Preparing an Evangelistic Talk
Written by Michael Green
You can download the PDF of this resource here.
[Editorial note: Like numerous other features in this section of our website, what follows appeared originally in Evangelism through the Local Church by veteran evangelist Michael Green. One of our Living Leadership team finds this section so enormously helpful that he works through it again every time he’s to preach evangelistically!]
How can we prepare for an evangelistic talk? The preparation is at least threefold.
First, there is the vital need to prepare the congregation! If that is neglected, nothing will be achieved.
Love needs to characterise us! Without that, nobody will want to get very close, and any attempt at evangelism will look hard and maybe resemble a modern form of head-hunting. Love must flow, and be seen to flow. So warm welcomers will be needed for the doors, refreshments available afterwards; everything must be designed to make those who do not normally come to church feel as much at home as possible.
Prayer must accompany love. It would be good to mobilise a system of prayer triplets, where three people get together on several occasions to pray for three friends each, whom they hope to invite. There could be a night or half-night of prayer beforehand, too. The congregation needs to be full of the Lord, so much so that they are willing to go and open their mouths for him, to invite others, and to say something of what Christ has done for them if opportunity offers. There needs to be an expectancy that God will work, a happy confidence in the Holy Spirit who loves to glorify Christ.
I believe that, before God is likely to bring large numbers of converts into a congregation, the church needs to demonstrate that their fellowship is deep and real, and that they are able to welcome and assimilate the new life. That is where fellowship groups come in — groups of a dozen or so people who meet regularly within homes for fellowship, learning, prayer, encouragement and service. But even where this structure is in place in a church, one thing more is needed. We need people to lead Discovery Groups, that is to say, small groups of those who have just committed their lives to Christ and need to be built up. We devote another feature on this site to the setting up and running of those groups, but here it is worth noting that part of the preparation for an evangelistic sermon is preparing people to lead these groups - who at the moment have no members in them! That in itself is a declaration of faith in the living God. When I worked at a church set in the midst of Oxford University, we always used to prepare for one or two such groups to emerge immediately after an evangelistic address: sometimes as many as eight groups, when our faith was strong! And we trained leaders in the confidence that God would answer prayer and provide their group with members.
Second, preparation of the congregation needs to be matched by the preparation of the occasion. You need to choose it with care, going for a time when it is likely that unbelievers may be around in large numbers and could, if they were so disposed, come to church. Such occasions need to be carefully planned in the calendar of the year's activities – maybe three or four a year.
And the publicity needs to be good. There is the publicity within the church, and the publicity to those you want to invite. Of these the former is the more important. If you can fire up the members of the congregation to invite people, with enthusiasm, love and persistence, and to bring them with them, then you have solved your publicity problem. But, in addition, you will want to have some attractively produced material which you can hand to prospective visitors, and distribute round homes if you have a visiting team who would like to do that; and above all you will need a large and attractive notice outside the church with a bold, provocative title on it. On the whole, people will not be interested that the sermon will be preached by the Reverend Bill Jones, BD, which is the sort of thing you often find outside a church as the only notice that is evident. Frankly, who knows or cares about the Reverend Bill Jones, BD? But if there is a notice featuring the question ‘Is there hope in a world that is falling apart?’, or something that touches people at the point of felt need, interest or weakness, then people will be attracted. On the whole, publicity does not bring a lot of people in: personal invitations do that. But unless the publicity is good, expectancy will be low, nobody will know about it, and it will be an inconspicuous and probably ineffective event.
The third area of necessary preparation is the service itself. It needs to be very carefully prepared, and everything needs to be subordinated to helping those who are visitors, and making them able to participate without feeling that they are being gunned at on the one hand, or mystified by the in-house language and liturgy of the church on the other.
A delicate balance should be our aim. The service will need to be different from normal, but not so different that if and when they come next week to a ‘normal’ service it will be a totally different world! If liturgy is used, the page numbers of the books where it is found must always be announced. Remember that if you want people to use a Bible it is likely to be quite unfamiliar to them. The very furniture of a church is odd to many these days. Choir and clergy robes are usually a turn-off. The same is true of old-fashioned language and ‘the language of Zion’. As for the clerical voice – it must be avoided at all costs. Organs are not the only effective ways of accompanying singing, unless you are in a large church or a cathedral. The use of a piano or a guitar or a small orchestra is often a more attractive alternative. It is no good singing psalms at an evangelistic service; that will be a different world from the one inhabited by those visitors you are trying to accommodate. Equally, the endless repetition of choruses may not edify them either! And powerful though the Holy Communion is to nourish believers, it is not the thing to have when you are directing your whole service towards guests. Canticles are out, and so are long classical choir anthems. This does not help Mr and Mrs Average these days. So a great deal of thinking needs to go into the service. We have forgotten how out of touch with ordinary people all our church services have become.
Some of the things I have found helpful to do in such an evangelistic service are as follows:
Dispense with service books: people only get lost in them. Instead, if the architecture allows, use powerpoint for songs, hymns, and any parts of the service where the people participate together. Alternatively, print the corporate parts of the service in the bulletin.
Have a singing group praising God for a quarter of an hour or more before the service starts.
Cut notices to the minimum, or remove them altogether by putting them in a bulletin which is placed in the hands of everyone as they come in. And that same bulletin should have details in it of anything else you want to let your visitors know — especially the leaders' names, the locations and the starting times of the Discovery Groups that you hope to start in the coming week.
Ensure that someone with real sensitivity in worship and warmth of manner leads the service. It may be good to make use of a couple of testimonies, with stories from people of contrasting sex and age, because testimony to the power of God by lay people is a very attractive thing.
If there is a solo or music item, it should be short and very up-beat. The accompaniment of the hymns, or, better, modern scripture choruses, needs to be strong. It does not matter if people do not know all the songs (and you don't want too many). They can be taught them very easily, for most of these songs have very simple and catching melodies. Remember that some of the great old hymns have a power which most modern choruses cannot equal. The Scripture reading is very important and should be read by someone who can read well. The sermon is your responsibility: we will come to that in a minute. But the final song should be optional. You may want to cancel it in the light of how the sermon closes.
People need to be available after the service to counsel any who wish it, and they need to have received some training beforehand. You will naturally want to meet with such folk and all leading participants three quarters of an hour before the service begins, so as to finalise all details, make sure nothing has been forgotten (‘Who was going to bring those evangelistic booklets?... You mean, they aren't here?’ is the sort of thing that can easily happen.) You need time to commit the whole venture to God is along with the musicians, and those who are leading, praying, and giving testimony. When we have been immersed in worship for half an hour, it shows on our faces as we go in to lead the congregation. When we have not, that shows too!
How shall we prepare the talk?
Preaching is truth mediated through personality, so different people will approach it in different ways. But some general things stand out. All great preaching has been biblical preaching: not that it is Bible-thumping, but that it enshrines the message of the Bible in the course of the address. All great preaching has been in demonstration of the power of the Spirit; so prayer and utter dependence on God is vital. So is the prayerful support of the congregation as you prepare and as you preach.
Often in Oxford when doing an evangelistic address to a large number of people, we would have a prayer service going on across the road in the Rectory for those who felt the call to prayer, or had not managed to bring any visitors with them. That prayer time was an immense support to the preacher. Once or twice in the course of the service a member of the congregation would go across and tell them what was happening, as fuel for prayer! All good evangelistic preaching really engages and interests the hearers, and it ends by challenging them to encounter the living Christ.
A good evangelistic talk is crisp: it wastes no words. It is interesting: it grabs attention from the opening sentence and maintains it throughout. It is biblical: Scripture has a power our words do not. It is relevant to the needs of the hearers, and it is immediately perceived to be so. And it challenges people to decision.
Here are some things I try to bear in mind as I prepare. I often think of a single individual whom I would dearly love to lead to Christ and who I know will be in the congregation, and have him or her in the forefront of my mind as I prepare.
1. First, start where they are. It is important that the content of what we preach is biblical, but it is a great mistake to start with a text of Scripture. You need to get the taste buds working first! Start where they are. That is good educational method. You then have some hope of taking them where you want them to go. I wrote a book some years ago which embodied this inductive approach; it was called You Must Be Joking!, and the chapter titles were all things I had heard people say, things which admirably lent themselves to an evangelistic talk, things like ‘You can't believe in God these days’, ‘Jesus was just a good man’, ‘All religions lead to God’, ‘Nothing can alter the past’, ‘When you're dead, you're dead’, and so forth. Those titles and that book have had a continuing interest and appeal, because they are addressed to questions people really are asking. There are many ways in which you can capture interest with your title.
Take an assumption and destroy it. A good example would be: ‘It doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere.’
Take an interest and develop it. I think of a Valentine's party where I spoke evangelistically on love, or a Christmas party when I tried: ‘Yes to the manger, no to the occupant’.
Take a modern concern. For example, ‘Can there be peace in our world?’, or ‘How to be married and stay that way.’
Key into some of the questing songs of the day. With apologies to Bruce Cockburn, I am about to preach an evangelistic address on ‘Rumours of Glory’.
Take a perennial fascination and give it a new twist. ‘Is life worth more than the funeral expenses?’, or ‘Is there life before death?’
Tailor your title to your audience. I have spoken to businessmen more than once on titles like ‘Nobody's fool’, expounding the story of the rich fool. All businessmen like to think they are nobody's fool!
It is good to fit in with a feeling that is prevalent in society. I shall never forget the power I unwittingly released when I stumbled upon the subject of ‘Jesus spells freedom’ in Africa in the 1960s. It was beginning to be the subject of the continent. The same decade saw the counter-culture in full swing, and subjects like ‘Jesus the Radical’ or ‘The Revolutionary Jesus’ were very big draws. I think of a sermon for new students at Oxford which drew enormous numbers. It was ‘Confirmed too young — agnostic too long’, and it just keyed in with where many people were at that time. But it is important not to be dominated by needs. And it is important not to cheat with them. If you are going to take a subject like ‘Jesus the Radical’, you really have to do it full justice, or people will rightly feel cheated.
One final word about maintaining and retaining interest. I find it very helpful to use testimony in my addresses, and also to use dramatic sketches. These can be used at an earlier part of the proceedings, and have great value there. But I have found that to interview someone on a key point in the middle of the sermon can be a great attention-grabber, and the use of a short dramatic sketch, appropriately introduced and picked up, makes a point sharply, often humorously, and not only saves you time but gives that change of voice and medium which is so valuable.
2. Second, shape your material. Once you have found your title, see what there is in Scripture that speaks to it. Last autumn I spoke to university students on a title that I was given, ‘Money, Sex and Power – what more does a body need?’; and as I reflected on it, I saw that it was precisely addressed by the letter of Christ to the church at Laodicea in Revelation 3:14-21. So that became the biblical thrust of my sermon. But I did not begin with Laodicea!
When shaping your material in an evangelistic address there are a number of things to keep in mind.
First, your aim. You should have a clear, single aim, and that should govern everything you say. If you do not have a crystal-clear aim, you will be surprised how good people are at missing it. And of course, if you aim at nothing, you are sure to hit it!
Second, your plan. Break the material up to make sure that people can easily latch on to what you are saying. Make it palatable. And be sure that every point subserves the aim of the whole address. Failure to do this results in a disorganised and confusing message. A clear plan is absolutely vital.
Third, your structure. This, too, must be clear. Not so clear that people can follow it, but so clear that nobody can fail to follow it. You need to advertise your points with great freeway signs, not inconspicuous little signposts. And if you can work it so that each one of your points leads naturally and apparently inevitably into the next one, you are likely to make a great preacher. The well-constructed address hammers home the main point relentlessly, and its subheadings seem utterly right and obvious — once you have heard them. Structure is an important part of preaching. Time spent on it is not wasted.
Fourth, your illustrations. These are very important — and easy to mess up! Never illustrate the obvious. Always illustrate the unknown by the known. Never use illustrations which sound incredible — even if they aren't. Never use illustrations which glorify yourself. Never use illustrations that are too involved; and shun exaggeration like the plague. If you follow Jesus' example, you will draw a lot of your illustrations from the natural world and the ordinary commerce of mankind. The book of nature and the book of Scripture do, after all, have the same author; it is not surprising that they illuminate one another. The local paper, current affairs, plays, films, TV and songs all furnish good material for illustrations. Books of illustrations usually disappoint and do not sound real; but it is a good idea to note down outstanding illustrations which you hear, and use them appropriately later on yourself. None of them are copyright!
Fifth, your start and your conclusion are both critical. The start has to be really arresting — a situation, a humorous anecdote, a problem. It should be brief, arresting, and intriguing in itself. It is your hook into some fish which may be very wary. Give good thought to it; it may be wise to try it out on a friend before you preach it.
As for the conclusion, never moralise. Do not go on too long. Take note of Jesus' parables, which never drew the moral, but forced the hearers to think furiously. Sometimes a verse of Scripture can be used at the end, sometimes even an illustration. But the conclusion should never try to add new material. It should encapsulate and drive home the theme of the whole sermon. It should provide the final hammer blow to the nail which is your aim and which has been going steadily in since you began. I believe this applies to almost all types of preaching, but the evangelistic sermon has some peculiarities of its own, and we shall turn to them in a moment.
Sixth, your language. Words matter to the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2:13), and they should matter to us. I find it helpful to word-prepare my major sermons, but never to read them. Detailed verbal preparation helps me confidently to negotiate the difficult places in the address when I get to them. I have faced them head on and in detail during my preparation, and so I am the more likely, when I preach, to carry people with me over the difficulty. Our words in preaching should not be starchy or churchy. They should be in the sort of language that local people speak. A sermon should not be an artistic creation: it should be an impassioned proclamation. It is not something to admire, but something to act on. So the language should be gripping, vivid, simple. Go for familiar words, evocative words that can bring home a familiar truth in a fresh way. Determine that there shall be no possibility of your being misunderstood.
Seventh, your manner. The New Testament images of a preacher are very varied and very illuminating. He is an ambassador (2 Cor 5:20), a herald (1 Tim 2:7), a father (1 Cor 4:14), a steward (1 Cor 4:1-5), a servant (1 Cor 3:5), a witness (Acts 2:32). Different styles are appropriate to different ones of those images. You must select the right mood for your subject-matter, and blend your manner with it. Ask yourself how Jesus would speak if he were in your shoes. Let there be warmth, and utter sincerity. Let there be a profound sense of earnestness, but never of dullness. You will need courage (to say ‘you’ when you mean ‘you’) and humility and compassion. Get friends to check you for irritating mannerisms, and iron them out so that you do not distract the hearers: the stakes are too high to have stupid little mannerisms putting people off.
3. Third, be Christ-centred. Speak much of him. He is the supremely attractive one. He promised that if he were up from the earth he would draw all sorts of people to himself. And he does. So we need to take care to make much of who he is, and of what he has done, and to make it very clear that he is alive and willing to come to us personally if we will allow him. The early Christians had an outline in those sermons recorded in Acts which they used a good deal. It is a wise one. They spoke to a need once they discerned it; they told of a person, Jesus Christ, no less; they proffered the twin gifts of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit; and they looked for a response, a visible response of repentance, faith, and baptism into the Christian community. We could profitably emulate them.
In the light of the attractiveness of Jesus, it is hardly surprising that men and women flocked to him. Jesus was surrounded by crowds, presumably because they felt that in some way he held the key to community: he was a wonderful person to be with. Jesus met and transformed the loneliness of Zacchaeus, a man whose relationships had become frozen because of his pursuit of money and his ruthlessness in dealing with people. Jesus met and transformed the woman taken in adultery: unlike the religious leaders, he neither sought her out in her sin nor condemned her when she was brought before him. He understood her. He cared about her. He knew the hurt she had suffered and the guilt she felt. It was not condemnation she needed, but acquittal. He offered her just that, together with the pointer towards a better life, and the power to achieve it. Jesus met and transformed the impetuous Peter, making this mercurial man, dominated by his emotions, into a stable leader of Christ's new community, a rock on which he could build. Jesus met and transformed John the dreamer, making him a mystic and a visionary who became the apostle of love. Jesus met and transformed the household of Jairus in its disappointment, its grief and bereavement. He met and transformed beggars like Bartimaeus, prostitutes like Mary Magdalene, crooked businessmen like Matthew. In every case his approach was tailored to the individual. In every case he entered into the need and the hurt which had marred that person's life, and spoke his word of healing and renewal.
And that is the heart of effective evangelism. Not many people are brought to Christ via the route of the intellect, though some are. Vital though the intellect is, most people are won when they sense Christ coming to touch broken places and torn feelings in their lives. This may be at a point of perceived, long-standing need. Or it may be that only when some aspect of Jesus is seen does the person recognise how empty or needy he has been all along.
A great many people today have never experienced love without strings attached. They have been appreciated when they have performed in a certain way, or made certain achievements. But they have known nothing of being loved for themselves, warts and all, alike in success and in failure. The unconditional love of Jesus for all and sundry can surge like a flood into a heart like that.
A great many people have a tremendously low self-image. It has been inculcated in them by parents who have dominated them and have failed to praise and love them: instead, a critical attitude has surrounded their childhood and youth. They have been made to feel no good. And this happens to people who are great achievers just as much as it does to poor achievers. External accomplishments tell us nothing about the inner feelings of the person concerned. It is when people who feel so inadequate and unimportant see that Jesus rates them very differently that the skies begin to clear. If he valued them so highly that he came for them and died for them – why, they must be something very special after all! And that realisation brings new life to many who are dogged by this spectre of a low self-image.
A great many people have been abused in their childhood. It is becoming increasingly plain in our supposedly civilised culture that enormous numbers of youngsters are abused verbally, physically and sexually by the very people who should be their most ardent protectors, their parents. Is it any wonder that we are witnessing such a rise of counselling services in our society? It is a response to the crying need from so many broken people, broken when they were too young to understand what was happening, but not too young to be scarred and crippled by it. Logic and argument will not help such a person towards Christ. But once they sense that Jesus not only cares but can take the pus out of those wounds, through what he did on Calvary and the power of his indwelling Spirit, then something very profound happens: there is a new creation.
A great many people are lonely. It matters not one whit whether they have many friends or few, whether they are the fortunate in society or at the bottom of the pile. ‘Why am I so lonely when there are so many people here?’, a plea scratched on a school desk, is the agonising question of many hearts. The answer, of course, lies in the friend who sticks closer than a brother, the one who will never leave us nor forsake us once he is welcomed into our life. That companionship of Jesus, risen from the dead, alive for evermore, is the ultimate answer to loneliness. Millions the world over have proved its staying-power: be they politicians at the centre of the action, invalids on their beds, or believers incarcerated in solitary confinement. It will be the image of Jesus the friend which attracts such people. They do not need to know the evidence for the resurrection. They need to see in other lives, and wonderingly to accept for themselves, the possibility that this living Jesus would be willing to accompany them personally.
A great many people feel despised. Maybe they sense they are despised by others (for their looks, their achievements, their station in life). Maybe they despise and even hate themselves. When they come to see the Jesus who loves the unlovely, who despises nobody, who was himself despised and rejected and understands their situation from the inside, then gradually their defences go down and they dare to believe the almost incredible, that he accepts them though they feel themselves to be totally unacceptable. And what is that but the New Testament doctrine of justification? But the truth of doctrine needs to be mediated through the reality of feelings. Only when they feel it, perhaps through the loving service of a friend, can they come to believe it and experience it for themselves.
A great many people feel defeated. Defeated by habits too strong to break, defeated by the past catching up with them, defeated by inherited defects in character. They had imagined that Christianity was for good people, who dressed nicely and went to church on Sundays, not for the likes of them. God forgive us that such an impression could ever have got abroad, but it has. They need to see that Jesus takes failures and makes them saints. They may see it in the reclaimed lives of some of their friends and acquaintances. They may become assured of it in the loving perseverance of the person who is trying to bring the good news to them — often in the face of their own opposition and acrimony. But it is when they feel within themselves that Jesus is willing to take failures like themselves on board that new hope is born, and new life begun.
I hope enough has been said to show that what really matters is that the healing hand of the great physician should be brought gently into touch with the emotions as well as with the mind of the person concerned. A great deal of our evangelism is a total failure because it does not touch the heart and show where the Saviour can reach the hidden fears and hurts which plague us human beings – all of us.
4. Fourth, watch the balance of your evangelistic preaching. The gospel of Christ is both big and broad. It is easy to miss great areas of it because we are comfortable with particular aspects of it. It is wise from time to time to check out whether we have not only a biblical message but a biblical balance in our message. Here again, discerning friends can be a help to us. Evangelism without much doctrine, with no mention of the cost of discipleship, with no depth, no warmth, no social content and no sensitivity is a travesty of the real thing, and we must do our best to avoid aberrations by coming constantly back to the balance and overview of Scripture, with the help of friends who know the truth in depth.
5. Finally, leave time to conclude. It is all too easy to miss this vital ingredient out, and to come to the end of your talk, when you need time, and find that it has flown.
Preparation that is as careful as this will give you a lot of confidence as you go into the pulpit. There are other little things that can help. Preach into a mirror occasionally, and watch your expression and manner. You may get a shock! Allow a group from the congregation to criticise one of your sermons in detail with you, checking your aim, content, use of Scripture, structure, manner, application and illustration. That is tremendously helpful — and humbling. Time yourself as you preach through the completed sermon to yourself — and remember that it always takes longer on the day that it does in preparation.
But the most important essential in preparation is prayer. Get church leaders to pray for you daily in the week when you are preparing a major address. Ask the congregation to remember you in prayer. Make it a topic for prayer at the prayer meeting. Prayer burns the message into you. Prayer will burn it into the souls of some who hear you. The Holy Spirit can work powerfully when much prayer is being offered. He inspired the very Scripture you are going to preach. He moved you as you worked on it in preparation. It is his task to commend it to the hearts and wills of men and women when you preach it. Prayer enables him to do just that. And I, for one, go with much greater confidence into the pulpit when two or three of my colleagues gather round me in prayer just before I stand up to preach. It is not only an encouragement to me: it is a demonstration to one and all that we depend utterly on what God does, not on our own efforts.
I love the words of an old Methodist local preacher on the subject of sermon preparation: ‘First I reads meself full; then I thinks meself clear; then I prays meself hot; then I lets go!’
How can we handle the conclusion of an evangelistic talk?
This is an important and delicate matter. It is vital to draw the address to a challenging conclusion. But we are not salesmen: we are dealing with the living God and his claim on people's lives. Here are some of the lessons I try to bear in mind — and often have to relearn.
I only offer a challenge to commitment when there has been a clear and reasonably rounded presentation of the gospel. Human need, the cross, the cost, and the availability of the Spirit need at least to have been touched on.
I try to leave myself plenty of time at the end of the sermon. If I am going to call for an explicit response, I explain what I am about to do before I do it, so that it does not come as a shock to people, and so that they are mentally more prepared to respond.
I try to be open to the possibility of pleading with people to return to Christ. There is a lot of that loving, pleading compassion in the Old and New Testaments, but I find that it is little used today. Many preachers just tell you how it is, and then stop. It hardly seems to matter to them whether you respond or not. That is very different from Jesus: ‘0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem … how often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood … and you would not!’ (Matt 23:37). It is impossible to miss the note of pleading there. We need to allow the warmth of Jesus, the seriousness of the issues, and the awesome alternative to coming to Christ to be reflected in what we say at this juncture. Kindle their imagination so that you can reach their will. That is our goal.
Watch people's faces, and try to read their minds. It is not as difficult as it might seem. Learn to answer questions which you think may be in their minds. ‘Are you wondering what it will cost to follow Christ? Good. Let me try to answer that question…’; ‘”But, Mr Green,” you may say, “I'm a churchman!” True, but so were the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke. Even better churchmen than you!’ This divining of what is going on in minds and speaking to it is very effective. It can, I believe, be a spiritual gift from God to the preacher. We should ask for it. It is particularly valuable in dispelling objections against a positive response to Christ, and the place for it is as the sermon comes to an end.
Your attitude should be a mixture. On the one hand you need to be fearless and bold. On the other hand you need to be warm and sensitive. Pray for that balance.
Trust the Word of God. It is very powerful. Placard the promises of God and the cross of Christ before the eyes of your hearers. Faith is, after all, trusting the promises of God. And these promises are very new to them. They need time, and they need you to be extremely clear, if they are to take it in.
Use appropriate illustrations at this delicate time. The best ones are personal illustrations, those which depict meeting and encounter. The marriage analogy between the Lord and the believer is very clear and readily comprehensible. The image of opening the door of heart and life to Christ is one which has helped millions to commitment. The ‘in Christ’ imagery is helpful too, though a bit more difficult to take in. But it makes very clear both the unity with him and the need of a leap of faith if you are going to move from being ‘without Christ’ to being ‘in Christ’. Another biblical image which is helpful to many is the idea of the sperm and the egg, or the seed and the soil. It is from the marriage of these two that the new life is born. But never get boxed into a corner by using just one image. It may help some but leave others cold. So vary it. ‘Give and take’ is a simple commitment image we can use. You give yourself to him and you gratefully take his pardon and his Spirit in return.
Be broad in your appeal at the end of the sermon. There will be a great variety of people in the church, and you want to be of maximum help to them all. You could call on people to entrust their lives to Christ for the first time, and then add: ‘There may well be others of you who did that long ago, but somehow you have drifted away. Come back to him now. Ask his pardon. Put yourself without reserve in his hands, and you will know again the joy of the Father's house which you may have walked out of.’ It is sometimes helpful, with people who genuinely are not sure whether they have committed their lives to Christ or not, to suggest that whatever pencilled commitment there may have been in the past, now is the time to ink it in and get clear about it. So make a broad and a challenging appeal. But do not press. It is the job of the Holy Spirit, not of the preacher, to do that. Human pressure can do great damage.
Usually at the end of a talk I suggest a time of silence as folk kneel or sit. Silence is not only golden. It is powerful. It gives the Spirit of God a chance to speak to individuals. I may well repeat the verse of Scripture that has been foremost in the sermon and then give one or two minutes of complete silence, inviting people to face up to the challenge, and those who are already committed Christians to pray silently for those who are not. I eschew emotionalism, especially at this critical time. I try to make it seem the most natural thing in the world to accept Christ into one's life, or to pray for others to do so. If I am matter of fact about it, the congregation will not feel that any emotional pressure is being exerted, and the Holy Spirit will be free to act. Often in the silence people will break into quiet sobbing. But that is fine. The Spirit is at work on their spirit, and almost invariably it leads to real repentance and new life.
After a time of silence I may well suggest a prayer of commitment for those who want to use it, and only for them. I say: ‘If you feel you don't know how to put it, why not use something very simple like this? You could say it after me under your breath if you like. “Lord, please forgive me and come and take up residence in my life. Amen.”’ I then thank God that he keeps his promises, and that if any have taken him at his word he will never leave them or forsake them; and then I draw the service to an end, with or without the optional final song. It is not always needed at such a juncture, and it may detract from – or enhance – the impact. After the blessing I normally say, ‘One thing more, as you go. If you have taken that step of opening up to Christ, and if you have prayed that prayer with me just now, I would love to meet you briefly. I want to invite you into what we call a Discovery Group. It is an eight-week course on Christian foundations, and we have one or more groups starting this coming week. I think you will find it a great help to join a group like this where there is plenty of chance for questions and discussion, but where we take a major theme of the Christian life and study it each week. If you intend to be serious with Christ, come and join one of these groups. You need it, and you will benefit from it a great deal. I have the details here at the front (or the back, or wherever you think fit). Come and sign up, and I'll see you have the details about which group you are in by tomorrow.’
This ‘gathering of the fruit’ is absolutely vital. You don't so much want people to make a hasty decision on the spot about Christ. But you do want them to sign up for a group, because there they can have a chance to receive warm care by fairly experienced folk over a period of two months. Experience shows that if they join a group, however uncertain they may be at the beginning, they tend to come to Christ in the course of it, and then they grow. Accordingly, I do my best to draw them into a Discovery Group; for it is especially designed for new believers. I have more to say about these groups in another feature on this site. For the moment, suffice it to say that those who are going to lead the Discovery Group would be ideal people to have alongside you after the service. This means that the people who chat to those who come forward are therefore the same people who will lead the Discovery Groups, and that begins to form the basis of a relationship which can be built on later.
If there are enough people for one Discovery Group only, do your best to ensure that the group is scheduled to start at a time when your leaders and all the prospective members can come. If the numbers warrant several groups, it is wise to get first and second preferences for the starting time. It may not be possible logistically to give all of them their first preference, so you need to know two times they could manage. It is probably a help to have duplicated beforehand a simple form explaining what a Discovery Group is all about, and the subjects that will be covered during the course; that part of the form they hold on to. There needs also to be a detachable portion which you get them to fill in then and there, and collect it from them before they leave. It will have room for their name, address, phone number and e-mail, and their first and second choice of a time for the group (unless you have already determined that beforehand).
Sometimes there may be a large response to such a challenge. In that case the sorting out of names afterwards is a skilled job. Attention needs to be paid to the balance of the group by sex, age and perhaps locality and background, within the limits of the times they can manage. It would be good if they could be contacted later that very day and told which group they are in (if there is more than one). That will give them a sense of confidence at a time in their lives when they are probably feeling unsure of themselves. It will also show your care and efficiency. It is important, too, because the Enemy of souls is sure to be busy that day. Why give him an advantage?
As you invite people to the front, avoid any sense of pressure. Be laid-back about it. But train your congregation to ask their visitors at this juncture, at the end of the service, ‘Would you like to join a Discovery Group? They are a real help. I'll come with you up to the front if you would like company.’ I sometimes go up to a visitor who I can see has been touched by the Holy Spirit and personally invite him or her to join a group. And I like to have experienced colleagues standing at the door to say farewell to people as they I leave. Often a person who has not plucked up the courage to sign up for a Discovery Group may have been deeply moved, and it shows on their face. Then a tactful word and a chat can greatly help, and can result in that person joining a group.
With all this activity going on at the end of the service, it makes it very easy for those who want to pray or reflect to stay in their seats without embarrassment. And it makes it easy for those standing with you to chat to the individuals who come forward, not only about the Discovery Group, but about what particularly helped them in the service. Often immediate ministry like this after an evangelistic challenge is invaluable, and information gained through such a conversation, however brief, can be an important initial help to those who are going to lead the groups.
I have not mentioned, hitherto, the use of evangelistic materials such as tracts or booklets at the end of an evangelistic address. I very often offer something appropriate, and indeed I have written a little booklet, Come, Follow Me, for precisely such occasions. John Stott's Becoming a Christian has had wide circulation all over the world in this connection. Billy Graham's Steps to Peace with God is simple and attractively produced. You may have others which you prefer; it does not greatly matter. But to put something of this sort in the hand of a person who has been touched by the evangelistic address is very useful. If at the end of your talk you mention that you have such material, it gives them something to come and ask for, and therefore minimises the embarrassment of going to talk to a minister about God at the end of a service! What is more, material such as this takes the person in a coherent manner through the steps to a living faith, and therefore enables him to revise the elements he understands and have a cool look at the parts which were obscure or only partially understood in the talk.
The thing to avoid, I think, is making the taking of a booklet the mark of having put faith in Christ. At this stage people may well be staggered by the immensity of what Christ is offering them, and frankly they are often not in the position to know if they have ‘accepted Christ’ or not. It is all spinning round in their head. There will be, and there must be, a proper occasion for confessing Christ publicly later on, but now is not the right moment. You want to make it as easy as you can for them to get the help which a clearly written booklet affords, and to make that initial contact which will, one hopes, result in their being drawn into a Discovery Group, where these things can be sorted out in a far more careful and leisurely way over the next couple of months.
I have spoken throughout this chapter as if the minister of the church is giving the evangelistic talk. This will often be the case, but is by no means necessarily so. It may be a visiting speaker, in which case it is very important to see that he is fully conversant with your local ground rules as to what he should do at the end of his address. He may prefer to hand it over to you at that point, and you then invite people to come and meet you so as to get signed up for a Discovery Group. It is easy to make such an announcement pleasantly low key. ‘I'd like to give you something, and take something from you in return! I'd like to give you this little book, which goes through the steps to a living faith and is something you may find helpful. And I'd like to take your name and address, so that I can give you an invitation to the Discovery Group we have been talking about.’
It may well be, however, that the preacher on any given occasion is neither yourself, as minister of the church, nor a visiting preacher, but some other member of your own congregation who perhaps has gifts in evangelism which you may lack. It is not a question of position, but of gifts. I know some ministers who have no evangelistic gifts themselves, but they use other members of their congregations to preach on such occasions, and see a steady crop of new believers coming to join the church. These wise pastors allow those whom God has gifted in evangelism to use that gift for the good of the church, and without any twinge of pride or jealousy.
There are, of course, other ways of ending an evangelistic meeting. Some favour getting people to raise their hands or to stand up, but this seems to me to be calling for a public confession of commitment before that commitment may have been understood or taken. I much prefer, therefore, a Discovery Group to which new believers, those not yet quite sure, and those who want to rededicate their lives can all be invited. It makes it much less threatening, and it immediately places them into a context where they can be built up. Evangelists need to remember that the Lord is not interested in decisions. He is seeking disciples. And all our evangelism must lead in that direction.
I am reluctant to leave this feature without one final word. A feature like this on preaching for decision can leave the impression of a very man-centred, almost a contrived approach to evangelism. This is one of the great dangers facing anyone who seeks to engage in evangelism. We can by ourselves achieve nothing. It is only God who begets new life. And he loves to do it through his Word. Peter knew that. ‘You have been born anew,’ he writes, ‘not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God … That word is the good news which was preached to you’ (1 Peter 1:23-24).
The proclamation of God's good news, whether in a specific evangelistic service or not, has enormous power. And the wise pastor will give himself to expository preaching, that is to say, allowing the Word of God to be so clearly placed before his hearers that it does its own inscrutable work. Given that, he will find that people come to Christ at all sorts of times after being exposed to the Word of God. It will assuredly not be restricted to evangelistic services. The divine Word has a power to which our words can never attain. Our supreme privilege and calling as ministers of the gospel is to allow it to speak. Much preaching is a very far cry from that. We are called to be ‘servants of the Word’. And when that happens, God has a way of drawing people to himself.
© Michael Green 2013