Chapter 121

Evangelistic Preaching in the Local Church

The importance of laying out for a congregationt the central issue of the Christian faith. Doing evangelism as a pastor can be a different sort of thing than what Billy Graham or Luis Palau or some other full-time evangelist does. How can we, as pastors, evangelize well in the pulpit?

Haddon Robinson: Sometimes it's important to preach an evangelistic message, to lay out to a congregation the central issue of the Christian faith,

We have always used testimonies, but today the witness box has an appeal to people because that's the way life comes to them.

which is, how does a man or woman come into a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ? It could be helpful to announce to a congregation that, "Two weeks from now, if you've got non-Christian friends, folks who are still on the way to faith, have them come. I want the whole service to be devoted to getting across this basic message. "

Not every sermon can be, in that sense, an evangelistic sermon, or you'll ignore great truths of Scripture. But sometime, in the course of the year, there ought to be time set apart when you directly address that issue. Even for the Christians who come, it's always good to be reminded. So, one answer is you ought to preach an evangelistic sermon with non-Christians in mind, stated in terms they can understand, and illustrated in ways that would be true to their lives.

A second thing you can do as a pastor is, within any sermon, bring in an element of the gospel. For a non-Christian who attends church, the most attractive thing is to get a glimpse of what Christians know and the assurance Christians have. Several years ago, a friend of mine, who was not a Christian, said, "You folks don't realize how what you have seems so warm and good to those of us who are on the outside." He went on to say, "I think you're fooling yourselves, but you've got to know the most attractive thing you've got is that you have a hope, and all I look forward to is the grave. You have a purpose. You have something to live for. I go to work, come home, but I don't know what I live for. You can't imagine how good that can look to somebody like myself as I get older." Later, this person did come to faith in Christ. So, often when we're going through the passage and pointing out what it is Christians have, we need to remind people how you get it. You can bring in the gospel and say, "As wonderful as this is, it can be true for you.”

Another way you can do evangelism, and this may be a stretch for people, is to do it at the offering. It's a good thing for a pastor to say to a congregation, "The offering, like the communion, is for believers, for men and women who have put their trust in Christ. If you're here this morning and you have not put your trust in Christ, we are not asking you to give. We'd like to give you a gift that can change your eternal destiny." And then briefly give the gospel and say, "You're here as our guest, and we're delighted you've come. We don't want you to think that passing this plate is a way to get at your pocketbook. That's the last thing we want. We want you to come to know God." A lot of people think the church is going after their money. Years ago someone did a survey of people who don't go to church and asked them what they thought about the church. The response was, "They're always sad, always talking about death, and always asking for money." People think the church is more interested in their wallet than in their souls. You can use the offering as a way of getting across the gospel to people.

When you preach a sermon specifically targeted to those who are not yet believers in Christ, how is it different than when you are preaching to a disciple?

First of all, your purpose is clear. You want to bring people to a point of decision. You can't force that or manipulate them, but they've got to know there's an issue before them and a decision they have to make. I try to speak as I would to a person in the street. I don't want to get theological jargon into it. Also, evangelistic messages should be filled with illustrations. Evangelistic preaching is a good place, if it's natural to you, to use humor, humor that fits your point and advances your argument. I don't want the person to think this is a grim and awful business. I want them to believe I want the best for them.

Then, of course, you are headed for decision. Someone has said, "You haven't preached the gospel until you've given people something to believe." I would add, "something to believe and someone to trust and the need to make that decision." I don't think, as an adult, you ever just drift into faith. As an adult, there comes a place where you cross the line and you have to lay that down. When I have done evangelistic preaching and we've invited people to bring their non-Christian friends, we've handed out cards. Everybody in the church signs the cards, so nobody feels odd. On the cards we have them write their name, address, and phone number, and then they can check either "I trusted Jesus Christ this morning" or "I'd like to know more about Jesus Christ," and then something like, "I'd be interested in a Bible study I can do at home." That's a way for people to say, "I'm opening myself up to somebody talking to me about this issue. You can call me and visit me, and you won't be intruding in my life and space."

You place great emphasis on biblical preaching. How much should we use the Bible in evangelistic preaching?

As much as we can. One of the problems we face in the Bible is there are passages that raise the right questions, but give a difficult answer. A man comes to Jesus and asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus says, "What do you think the law says?" "Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says, "You keep doing that and you'll live."

That's a great question, but it's not quite the answer I want to give, because the immediate response is, "I can't do that." The question is developed, but the answer isn't there. I could get the answer from Romans 4:5, which says, "To him that worketh not, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." I could show that Abraham, who was a major league saint, never came to God on the basis of what he did.

Sometimes you get a passage in which the answer is given, but you've got to go back and establish the question because the text itself, at least in the immediate context, doesn't raise the question. There are not that many texts in the Bible where you have the question and the need raised and the answer given. You either have to preach a whole book, or you have to tell people what the question is and then show them, from this passage, what the answer is. But they have to take your word for the fact that that's the question. Most people will. In fact, often when you do evangelistic preaching outside the church, they don't have Bibles, so you can't do exposition the way you might do it for a congregation that's used to doing that. To get non-Christians to open the Bible and look at it is difficult. They tend not to be able or willing to follow the argument of the passage. I wish I could say you do exposition every time you do evangelism, but I don't think you can do it as well in the light of the people you're trying to reach.

Instead will you have more illustrations to relate to them in their world?

If you listen to somebody like Billy Graham, that's what he does. He uses some Bible, then he talks about the modern world, some Bible, the modern world. He seldom leaves the modern world for long, because that's where people are. You're saying, "I'm talking about Jesus Christ, who can meet you in the twenty-first century." What I often have to say to people is, "The thing you think is your problem isn't really your problem. It's much deeper than that." I can't make light of their problem, but many of the problems people wrestle with are a symptom of a disease, a rash on the skin. I have to convince them that the problem is in their bloodstream, that there's something fundamentally wrong.

I start with where they're at, but I can't sell the gospel on the basis that it'll make you a happier person. I can't sell the gospel on the basis that it'll give you a well-adjusted life. If you trust Jesus Christ, it can make your life miserable. You can get into all kinds of difficulties you wouldn't have gotten into without it. I can't lie to them, but I can tell them certain things you can be absolutely confident of when you put your trust in Christ, and that it's worth it. I want to be honest. I want to be a person of integrity when I preach the gospel. You can never represent the God of truth by lying to people. I have to be careful I don't imply something I know isn't going to be true.

What about using apologetics in an evangelistic sermon?

There was a time in which apologetics had great force. I don't think that's as true today. In a postmodern age, to use that clich, people aren't as impressed with evidences that demand a verdict. That's not just my opinion. It's the opinion of a lot of people who are skilled at reaching non-Christians, who have, in the past, used apologetics. Usually apologetics are more forceful for those who have come into faith, and having come to faith, have all kinds of questions.

Often a church that has small groups, that has warm fellowship, that draws people to an atmosphere of love, has something going for it. People are drawn to that, and then they want to talk about the gospel. People want relationships; they want to know there are people who care about them. When they find that, then they will hear the gospel, but I don't think apologetics is as strong and as needed today as it was 25 years ago.

Has anything taken its place?

Yes, and I want to be careful, but it's people telling their story. I'm not talking about the modern theology that you have your story and I've got my story, but there's no great story, no meta-narrative. I'm talking about telling your testimony, what's happened to you along the way. You're telling how coming to trust Jesus Christ has made a difference in your life. When someone hears that story, and it overlaps their story, there's a way in which that can connect. That's truer today than in the past. We've always used testimonies, but today the witness box has an appeal to people because, in a way, that's the way life comes to them.

How about the style of delivery?

When you're trying to reach people in the community, you can't yell at them. The reason preachers yelled 100 years ago was they didn't have public address systems. If they wanted to talk with a person in the back row, they had to yell so they could be heard. In some traditions, yelling is equal to preaching. But we've discovered the public address system. I can raise my voice, as I might in any conversation when I'm animated, but to shout is counter-productive. For example, if you are telling me about a recent Chicago Blackhawks game, and four people come up and join us, you'll raise your volume and increase your gestures. But then, suppose a class lets out and 30 people join us, you'll raise your voice and widen your gestures even more to bring them all in, but there will always be a conversational tone about what you're saying. You'll vary the rate and force and pace. That conversational element in delivery is far more appealing to people today.

Are there any preachers that others could model their own evangelistic preaching on?

Bill Hybels is an excellent example of an evangelist. When I have listened to tapes of his sermons, I find there's an appeal he has, and it doesn't surprise me that non-Christians come to hear him preach. Leighton Ford has demonstrated this. He's an older man now, but he's caught on to the need to have story and to have a more conversational delivery. Another person who does it well is Tim Keller, from New York, who preaches to an audience of Christians and non-Christians and does it in an enticing way.