Evangelism brings Renewal
Time and time again new converts
begin the process of renewing
the church and individuals in it.
Evangelism can lead to renewal and on to revival of the church. I have seen this in my experience in ministry in the last sixteen years as someone committed to the renewal of people and churches.
We need to release the dedicated and already discipled people of our parishes and churches into sharing their faith with those outside the church. This is a strategy for renewal that will lead to the revival of the church in the 1990’s.
Time and time again new converts begin the process of renewing the church and individuals in it. Their fresh approach to religion, their radical testimonies to the faith, and their enthusiasm to share the gospel and to live in its power, affect many others.
Does it work? Let’s look at one parish I know really well where I served for seven years.
Evangelism leads to revival
Margaret Matthews, a nurse and an elder in the Cobden Uniting Church Parish, gave this account at the Conference on Conversion Growth in Launceston, Tasmania, 1012 March, 1988. It describes her experiences of both personal and parish-wide renewal that started with evangelism.
Cobden is in the heart of a dairying district in Western Victoria, and a recent decision to expand the local factory has assured the future viability of the town. Our population of 1,450 is stable. We all know our neighbours. Our parish has two churches, both of which now have active Sunday Schools, youth groups and fellowship groups. Bible studies are an integral part of our life, catering for all levels of faith from 13 to 84 year olds. All participate in the leadership of worship. We started evening services with a more relaxed, informal worship style where newcomers felt more at ease.
Our growth story really began many years ago, when during a prolonged time of ministerial vacancy we were visited by an evangelist who challenged us to pray for revival in our church. A small group gathered together following the lines suggested:
that we share the leadership,
pray for the church and each other, and
bring a name before the group and pray that God would prepare their hearts as we approached them and shared his Word.
We saw our prayers answered and we saw our fellowship grow to 2030 people who met under our first minister after the formation of the Uniting Church in 1977.
Like most of our generation, we clung to the concepts we had grown up with: preaching the gospel was the minister’s job and bringing newcomers to the church was no longer our responsibility. We lost our sense of purpose and our direction for several years. Our numbers began to dwindle and although we continued to pray that others might come to know the Lord, we were almost back to the original six or seven of us.
A new minister arrived. Hearing our prayer for revival and seeing us do nothing actively to bring it about, she organized an evangelism workshop for our Presbytery and persuaded eight of us to go to it. For myself, it was a real step of faith. I had forgotten how easy it had been, with the Lord’s help, to share my faith with friends, and now we were being asked to knock on stranger’s doors a terrifying thought!
It became our ministry to make those strangers into friends:
getting to know people,
listening and ministering to their needs,
sharing their stories,
sharing our story and God’s story,
depending on God to do the rest.
We all came home from the workshop inspired to put what we had learned, into practice. We set aside one night each week to go visiting on a regular basis. We first met for prayer to ask the Lord to prepare the way and to go with us, and those of our group who did not go out joined together to pray for those who did. After our visit we returned to the church to talk it over, to learn from each other’s experiences, to get any hurts or knockbacks off our chests, and to share any blessings with those who stayed behind to pray.
To our surprise, after a few weeks, we realized we were enjoying this experience and started looking forward to it. We found that our little team of eight just couldn’t keep up with all the people who would like us to return for a visit. There was a great thirst out there beyond our church of people wanting to know more about the Lord, about the church, or wanting to share the hurt that took them away from the faith in the past.
About twelve months later, a second evangelism workshop was organized by our own and neighbouring parishes. Now many others in the church could see the importance of evangelism and most of our elders and several of our converts attended it. By then, I had begun a Bible Study home cell for some of the new converts who had no background of Christianity, but a wonderful new faith which was to change their lives, and lead me into a deeper faith commitment.
I didn’t start out to be an evangelist. I didn’t have that burning desire to share my faith with everyone I met, which I found among our converts. My visiting was an act of obedience to God’s will for us to share the gospel with all people. It was a stepping out in faith on the road that takes you from `What can God do for me?’ to `What can I do for God?’
Margaret, through the witness of her converts, later sought the infilling of the Holy Spirit and today not only continues to share her faith but is a mighty preacher and dynamic Bible Study teacher. From the witness of these early evangelists and those who were converted to the faith, the parish grew by 135% on their adherents roll and by 26% in four years (198387) in their confirmed members’ roll. In 1988, the 241 regular Sunday worshippers included 121 of the people who had faith for longer than ten years and 119 (49%) of the people having come to faith in the last five years (between 198388). In 1989, 94% of those converted to the faith were still regular attenders at worship (some now 6 years old in their faith).
Revival first started in this parish because an evangelist came and proclaimed the gospel. That gave others a hunger to do the same. It almost failed when a minister arrived during a prolonged vacancy and the people abdicated their responsibility to him, but it was later revived by another minister. As the converts grew in faith and hungered for a deeper expression of their faith, they sought, received and began to use their spiritual gifts. It led them into a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit. This influenced the established church to reevaluate itself and to also grow in renewal.
Renewal that brings revival
Our strategies in the church for bringing renewal have at times been wrought with force, causing judgment, mistrust and resistance. This resistance in the church can gravely hurt those in the renewal movement. So they have at times left the churches that would not accept their way or stayed in their church and developed a ghetto mentality of `we-they’ that made it harder for others to see renewal as an option for their lives.
In past years, the renewal movement often concentrated on changing worship to allow all the spiritual gifts to be prevalent and seen by sceptics and nonbelievers alike, thinking that this would aid in renewing others. Signs and wonders, although reaching some and exciting them to seek renewal, also frightened many more and turned them right off renewal.
A strategy for the renewal of the church needs to be more than just a change of worship where signs and wonders can be evident. Renewal demands a more radical lifestyle and call to ministry than this. When this change is seen in others, the people in the church do respond.
Here is an anatomy of renewal that I believe leads to revival:
1. Evangelists proclaim the message of salvation and people are converted to faith.
2. The converts grow in faith and hunger for a deeper expression of their faith. They seek, receive and use the spiritual gifts leading them into a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit which influences the established church to reevaluate itself and to also grow in the area of renewal.
3. The church then needs to understand and standardize the use of the spiritual gifts from good biblical teaching moving the people away from experience as the authority for the use of spiritual gifts to good theology about their use.
4. Converts and those who grew up in the faith examine their lives in light of God’s Word,
showing a desire for deeper service to the Lord and a hunger for righteous and holy living.
Evangelism renewal revival
The Reformation revivals of the 1500’s, the Great Awakening of the 1700’s, or the South Australian revivals in the mines at Wallaroo, Moonta and Burra at the turn of this century, follow this common pattern: evangelism renewal revival (in that order).
First, evangelists went out and proclaimed the gospel. The gospel they proclaimed emphasiszd a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and an individual religious experience rather than the doctrines of the church. Many people fell under the conviction of these evangelists’ proclamation of the gospel and received salvation.
As these converts grew in faith, they began to hunger for a deeper expression of their faith and began seeking, receiving and using the spiritual gifts God uses to build the church. That led them into a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit. This greatly influenced the preaching of the evangelists and their message.
When revival got to this second stage evangelists like John and Charles Wesley shifted from their basic salvation message of the early days of revival to sermons on a deeper discipleship and on walking in the power of the Spirit of God. This led to them establishing Bible studies, encouraging lay people to take up leadership roles in every giftedness of the Spirit, and it eventually led to the established church of their day reevaluating itself and growing in renewal.
This process also happened in the Reformation revival where the reformers shifted from the basic salvation message of their earlier days to deeper discipleship which led to the established church (the Catholic Church) reevaluating itself and having a revival itself influenced by such people as St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, some 40 years after the Reformation.
This leads to the third phase of revival. In every succeeding generation when renewal comes, the church all over again, needs to learn how to understand and use the spiritual gifts given to them by God. So, the next phase of revival seems to be standardizing the use of the spiritual gifts and how they are to be ordered and used in the life of the church. Every new generation of revivalists find themselves in unchartered waters. So it takes time to sort out problems with the use of spiritual gifts and ensure that there is sound Biblical teaching on them.
Often those in the renewal movements, excited to experience the power of their faith, rush into using the gifts (and having `the experience’) rather than doing serious biblical study in order to bring others with them in good understanding. The `experience’ is not enough. We need good renewal theology that is strong enough to be debated.
The last phase of revival seems to be an inner desire of both converts and those who grew up in the faith to examine their lives in light of God’s Word, a desire for deeper service to the Lord and a hunger for righteous and holy living. This was very evident in the Great Awakening revival where evangelists later in the revival clearly shifted their proclamation of the salvation message to the preaching on holiness and righteous living (such as the sermons of the American revivalist of the early 1700’s, Jonathan Edwards).
The history of the church, shows long periods (which sadly follow great revivals) where the gospel is reduced by many in the church to narrow relativism. Pragmatism is rife. This leads to a suspicion of the supernatural, and for a while the church loses the power of its faith from lack of belief in the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s gifts. The church in this condition seldom goes out to do evangelism but is content with social work and political statements.
Therefore, for renewal of the church to be effective today and for it to issue out into revival, we must first start with evangelism.
Revival involves mission and ministry
The following comments show how the personal encounter of the Holy Spirit by converts led the church to reevaluate its life, moving them into renewal. It caused them to explore the use of spiritual gifts by good Biblical teaching and discipleship. That moved people away from experience as the only authority for the use of spiritual gifts to good theology about their use.
These quotes are from talks that Cobden people gave at the Launceston 1988 Conversion Growth Workshop sponsored by the Uniting Church Assembly’s National Mission and Evangelism Committee.
Barbara Cowley, the Cobden Parish treasurer and a mother of two, says, “I have always believed in God and have attended Sunday School and church most of my life. In our courting days, my husband used to come to church with me, but after we were married he always found himself too busy to come. Our two children were baptized and attended Sunday School regularly, our daughter especially so, and our son until the age of 10 when he rebelled about going.
“When my daughter finished Sunday School and didn’t want to attend church anymore, I went to church by myself but my attendance started to drop off. At about that time my husband started exploring his faith. This encouraged me and we started attending church as a family. Since then, both our children have made decisions for the Lord at different times.
“Since being baptized in the Holy Spirit, my eyes have been opened to the workings of the Lord. Even though I had been involved in attending church all my life, it’s only in the last couple of years that my faith has come alive in attending our Bible Study group, which has helped me grow in my walk with the Lord.”
Hazel and the late Norm Maskell, dairy farmers, church elders, and Cobden Parish’s original evangelists in their mid70’s, led cell groups. Hazel and Norm said, “Why did we form study or cell groups? We believed that the church would not or could not grow until our people came together to study God’s Word, understand his gifts and to build each other up in faith. Those we brought to faith needed nurturing and encouraging. So our study groups came into existence one by one.
“These converts were more teachable than some of the older folk in the faith. Being eager to learn, they were wide open to Bible teaching and getting to know the Lord in a real way. Their growth was astounding, causing our growth too! We have seen miracles happen and now we see many of these new Christians taking leading roles in our church life alongside of us. I have found that new Christians pray out loud, share faith, and learn far more easily than we who have been in the church for some time, because they have no preconceived ideas. Almost any Bible Study member in our church will pray on the spot publicly. They thank God for various things, confess their own shortcomings, and pray for others. Now almost half the congregation will participate in prayer or the leading of worship whenever asked to do so. The result of these Bible Study groups is that our church has not only grown in numbers, but more importantly, we understand the Holy Spirit so much better and know the Spirit to be working in our church. We older folk have learned so much and grown closer to the Lord.”
Sometimes there may be difficulties for the church when it tries to assimilate not only new people into the life and especially the leadership structure of the church, but also starts reevaluating itself in light of the testimonies of these new converts and their walk with the Lord.
Most people within our church will say ‘we need new blood, some fresh faces and especially we need more younger folk to keep us going.’ However, once there is new blood, fresh faces, and younger folk coming into our churches, many old-timers may feel that the ‘new folk have taken us over and have made so many changes that we don’t know what’s going on anymore, so we will just stay at home and let them run it!’
Church growth in evangelism and renewal means that we, too, as individuals have to grow and be renewed. Many people resist this. Sometimes, church growth can only happen by berthing a new church that’s separate from the established church. This happened both in the Reformation and Great Awakening Revivals and it did most recently in the 1970’s and 1980’s. However, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Although the Cobden Parish had some battles and upheavals from its evangelism and renewal, division was averted by hospitality fellowship, Bible Study and shared worship. The leadership shared in hospitality fellowship, that is, intentionally inviting old-timers in the church to meals and gatherings with converts and helping them to get to know and to interpret their faith journey to each other.
The Bible Studies started out to disciple converts. Then, as people in the church started to reevaluate their faith journey through their contacts with the converts and hungered to know more, Bible Studies were set up for them too. Later, converts and those of long standing in the church merged many of their separate Bible Studies together where they learned to pray and care for one another.
Another important aspect of the Bible Studies, was the curriculum the Parish wrote to train people about the infilling of the Holy Spirit and the proper use of the spiritual gifts. When members discovered their own spiritual gifts, they were encouraged to take up their ministry roles within the life of the church. For converts this usually occurred by the end of their first year in the faith.
Shared worship took the form of setting up eight worship teams of six people each, chosen across generations and from each of the worshipping congregations. Each member of the team had a designated area of leadership: prayers, music, administration of the team, children’s sermon, the sermon, the organisation of the service sheet, announcements and the Bible readings. They had to listen to each other’s needs and they developed a style of worship that all were happy with and that was open enough to be able to evolve, as the parish needs changed.
We see that evangelism starts the process of renewal which brings revival. Renewal leads to a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit as the converts of the church’s evangelistic outreach grow in faith and hunger for the power of their faith, seeking, receiving and using the Spiritual gifts. This renewal leads to the established church reevaluating itself and either blockading and resisting renewal, or growing in it.
Renewal leads to discipleship training in and standardizing the use of the spiritual gifts with good Biblical teaching and the development of an articulate theology that can be debated. Discipleship leads to a radical lifestyle where one has a desire for a deeper service to the Lord, a greater knowledge of God’s Word and a hunger for righteous and holy living.
When the church misses one of these parts revival doesn’t happen. For instance, in studying several charismatic churches, I have discovered that if a church tries to bring in renewal before it does evangelism, it often gets a huge amount of transfer growth from other churches which leads to divisions and it eventually goes into decline.
If renewal doesn’t follow on into good discipleship, the church folk often get stuck on the experiences of the Holy Spirit and cannot articulate a clear enough theology so that they can take others into the experience with them in good understanding. Often these churches can become quite ingrown and in a denominational structure be quite divisive.
If discipleship does not produce a radical lifestyle, the church does not benefit others. Then it runs the risk of not only privatizing a person’s faith journey, but also of making one’s experience the only test of the validity of other people’s faith. It also means that the church remains at the level of signs and wonders instead of moving into a deeper discipleship with Jesus where one is sold out to him in complete sacrifice in holy living.
Jesus said to the doubting Thomas, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe’ (John 20:29). Signs and wonders are for nonbelievers (1 Corinthians 14) but a radical lifestyle of a disciple is for the mature Christian.
Many church leaders spend so much effort in renewing a congregation from within. I firmly believe that a congregation should be renewed from without, through evangelism and the converts that receive their message.
Then evangelism will lead to renewal and revival in the land.
Now available in updated book form (republished 2011)
Renewal Journal 2: Church Growth