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Preaching On Evangelism

Doing evangelism in the 21st century is a major challenge. Sadly, most churches are not doing a very good job at it. Virtually every denomination is in decline, with the vast majority of churches either stagnated or declining. Leading a church to excel in evangelism is a complex task with no easy answers. However, one part of the puzzle is to preach regularly on the subject. What follows is a sermon I recently preached at my church on the theme of developing a culture of invitation. The message is unique to my particular setting, so I don’t lift it up as a model for preaching on evangelism. But I do offer it as an example of how to tackle this important subject through preaching. The message (not a traditional sermon) follows.

“At This Point In Our History, What Is Our Greatest Need at FUMC?”
(Luke 15:1-7, Matthew 28:16-20)

I have a pastor friend named Lloyd. Years ago, Lloyd went to a new church. Things went great for about a year. But then the honeymoon was over. They had minor conflicts and problems—just routine stuff. About a year and a half into his pastorate, Lloyd was preaching a sermon. He said, “I know I’m not all you want in a pastor.” This was a Baptist church, so there were a few good natured “Amens.” He repeated his statement. “I know I’m not all you want in a pastor.” Then Lloyd stared at them for the longest time and finally said, “But look what I’m stuck with!” Well, they all laughed. They laughed because they knew that Lloyd was not perfect, and they knew they were not perfect, because perfect pastors and perfect churches do not exist. But they also knew God had brought them together, and that if they could accept each other and work together, good things would happen in the life of that church. And that’s exactly what happened for over a decade.

I’ve been at First Church for a year and a half now. Long enough for you to realize that I’m not a perfect pastor. And long enough for me to realize that you are not a perfect church. Close, but not quite perfect. But I believe that God has brought us together, and that God has and God will continue to bring good things from our time together. So I want to share something important with you today, from my heart. This is not a typical sermon at all. Instead, I want to answer a question a member asked me several months ago. The question was, “At this point in our history, what is our greatest need at FUMC?” Today I’d like to answer that question.

I want to begin by noting that FUMC has many exceptional strengths. For example, we have a culture of service. Hundreds of you serve in tangible ways here every week in dozens of ways. We also have a culture of generosity. I don’t know of a church in our state that gives more financial support per person than our church. We have a culture of Christian community. We love each other well, especially in the small groups of our church. We have a culture of spiritual depth. Many of you are very serious about your discipleship. We have a culture of open mindedness. It’s OK here to have diversity of thought and even when we disagree, we respect each other’s opinion. We have a culture of grace. I see very little self-righteous judgment that is found in so many places. And on and on I could go. This is an exceptional church in many ways. We have a lot of strengths to celebrate.

With that said, let me go back to the original question. At this point in our history, I believe our greatest need is to add a new strength. In short, we need to add a culture of invitation. We need to boldly and consistently invite others to join us on our journey as a community of faith. We do a good job of welcoming people who come to us. But we need to do a better job of inviting them. Inviting others is not a current strength of ours. I want to illustrate that with three examples. I don’t give these examples to criticize our church, but simply to make the point that we need to grow in this area.

First, we have not kept up with the growth of our community. Over the past 20 years, the population of Cookeville has grown 41%. But our membership and attendance is almost exactly what it was 20 years ago. This tells us that we need to do a better job of inviting newcomers to our church. Second, our congregation is much older than our community. Our median age is double the median age of Cookeville. This tells us that we need to do a better job of inviting younger generations to join us. Third, we have a small number of first time guests at worship. This tells us that we need to do a better job of inviting people to join us for worship. So we have a lot of work to do in order to build a stronger culture of invitation.

A fair question would be—why is this so important? We’re doing well. Our numbers are strong. People are happy. So why should we worry about inviting others? I’d like to mention three reasons why this is important, which you can find in your listening guide. First, our future depends on it. Every year, churches lose members. In large churches like ours, we lose the equivalency of about 10% of our worshipping attendance every year. For us, that means we lose over 50 people a year. They die, or move, or become inactive for various reasons. If we don’t keep adding new people, we will decline and eventually die. Recent research has shown a startling statistic. On average, nine churches close down every single day in American. The details of their death are all different, but the cause of their death is always the same. They lose more members than they than gain until they finally die. If we want our church to be here for our children and grandchildren and their children, we must build a stronger culture of invitation.

A far more important reason for inviting people to join us on our journey is that people need Jesus, and people need a faith community. Over 50% of people who live in our community do not have a church family. And a lot of them will only be reached by a church in the UMC tradition. A tradition of grace and not judgment. A tradition of open-mindedness. A tradition that affirms faith of the heart but also faith of the head. A tradition that cares about evangelism but also cares about community service. A tradition that affirms gender equality in the home and in the church. A tradition that affirms moderate theology. In short, a lot of people in our community need a church of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.”

Finally, we need to add a culture of invitation because God calls us to reach people for Christ and church. We see that in today’s two scripture readings about the lost sheep, and the great commission to go and make disciples. (I then spent some time developing the message of both texts). This mandate to invite people to Christ and church comes directly from the heart of God, and it needs to be our heart as well.

So far I’ve said that our greatest need is to add a culture of invitation. And I’ve shared three reasons why it’s important. Finally, let me answer the question—how can we do this? How can we become a more inviting church? The truth is: this is a complex question. American churches of all denominations are in serious trouble today. The vast majority are in decline. Fewer people are going to church than ever before. Young people especially are staying away from church and are hard to reach. The long range trends are bleak. For us to become a strong invitational church will not be easy and it will not happen overnight. And, if we get serious about reaching people, it will impact everything we do from our budget, to our worship, to our programing, to our facilities, to how our clergy spend our time, and most everything else. But we can become a more inviting congregation—if we want. In spite of dismal church trends in America, a few churches are still reaching new people. And so can we. I know we can because we already do, but we need to amp it up and get better at it. But it will take a lot of work, effort and intentionality.

And it will take some courage. The sad truth is, most mainline Christians, including United Methodists, are frightened to invite people to church. We have been so turned off by obnoxious evangelism that we avoid it altogether. I read somewhere that it takes the average Presbyterian 27 years to invite one person to church! I doubt United Methodists are much better. But we can do this. And it’s not that hard. For example, we can invite people to worship. Better yet, we can pick them up, bring them here, sit with them, and then take them to lunch afterwards. We can invite them to Sunday school. We can invite them to our Bible studies. We can invite them to choir. We can invite their children to choir club on Wednesdays and Sunday school and children’s church on Sundays. We can invite them to youth group. We can invite them to help us in our service projects like the food pantry. We can invite them to special events. We can invite them to Wednesday Night Life meals and classes. And when we do, a good number will come. Studies consistently show that 90% of people who visit a church first come because somebody they know invites them. So in the end, developing a culture of invitation is pretty simple. Like Nike says, we need to “Just do it.” We need to constantly and enthusiastically invite people to connect with us. One simple tool is using the business card we gave you as you entered worship today. These cards have basic information about FUMC. You can give these cards to people you know, along with an invitation to visit. More of these cards are available at the welcome desk in the narthex. The point is—you and I can easily invite people to connect with us. Some will come, and when they do, God’s spirit will touch them, and some of them will become part of our church family. That will enrich them, and it will enrich us, and it will advance the Kingdom of God.

Well, I need to wrap up. Several months ago, I went to a concert at the amphitheater at Dogwood Park, which, as you know, is up on a hill. During the concert, I happened to turn around and look back at downtown Cookeville. The view took my breath away. For the first time since I arrived here, I could visually see the imposing presence of FUMC on downtown Cookeville. We have four huge buildings, and two small ones, and the crossover, and parking lots and playgrounds. We have a massive presence in downtown Cookeville. And that’s not just true of our physical plant. There are many ways we impact our community. For example, we have over 2,000 members, plus children. I know many are inactive, but still, we touch a lot of lives in this town. And we have major programs and ministries that impact hundreds of people in our community every week, like our preschool and food pantry. As I looked at the downtown view of our church, what I most noticed was the tall steeple raised to the sky, which symbolizes us reaching toward God, and God reaching toward us. As I saw looked at that steeple, my heart’s prayer was, “God, help us to reach people for Jesus Christ and for your church. Give us a passion for reaching people. Help us to build a culture of invitation that brings people into relationship with you and your church.” That was, is, and will be my prayer for FUMC as long as God and the Bishop leave me here. Why? In the end it’s really quite simple. Even after all these years, and all our education and sophistication, people still need Jesus, and they still need a church family. In short, people need the Lord.

Solo: People Need the Lord