EVANGELIZING THE RURAL COMMUNITY By Glenn C. Daman
One of the most difficult tasks confronting the rural church is that of evangelism. Of all the various ministries of the church, it is this portion of the ministry that seems to be the most difficult and unproductive. Week long evangelistic services that once attracted many people within the community now attract only the faithful few. Home Bible Studies, which are effective in the larger communities, find only moderate success in the rural communities. Door to door evangelism, popularized by Evangelism Explosion, not only is unappealing to the congregation, but seems an exercise in futility by those who do attempt to institute the program. Friendship evangelism seems the most promising, yet, in most rural communities, there appears to be more friendship than evangelism. Everyone in the community knows each other, yet there are few who respond to any evangelistic thrust. While the pastor, who has the gift of evangelism, may experience some success, frustration and discouragement come when he attempts to motivate and involve the rest of the congregation. If the strength of the rural church is found in its fellowship, its weakness is discovered in evangelism. To overcome this weakness, the church needs to not only realize the importance of evangelism as the major thrust of the ministry of the church, it also needs to develop programs that enable the church to accomplish the task.
THE MISSION OF EVANGELISM:
To be effective in evangelism, the church needs to recognize that the proclamation of the redemptive power of God to a lost and dying world is the heart and soul of the church ministry. Evangelism is neither an option, nor a luxury of the church. Christ gives this mandate to the church on two different occasions. In Matthew 28:19,20 Christ states, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." His final words to the apostles in Acts 1:8 reiterated this directive, "But you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." To state it bluntly, every church that is not aggressively involved in the evangelization of the community in which it lives is failing to be obedient to the command of Christ. In being obedient to the great commission, it is important to realize that evangelism is not to be equated with conversion. Evangelism is the communication of the gospel message to a lost world (the Greek word meaning to proclaim or announce good news). Conversion is the realization of Christ's redemptive power in the life of the individual. Evangelism is the process, conversion is the end result. Evangelism is the task of the church, conversion the task of the Holy Spirit. The church is commanded to evangelize the world, not convert the world.
OBSTACLES TO EVANGELISM
In developing evangelism in the rural church, there needs to be an understanding of the obstacles that will be encountered.
1. Exclusivism. Because the rural church consists of a close circle of relationships, it can easily become exclusive to outsiders. Whether intentional or accidental, when the church no longer welcomes new people into the body, the church will become hindered in evangelism. To be evangelistic, the church needs to be willing to assimilate new people into the life and fellowship of the church.
2. Law of privacy. The rural the community the more people know about the activities, problems and lives of one another. As a compensation for this, within rural communities, an underlying value is that each individual is to respect the privacy of the other by not asking them questions of a personal nature. Since ones' faith and beliefs are extremely personal, it is often difficult and considered impolite to talk to others about spiritual matters. In order to avoid offending their neighbors with whom they live in close proximity and depend upon, they avoid talking about the gospel.
3. Previous decisions. In many rural communities, people have been previously exposed to the ministry and beliefs of the church. As a result they have already made the decision not to attend. Marketing techniques, which are effective in larger communities, have little impact in rural communities.
4. Past history of the church and individuals in the church. People in a rural community often remember the past history of the church and people who attended. This knowledge of the past becomes the basis by which they judge and evaluate the church. If the church has had problems in the past or if individuals have had problems with members in the past, people will form a negative perspective of the church. This negative perception then hinders any outreach attempts with that individual.
5. Discouragement. If the church becomes focused upon the result (conversion) rather than the process (evangelism), then the church can easily become discouraged regarding evangelism. When people share the gospel and see few results they can become discouraged. Like Ezekiel, the church needs to be reminded that the body is to be faithful in communicating the message of redemption regardless of the reception it receives (Ezekiel 2:5-7; 3:17-21; see also Jeremiah 2:17ff Isaiah 6:9-13). The gospel needs to be continually proclaimed even if there are no visible results.
EVANGELISM AS A PROCESS
An examination of the ministry of Christ and the book of Acts reveals that Christ and the apostles adapted their evangelistic method depending upon the spiritual understanding and perception of the individual. Since evangelism is a process, the goal is to move people closer to an understanding of the implications of the gospel. This begins by assessing and understanding where they are in relationship to the gospel and then adapting the method to the individual.
1. The Antagonist. The antagonists are the individuals who have such a strong negative reaction to the message of Christ that they are openly hostile to Christianity. This hostility may be a result of their view of the gospel or perceived offenses they have experienced with Christians. Reaching these individuals for Christ begins with the demonstration of unconditional love that manifests itself in the acceptance of the individual. In this case the gospel must be communicated through actions rather than words, the goal being to break down the hostility so that the individuals are more receptive to the message of the gospel.
2. The Ignorant. The ignorant individuals are those who are unfamiliar with the teaching and implications of the gospel and scripture. Religiously they are ecumenical, viewing Christianity as one of the many ways to God. However they have little desire to know more about the Christian faith. The most important part of the process in reaching the ignorant is the cultivation of a personal relationship with these individuals in which love is unconditionally demonstrated. While the implications of the gospel should be carefully communicated, it should be done in a non-threatening, non-argumentative manner so that the individual will become a seeker.
3. The Seeker. Seekers are those who see themselves as "religious," that is they are familiar with the Christian beliefs and desire to know more. They are aware of the basic elements of the gospel but ignorant of the full implications. They are concerned about their "felt needs" and are seeking ways to meet these desires. They are seeking to know more about the Christian faith and the teaching of the Bible. Ministering to them involves meetings these needs while at the same time formulating opportunities to communicate the full implications of Christ's redemptive work so that they will desire to know more about him.
4. The Examiner. Examiners are those who understand the implications and personal demands of the gospel. They are aware of their sinful state before a holy God and are looking for spiritual answers to their spiritual needs. It is at this point that the witnessing process becomes persuasive in the proclamation of the gospel. The Examiner needs to be challenged to make a personal decision to accept Christ as his savior.
5. The Responder. Responders are ready and willing to make a personal decision for Christ. When an individual responds to the appeal to accept Christ, the church needs to be able to assist the individual in making that personal decision and then be committed to the discipleship of that person.
DEVELOPING A WITNESSING COMMUNITY:
Developing the church into a witnessing community begins, not with the development of evangelistic programs, but with the development of an evangelistic attitude within the congregation. To develop a witnessing community, the church must become obsessed with evangelism, otherwise it will always remain a program rather than a mission and passion of the church.
1. Prayer as the Foundation. Having a passion for evangelism begins with prayer. Before Christ sent out his disciples as evangelists for the kingdom, he first called them to pray for the harvest (Matthew 9:35-38). Prayer not only changes the spiritual receptivity of the lost, it also changes the attitudes and motivations of the believers who are called to witness. Without prayer there will be no passion for the lost, no power in the testimony and no presence of God in the message. To develop an evangelistic community, the people need to begin to pray specifically for individuals who they desire to hear the gospel of Christ.
2. Building Relationships. Having identified and begun to pray for specific individuals within the community, the next step in the evangelistic process is the building of a personal relationship with that individual. Approximately 75-90% of all people who come to Christ do so as a result of a personal relationship with a friend or relative. Peter writes to the churches in Asia Minor to be "always prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Peter 3:15). This implies close personal contact with people. This is especially crucial in the rural church where relationships rather than programs form the backbone of evangelism. The first step in building redemptive relationships is to utilize the personal relationships that people already have with others in the community. People need to be encouraged to spend time with the unchurched, cultivating relationships and ministering to their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. One of the strengths of the rural church its knowledge and awareness of the needs of people within the community. By ministering to these needs, the church can demonstrate the love of Christ that breaks down the barriers that the culture erects.
3. Evangelism as a Team Sport. To develop an evangelistic community it is necessary for people to realize that evangelism is not done by Lone Rangers, who, after converting one soul, ride off into the sunset in search of another. Typically, it requires five contacts with different Christians before a person comes to know Christ. Consequently, the evangelistic process involves the interplay between the individual Christian and the church community. Developing a personal relationship with people involves assisting the person in developing personal relationships with other Christians within the community as well.
4. Personal Invitation. To be a genuine witnessing community, the church, and individuals within the church, need to clearly communicate the gospel to the people that they have developed relationships with (Romans 10:9-15). In witnessing to people, it is important to realize that the proclamation of Christ to the lost individual is not a one-shot affair. Rather it requires patience and gentile persuasion. The Church is not merely to be a place where Christ is proclaimed to the faithful, it is to be a community that is actively and purposely involved in the process of bringing people to the point of decision with regard to the redemptive work of Christ. While the church cannot "save" anyone, God has chosen his people to be an indispensable part of the process