I minister at the Somerset Church of Christ in Somerset, PA. The question was brought to me around Thanksgiving 2012—“Could you teach a class on evangelism?” This was a great topic to teach because in 2012 I preached the entire year on the Great Commission. Yet, despite the polite pats on my shoulder week after week and the frequent “What a powerful and motivating sermon,” the numbers were beyond troubling—not one single new person was added to our small church in 2012. Either God had abandoned his church of 75 or we had fallen in love with the idea of evangelism but didn’t know how to actually evangelize (myself included). Something needed to change or we were one generation away from joining the ranks of the numerous Churches of Christ in the Northeast who are closing their doors for good.
This was going to be our ticket, a class on evangelism! Then I came across Matt Dabbs’ blog series on their Steps Outreach Ministry. One line struck me, (paraphrasing) “Isn’t Bible study our answer to everything?” Instead of teaching about evangelism, Matt had a vision for doing evangelism. This was my “aha” moment. A lifetime of “survival mode” church mentality flashed before my very eyes. I’ve been part of small churches my whole life. In my 33 years, I can only recall witnessing roughly 40 baptisms and I know of several of those who have left the church. How did we get to this point? 80% of the Churches of Christ are 100 members or less, yet we ministers are failing to equip the saints to evangelize a lost and dying world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have a deep love for small rural churches and am quite familiar with them—familiar enough to know that most of the ones I’ve visited or have ministered at are wrestling with their own survival. Many small churches have leaders who are worn out and members (including leaders) who simply do not know how to reach the lost. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they’ve never been taught by example.
Something had to change. I presented the idea of Steps Outreach to our tiny, tired Wednesday night group. We fleshed it out for a couple of months and in February of this year, decided to implement it. In 3 months, we more than doubled our Wednesday attendance, we’ve had close to 30 new local visitors with the majority of those having made us their church home, we had 4 baptisms this week, we have more demand for Bible studies than we have people to lead them, we have 4 new people who don’t read or write and who have never before found a church to accept them (one of those 4 was baptized last night!), and our boost in Sunday attendance has given worship a more meaningful direction and purpose for everyone who assembles.
There will be a follow up blog or two about how we actually do Wednesday nights. At the advice of my friend Matt, it is quite simple. Boiled down, we simply share our faith in Jesus with others. We love them. We welcome them. We teach them. And we make disciples of Jesus. That means everyone who comes in is intentionally cared for and assimilated into the Lord’s church. They all have a purpose. This takes time, but we are working to equip our new people just the same as our regular members. God can and will transform the small rural church if we allow Him to. To the frustrated minister and the worn out leaders of our small churches, I offer you this message: there is hope through Jesus Christ. Be willing to re-examine the way you do ministry and listen to God’s calling for you. Cast the Bible’s vision to reach a lost and dying world on your congregation and invite them to join you. Offer clear structure, direction and guidance, be flexible, and allow yourselves to be taught by members of the church as well as your new people. As in the case of our dear sister who was immersed on Wednesday, they have a lot to offer:
A note about Jimmy
I am proud to call Jimmy Hinton my friend. He and I first met at Harding University and again in graduate school at Harding School of Theology. Several months ago Jimmy and I were able to catch up and have a conversation about evangelism that was so encouraging to me. Since then, Jimmy has sent me several updates that have been a joy to me to read as God is bringing the increase in their congregation! Thanks Jimmy for writing such a powerful article on the way God is able to use us if we just make ourselves available!