IRVING—A recurring theme emerged during a panel discussion March 5 at the Empower Evangelism Conference in Irving: Churches need to refocus on telling the lost about Jesus, regardless of which evangelistic method they use.
“The issue is whether we’ll be part of what God is doing or sit on the sidelines and watch,” Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said. “If our hearts are right, any strategy will work … It will work because we have a love for Christ and lost people that compels us to share.”
Along with Akin, the panel included Ronnie Hill, a vocational evangelist from Fort Worth; David Wheeler, evangelism professor at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Va.; and Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research in Nashville, Tenn. SBTC Evangelism Director Nathan Lorick moderated.
The recent decline in baptisms among Southern Baptist churches is due partly to demographics, Stetzer said, noting that many SBC congregations are in areas where the population is stagnant or declining. But part of the problem is also a lack of witnessing, he said.
“The promise of the Conservative Resurgence was that we would eventually agree on enough together that could we go reach the world for Jesus,” Stetzer said. “I’m ready for that to happen.”
Reversing the decline “is not going to happen on a seminary or LifeWay level,” he added. “Churches have to say, ‘We’ve been redeemed. This is worth telling.’ Southern Baptists need to tell the old story all over again.”
Though some argue door-to-door witnessing no longer works, panelists said it is still a viable method of evangelism, with Southerners being more open to home visits than people in any other region, Stetzer said.
Hill has been doing door-to-door witnessing for 10 years “and it still works,” he said, “but with organization. You’ve got to plan. But we’ve had results and we’ve seen people saved.”
Wheeler recommended combining servant evangelism with knocking on neighbors’ doors. He said service has created witnessing opportunities with his own neighbors, some of whom recently committed their lives to Christ. By giving them apple dumplings, raking leaves in their yard and performing other acts of service, he and his wife drove them to ask the motivation for such kindness—a perfect door for sharing Jesus, he said.
“Adopt five to 10 neighbors,” Wheeler said. “Start praying and ask God to give you opportunities to serve them.”
In terms of mass evangelism, panelists agreed that preachers must extend an invitation for people to repent of their sins and trust Christ for salvation. But they said an invitation must not always involve people walking to the front of a room to indicate commitment to Jesus.
“I don’t always ask people to come forward,” Akin said. “You don’t have to change geographic space to get them to respond. But I give an invitation when I do a wedding or a funeral. I teach students that when given an opportunity to speak to lost people, you’re guilty of ministerial malpractice if you don’t present the gospel and invite people to respond.”
Hill said a “come-forward invitation” is his preferred method of inviting people to trust Christ for salvation because it allows someone to counsel and pray with a new convert. He also advocated baptizing new believers as quickly as possible.
One key to evangelistic invitations is not manipulating people, Wheeler said. But in an effort not to manipulate, some Christians have overcorrected by stopping invitations altogether, he said.
Another point of agreement among panelists was the usefulness of vocational evangelists in the postmodern era. Stetzer noted that “the revival is a newer phenomenon than the gift of the evangelist” and said all churches don’t have to hold revival meetings. But Scripture commands evangelists to equip churches for the work of ministry, he said, and evangelists should train believers how to share their faith.
“We need more evangelists functioning in our churches than ever before,” he said.
On the question of how to begin an evangelistic conversation, the panelists said Christians should not always use the same lead-in to the gospel but discover a lost person’s needs and speak authentically.
Wheeler cited Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well as an example of how to relate to a non-believer interpersonally before delving into sin, repentance and faith.
“It’s not the cutesy little lines,” Wheeler said. “It’s the authenticity. The woman at the well wanted to know who Jesus was because a man hadn’t looked at her who didn’t want something from her,” but Jesus was willing “to engage” and “affirm her humanity.”
In the end, every church does not need to have the same evangelistic strategy, but every church must do something to reach lost people for Christ, panelists said, even if that means diverting energy and resources away from other worthy programs.
“We have churches that are really, really, really busy doing lots of good, good, good things, but to the neglect of the most important things,” Akin said. “And I would rather see our churches do less and do the most important things better than do many things and do many things well and leave the most important things neglected.”
—With reporting by Tammi Ledbetter