my job was to be around these people and minister to them. But how? I knew I was too shy to knock on doors. Besides, people seemed more skeptical to me than ever. I’d already had several hundred people say, “No,” when I invited them to be involved in the new church.

Then an idea began to form: If we could somehow ease some of the pain these people were going through – even for a moment – may be we would get their attention. By serving our way into their hearts, may be we could gain their ears.

As the idea of servant evangelism crystallized, my small group and I organized an “absolutely free car wash.” We stationed two people with signs along the road to direct dirty cars to the rest of the crew. We had several washing, some doing windows, some vacuuming, and a couple of “designated evangelists” sharing with people why we were doing it all. Many of our “customers” couldn’t believe we would do something for free – no strings attached.

The driver of the first car was a single mom with six squirming kids in her station wagon. 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. When we told him we were doing this for free, he said, “That’s nice.” Then 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 influential businessman wipe away the tears.

I believe he was touched because we detoured his established defenses, the ones that kept people – and God -away from his life. If we had “battled” those defenses philosophically, or at a theological level, we would have failed to get through to this sophisticate. In a sense we broke the rules; we didn’t “fight fair.” We sneaked in the back door of his life – into his heart – where he was least expecting it, and made a significant impact.

When the afternoon was over, we had washed more than forty cars. Surprisingly, almost everyone accepted prayer when we offered it. Afterwards, our group stood in a circle and prayed and cried together. We began to feel the pain of those we served that day.

Since that time six years ago, we have tried more than forty creative outreaches. Almost all of them have worked well at putting us in touch with our community. These kinds of projects have been the key to the significant growth we have experienced since that time. Last year alone we touched more than 60,000 people in our area. Our fellowship has grown from 35 people six years ago to about 1,600 today in three services on Sundays. We also have started six other fellowships in the Cincinnati area. What has happened here has caused us to see evangelism with new eyes.


Paul’s statement in I 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 one 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 a profitable bottom line. Paul, however, valued the early groundwork stages, as well as that final step in the evangelism process.

Paul states a general principle of fanning: 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 cam the right to share God’s words of love with our society. We must learn to value what I call the “first 90 percent” of evangelism-the planting and watering before we begin to see a significant harvest.

I define evangelism in this simple way:

Deeds of kindness and love give us an entrance into people’s hearts. We design our deeds to relieve their pain and cause them to ask us, “Why are you doing this for me?” ‘Me deed of love or service is the initial seed planted in their hearts. As we serve people we tell them about God’s love by sharing the gospel at whatever level they are open. Then, after a season (the amount of time is unique to each individual), the Holy Spirit begins to work in the hearts of these seekers.

This approach to evangelism puts the pressure squarely on God instead of on people or a program. I don’t think most people can take that sort of pressure. I have found that folks become guilt-ridden when they are pressured to evangelize. By contrast, we decide to have fun when we go out to serve the community-and leave the results to God.

To date, we have seen many people come to a relationship with Christ. By going to “pre-Christians” with a desire to serve them and relieve their pain, we avoid battling in a mental or verbal arena, and instead, go right to their hearts. I haven’t seen much fruit from trying to convert people at a “head-to-head” level, using apologetics andarguments. 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 when he said 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. After loading a couple of mowers and rakes into a truck, we drove around until we saw long grass. We approached the house and knocked on the door to tell the owner what we were up to. Through the screen door a man barked, “What do you want?” We gave him our brief explanation. Without even looking up, he responded simply, “Yeah, whatever.”

He sat emotionlessly in front of the TV set watching a Reds baseball game. We mowed enthusiastically-we call it “power mowing” in the Vineyard-and finished in about 30 minutes. We went back to the house to tell him we were done. When he came to the door we asked if we could pray for any needs in his life. “I don’t have any needs,” he said.

But 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 our group 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 his 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 a practical ministry to your city through servant evangelism outreaches. I sometimes call this approach “Low Risk-High Anointing.”

Risk relates to the cost of the outreach. Cost comes in a variety of forms other than money, such as emotion, time and energy. Anointing relates to how much of God’s blessing and presence is necessary for something significant to happen in the outreach. I have conducted ministry that was so heavily programmed there was little need for God to show up to insure its success. But, if our approach to ministry requires an Olympic level of skill, then only a small percentage of our people will be reaching out. What we need are outreaches that are easy enough for the average person to succeed at-ones where failure is almost impossible.

It doesn’t require a lot of spiritual giving, money or even boldness to start affecting large numbers of people. As we step out with acts of kindness and love, God, in His mercy, shows up.

So how do you start to open hearts that are closed to God’s love? Ask the Lord to show you the pain of your city. Every city is unique in its problems, hurts and pain. What Cincinnatians need may differ from the needs of your city. Cincinnati has long, 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, Ohio, where many families gather on pleasant summer days. A Vineyard pastor there has photo teams that go through the park offering to take photos of the families for free, “just because God loves you.” They place a sticker on the back of the pictures with the church’s name and phone number. Those families probably save the pictures for years. Every time they look at them, they recall the kindness of the Christians that served them.

One thing is certain: As you begin to address people’s pain with the mercy and compassion of the Lord, you will draw a crowd.

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 begin to look at the needs in each level 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 dormitories 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. A second outreach to the students provides free tutoring and then prayer for success on the upcoming test.

3) You step out first. Most pastors I know aren’t natural evangelists. However, we all have been called to do the work of an evangelist (see 2 Tim. 4:5). Your people will listen to all that you teach them, but they really won’t do more than they see you, as the leader, doing. By nature, pastors are often more Bible “studiers” than Bible “doers.” I consistently score as a borderline introvert on personality profiles.

So, I find these low-risk outreaches suitable for me. I look forward to mobilizing more outreaches to our community in Cincinnati. We now are using small groups as our primary work force for these projects. Just think what could happen if it became commonplace for each small group in a church to do one outreach of servant evangelism monthly!

Any church can have a significant impact on its community. All it must do is determine to serve its way into the hearts of the people.