What is working in reaching the spiritually lost in the Rose City with the gospel of Christ?
What is not?
Answers to those questions are being pursued. With a multitude of souls yet to be brought to faith locally, and with the need for workable strategies for evangelism quite obvious, a just-released study provides both insights and suggestions.
Titled Portland Evangelism Report, the study is based on about 50 interviews conducted with local pastors between October 2019 and July 2020 by two members of SharePDX, a team created in 2017 by the Luis Palau Association to boost local evangelism by supporting churches and encouraging collaborative efforts.
The two interviewers were Kirk Petersen, Northwest regional director for the evangelistic outreach Alpha USA, and Josh Chen, local representative for CRU, formerly Campus Crusade for Christ. Petersen and Chen worked in collaboration with Lizzie Burke and Kevin Palau of the Palau team.
Most of the interviews were in-person. When COVID-19 hit the area, interviews were conducted over Zoom.
And it was also in an online Zoom call with about 100 local church leaders on Feb. 25 that the study results were officially announced. In hosting the call, Kevin Palau emphasized that the study represents a desire to see churches and pastors working in concert, which is why SharePDX is part of a larger effort that has been in the works for years.
“We finally, after a dozen years, have come up with a name for the movement — TogetherPDX.org, where you’ll see that we now have a ‘Pastors PDX’ team,” Palau said. “This call is kind of a coming out party, to share under that name.”
The interviews with the pastors were boiled down in nine basic findings, summarized here from the study:
1. Evangelism culture starts with the leaders.
According to the study authors, behind every church that is passionate about evangelism is a lead pastor who makes it a priority and encourages it to be practiced by everyone in their church. For these pastors, it is their own daily dependence on the saving message of Jesus Christ that motivates that emphasis on evangelism.
2. There is a need to identify and empower evangelists “already among you” in churches and ministries.
Simple strategies for identifying potential evangelists were outlined, including:
•Look for the people who are regularly inviting new people to church (“super-inviters”) or who have led more than one person to Christ.
•Regularly ask “Who are the up-and-coming leaders” at elders’ meetings and staff meetings.
•Invite a local evangelist to speak at a Sunday gathering and see who in the congregation shows unusual interest.
•Affirm evangelistic gifting more quickly in new believers. Several pastors said new believers are their best evangelists.
•Connect newer evangelists to experienced evangelists for mentoring and encouragement.
3. Community service increases credibility – not Gospel conversations.
Churches vary considerably in their belief of whether community service is correlated to Gospel conversations. One pastor said, “If we mobilize a bunch of people with the gift of service, why would we expect a bunch of people to be evangelized?” Others view community service as a pathway to relationship and a greater openness to the Gospel. Still others say there is a direct correlation between community service and Gospel proclamation. Some pastors were able to share how people are in church on Sundays because they serve them during the week, but others were not able to share specific stories of Gospel conversations. One pastor shared with regret that they had been serving in their neighborhood for 10 years but could not point to one person who committed their life to Christ through these interactions with the church. Regardless of where a church stands, for evangelism to be integrated into community service it must be integrated purposefully, the study authors stated.
4. The Holy Spirit’s role in people coming to faith is essential, but overlooked.
The interviewers expressed surprise at how seldom the Holy Spirit was mentioned in their chats with pastors. Yet, in those conversations where the Holy Spirit was mentioned, they noted that there was always a connection to increased passion for evangelism and evangelistic fruit. Some of the pastors said they had themselves witnessed new expressions of the Spirit working. One pastor in Tualatin tells his congregation, “Be ready for the Holy Spirit moments. If it’s forced, it never works. Spend time with people and listen for God’s prompting.”
5. Most churches underestimate the impact of celebration.
Many of the pastors acknowledged they could do a better job celebrating people coming to and sharing their faith. While baptisms are often held, too few churches use baptisms to tell the stories of those life transformations, prayers, and seeds planted along the way. Some churches are also celebrating in unusual ways, such as sharing written or video testimonies alongside baptisms; having a “birthday”/baptism cake for new believers; or highlighting baptisms on social media. Also suggested is sharing current evangelism stories in small groups or including a short testimony during weekly announcements.
6. Sunday gatherings remain the primary focus for evangelistic outreach.
Sunday gatherings were a key strategy in more than two-thirds of the churches interviewed. Many pastors emphasized shaping their Sunday services and sermons so that non-believers would feel welcomed. Another lead pastor said he recognizes 15 percent of his congregation are not yet believers. He ends his sermons by communicating the Gospel in a simple way each Sunday so people are given the opportunity to respond to the Gospel and church members can have a memorable template they can adapt with their own words. But there also are areas of potential concern such as:
•Is there an over-reliance on pastors to do the work of evangelism?
•Does relegating evangelism to Sunday hinder churchgoers from learning to talk about uncomfortable topics with their loved ones?
•Should we lean our evangelism efforts on non-Christians attending church even as our culture moves further into post-Christendom and hesitancy to attend church increases?
•How can evangelism be moved beyond the pulpit and beyond one day per week?
7. Evangelism equipping without experience falls flat.
Churches in the Portland metro area employ many types of evangelism trainings. But just because a church holds evangelism trainings does not mean more evangelism is taking place. Many trainings one can envision taking place in a classroom. But very few classroom-oriented evangelism trainings overcame the main evangelism hurdles that pastors described: fear, apathy, and busyness. Knowledge is important, but without the experience of overcoming these hurdles, it is unlikely to see more evangelism take place. Furthermore, trainings that focus heavily on teaching what to say and how to say it develop a person’s mind but do not address the core identity of a believer. And all too often, one pastor pointed, out, people today don’t want to get trained in evangelism. The study outlined several ideas for how to develop training that people want to attend.
8. Prayer for the lost is lacking.
When asked about equipping their people to have spiritual conversations, only a few of the pastors interviewed mentioned prayer. While prayer gatherings are often happening in churches, prayer is all too often not intentionally connected with evangelism. Interestingly, when asked what was working in evangelism, more pastors did mention their church members praying for spouses, relatives, and neighbors.
9. Coming to faith is a longer journey.
These days, coming to faith seems to take more time, the study concluded. People have less familiarity with Christianity, more baggage from past church experiences, and — if a Christian — more hesitancy being open about their faith. Several pastors said people attend their church for six months to two years before committing their lives to Christ.
With this in mind, pastors are intentional about speaking to different groups in their sermons — from committed Jesus followers to skeptics and the spiritually curious. It is important to both value the journey and maintain a sense of urgency by providing frequent opportunities for people to take a next step or decide to follow Christ, the study states. Pastors also acknowledge that Gospel presentations and explanations need to start at a different place than they began 20 years ago. The questions and concerns society is raising are not about eternal destiny and cannot be fully explained walking through a tract. Instead, beginning a conversation around themes like identity, community and the image of God may be more culturally relevant starting places.
Rick McKinley, pastor of Imago Dei church in Portland, told the online video gathering that the findings of the study are insightful.
“This feedback is extremely helpful,” he said. “We have a unique challenge here in the Northwest. We know we have a long ways to go.”
To learn how to access the full report online, go to citygospelmovements.org/resource/portland-report