Evangelistic Momentum 5: The Example of Acts 16
In the final part of this series on building evangelistic momentum, Ray Evans takes Acts 16 as his starting point to stimulate us to action.
I know that many leaders struggle to build evangelistic momentum in their churches. That’s why this five-part series is so important and why we’ve taken our time to work through the practical implications. We’ll conclude in Acts 16.
It’s a phenomenal passage. It shows us that before we talk about strategy and tactics, for which we are responsible to some degree, we must live in the realm and be under the authority of the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).
The chapter starts with the after-burn of a difficult time for Paul (and Barnabas), but we soon find him investing in others (vs 1-4). Then comes the mystery of the Holy Spirit twice saying, ‘No’ to mission in certain places, before he says, ‘Yes’ to a mission trip to Europe (vs6-10). It is God’s prerogative to close doors as well as open doors for effective work (1 Cor 16:9). ‘Moment-by-moment dependence upon the Holy Spirit’ (as Schaeffer used to say), is so necessary. In this passage, this emphasis comes, very markedly, prior to human planning.
Then are the three (deliberately chosen) stories of how God reached the diverse community in Philippi. Far more than a description, it is highly suggestive, though not normative, for our own practice.
A rich religious woman is in a place where the word is explained. Significantly, Luke tells us the secret of success, ‘the Lord opened her heart’ (v14b). Then came a slave girl, economically and demonically possessed, who is released by God’s power and grace. Then there is that man of honour, the jailer. You cannot organise earthquakes to happen in the middle of the night! But you can be ready to make the most of the opportunities God gives (Col 4:5).
The stories aren’t there to crush us, or to shame us, but to encourage us and stimulate us to action. They ask us: Do we have pathways in place to get people under the word? Have we tactics to reach out to our equivalent of slave girls? Are we preparing people to, ‘go and tell’ when God opens up a way?
Let’s look at all three.
1. Come and See
Getting people under the word in one kind of setting or another can be both ‘organic’ and ‘organised’. The church needs its members to be outward facing, willing to invite people, and then able to explain good news to those with whom they have contact.
According to Bennett’s research most adults in Britain get converted by being invited to somewhere where they hear the good news.1 They may need multiple exposures to it, both in formal meeting contexts and through many personal conversations. The Lord can work very fast of course, but it seems that most need to hear the gospel many times before they experience regeneration.
Pretty much everything the church organises is dependent on this personal ‘organic’ involvement of individual believers with people they know. Without loving contact with people, invites can feel a bit like a sales pitch. Which flops.
Of course, this can be hard work. Christians have to ‘hang on in there’ with people, praying for them and not giving up if progress seems slow. We don’t know who first introduced Lydia to the God of the Bible before she was saved. We may need to persevere before we see the Lord grant salvation.
Leaders need to encourage Christians in the biggest challenge of all, which is to take ‘a courageous way in’ not ‘a cowardly way out’ of a conversation when God provides opportunities. I often recognise this is the failing in my heart - not a lack of knowledge of what to say, nor a lack of opportunities, but fear. No wonder the command, “Don’t be afraid” is the most common in Scripture, and often related to outreach (Acts 4:21-31).
When we think of a person’s journey to faith, we need to think creatively about running church-organised events to which they can be invited. I have mentioned that ‘going large’ at Christmas is helpful, and I have written about using Remembrance Sunday.2 But there is endless scope for innovation.
At Grace Community Church, we have also found it helpful to have courses mapped out ahead of time. We use Explore as an ‘entry level’ for those who show some interest, and Identity as a follow up, as it contains further gospel explanation.3 There is always one on the go to provide a clear pathway for someone on the journey to faith.
2. Care and Serve
What is our equivalent of the slave girls? They have to be reached with a greater deliberate intentionality. The cost, effort, time, money, and pain is so much greater.
You may know needy people personally. But without some back-up from other Christians, you may soon be out of your depth. If it’s right to help organise care for those inside the church (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Timothy 5:3-16), and if we are exhorted to do good to all people especially the family of believers (Gal 6:10), then it isn’t a giant leap to argue that the church can organise and promote care for people outside the church as opportunities and resources allow.
As people are served in this way a relational bridge is built, over which words of gospel truth and grace can come. ‘They will see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Matt 5:16b) is speaking of the evangelistic impact of the life and testimony of Christians.
It is key that ‘word’ and ‘deed’ are not separated in all of this. Deed is done in genuine love, but it’s a ‘tough love’ that’s honest with people, for difficult conversations will always be necessary. As with all evangelistic endeavour, someone may walk away even as the truth dawns on them (e.g. Jesus and the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22).
Each individual church may not be able to organise a great deal. But something can be done to meet people at their point of felt need, and then caring service can provide a way in to someone’s life so that they can hear the gospel.
3. Go and Tell
The third tactic, or pathway, is Luke showing us that God can open opportunities in the most surprising of ways (Acts 16:23-34). Here a relative stranger came to a crisis in his life. The Christians were on hand to bring him words of hope.
Our culture is one devoid of real hope. It is a ‘here and now’ world of experiences, enjoyment, and pleasures. But it is only a matter of time until life circumstances induce fear and uncertainty, the fun disappears and the only thing a person may have are past memories of better times. Our culture, as his, exhorts us to put a brave face on it, and to act honourably in the face of what will crush and kill us.
We need to prepare believers to take ‘the courageous way in’ at this point with something worth saying. ‘Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may answer everyone’ (Col 4:6). Answering everyone is not so much giving clever responses to theoretical issues, but pointing to the One to who is the ultimate answer to our deepest drives, needs, hopes and fears (see Acts 16:31).
At this point along the pathway of someone’s life journey, Christians can be exceptionally helpful if they are trained in communicating two key stories. Your story and His story.
A) How to share your story
On a cruise with my wife Jenny, I was struck by how often complete strangers will tell one another their stories at meal times. Often these are interesting and moving. Sometimes you may get asked to tell yours, but you will only have a couple of minutes. Jargon is useless, hesitancy confuses, and complexity bombs. How many of us can tell our story clearly (Col 4:4) without some prior preparation? It is worth getting it ready.
The story of Paul’s salvation comes three times in the book of Acts. Each time there is a very clear, ‘Before, During, and After’ structure of how the Lord met and changed him (Acts 9: 1-22; 21:37-22:21; 26:2-29). Recalling earlier comments about ‘scripted moves’, why don’t you prepare the believers you lead by teaching them how to succinctly share their own salvation stories?
B) How to share His story
This isn’t about formulaic gospel presentations, nor is it about dodging questions and discussions. But a clear explanation of gospel truth is what often helps people begin to understand.
Most outsiders assume ‘two ways to live’ pits an irreligious way with a religious one. They assume that you want them to become a religious do-gooder, which is what they think it’s all about. Explaining, ‘three ways to live’, with gospel grace as the third option, can overcome a major hurdle.
Bennett’s research found that ordinary Christians sharing these two kinds of stories was more effective than religious professionals (you and I!) doing so.
Our culture subtly forces us into a, ‘keep your head down and your mouth shut’ form of Christianity. The general ignorance and incredulity of our neighbours (recall Smith/Taylor’s analysis) tends to make us think, ‘What’s the point? They’ll never believe anyway!’ We need to help one another overcome that common feeling.
As a leader why not think about how you might do that - without spooking the elephant.
Getting all this going in the church requires supernatural, and human power. Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great discusses one of the great marks of an enduring organisation.4 He calls it, ‘The power of the flywheel’. To start with, getting momentum going seems impossible - so much energy for such little movement. At least at first. But as you keep ‘pushing’ key values, setting vital priorities, reminding everyone of the mission, and earnestly depending on God in prayer, the flywheel begins to move faster, and faster, so that it takes everyone along with it for less effort.
The evangelistic flywheel is well worth investing in and, besides devoted prayer, is the most important thing leaders can put their energy into.
Why not take these last few articles and discuss them with your leadership team and think of ways you can communicate more effectively and build greater evangelistic momentum, by God’s grace, in your church?
1. Dave Bennett, A Study of How Adults Become Christians (accessed on 01/05/19).
2. See Ray’s previous article, We Will Remember Them.
3. Explore is a modified version of the popular Christianity Explored course by Rico Tice and Barry Cooper (access information at christianityexplored.org); Identity is a course produced by Lee McMunn (10 Publishing, access information at identitycourse.com).
4. Jim Collins, Good to Great (Random House, 2001)