It was the Friday evening before Labor Day, and rush hour traffic was backed up for nearly a mile at the corner by our Cincinnati church. The temperature was 95 degrees, with matching humidity. About 10 of us from the church quickly went into action. We iced down 400 soft drinks and set up signs just down the road: “Free Drinks Ahead!” As the cars came to the stop sign, we asked, “Would you like diet or regular?”
“Diet or regular what?” was often the skeptical reply.
“We’re giving away free drinks to show God’s love in a practical way.”
“Just because God loves you.”
Reactions varied greatly—some people smiled, some shook their heads, several mouths dropped open. Most were a little stunned to receive something free. A UPS driver marveled, “But I don’t even know you guys. Why would you do this for me?”
In less than one hour, we spoke with about 600 people, gave away all the drinks on hand, and even received mention on a local radio station.
Befriending Jesus’ Friends
My enthusiasm for what I call servant evangelism began shortly after I moved to Cincinnati. I was a church planter with a big vision and a very small church. One day while sitting in a restaurant, I sensed the Lord speak to me: “If you will befriend my friends then you’ll have more people in your life than you know what to do with.”
Who were Jesus’ friends? I searched the Scriptures for the kinds of people Jesus spent His short ministry interacting with. Something new struck me: Though Jesus loved everyone, He apparently enjoyed spending the better part of His time with three types of people—the poor, the sick, and the lost. Even the apostles came from the hurting segment of society—from Galilee, the neediest part of Palestine.
I began to see Jesus’ friends as the ones who have needs—needs for God’s acceptance, forgiveness, and love. Those issues are the real needs. Closer to the surface, however, are people’s perceived or felt needs. For example, a mom with kids in tow at the mall has a felt need to complete her Christmas shopping without losing her mind or her children. Her ultimate need, however, is to know God’s love for her and receive the best gift of all. Everyone has felt needs—those tension points that make life somewhere between irritating and downright difficult. Those less-than-ideal places in life provide the open door for God’s love to enter.
While people-watching at the mall one day, I realized almost everyone is experiencing frustration at some level. Somehow my job was to be with and minister to those people. Then the idea began to form. If I could somehow lighten some of the load these people are carrying, if I could meet a felt need—even for a moment—maybe I would get their attention. By serving my way into their hearts, maybe I could gain their ears.
Acts of Practical Love
As the idea of servant evangelism crystallized, I organized an “absolutely free car wash.” I stationed a couple of enthusiastic people on the corner with signs to direct dirty cars to the rest of the crew. This included a couple of “designated evangelists” who shared with people why we were doing this.
The first car was a station wagon driven by a single mom with six squirming kids. She cried as we shared with her and prayed for her.
The owner of the second car turned out to be a well-known Cincinnati businessman. We told him this was an absolutely free service. Unfazed, he said,
“That’s nice. To whom shall I make out my check?”
“No, sir,” someone replied, “we aren’t receiving any money for washing your car. We did this just because God loves you.”
It was one thing to see the mother cry, but I wasn’t ready to see this powerful businessman wipe away the tears.
I believe he was touched because we had circumvented all his established defenses that had kept people—and God—away. If we had “battled” at a philosophical or theological level we would not have gotten through to this sophisticate. In a sense we broke the rules—we were not fighting fair. We sneaked in the back door of his life—his heart—where he was least expecting it, and made a significant impact.
When the afternoon was over, we had washed more than 40 cars. Surprisingly, almost everyone accepted prayer when we offered it. Many heard the good news of God’s grace. As our group stood in a circle afterward, we prayed and cried together. We began to get in touch with the love God had for those we served that day.
Since that time I have tried more than 100 creative outreaches. Almost all have worked extremely well at connecting with the community.
This has caused me to view evangelism with new eyes. Simple acts of practical love make a lasting impression on the world. For several years now, approximately half of those coming into our church come from the ranks of the unchurched.
Perceiving the Process
Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 3:6 clarifies my new view of evangelism: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” Paul saw evangelism as a process, a view unlike our American mindset, which focuses mainly on “closing the deal.” According to his agricultural analogy, harvesting comes only after much planting and watering. Our natural bent is to value the harvest aspect of this process—the bottom line—above all else. Paul, however, valued the early stages of bringing someone to Christ as well as the final loop of seeing someone converted.
Because of the American church’s credibility gap, we must first willingly demonstrate love before we expect to earn the right to share words of love with our society. This is a generation whose anthem is, “Show me, don’t tell me.” Scandals surrounding prominent leaders in the Body of Christ have made it more difficult than ever to share the gospel. In this atmosphere, we must learn to value what I consider to be the first 90 percent of evangelism—the planting and watering—before we begin to see significant harvesting.
I have come up with a working definition of servant evangelism: Deeds of God’s love + Words of God’s love + Time.
Deeds of kindness and love give us entrance into people’s hearts. We design our deeds to meet a need, and cause people to ask, “Why are you doing this for us?” The deed becomes the initial seed planted in people’s hearts. Then, as we serve people we tell them words of God’s love by sharing the gospel message. Many we serve are not open to any interaction beyond hearing us say, “We just want you to know God loves you—no strings attached!” Others are further along in their trek toward Christ and are very open to conversation—they even ask us questions. In every case, usually unseen by us, the Holy Spirit begins to work on the hearts of those seekers.
I haven’t seen much fruit when I’ve tried to convert people at a head-to-head level—apologetics, explaining, arguing—but a heart-to-heart witness is hard to resist.
Paul echoed this thought in Ro. 2:4: “It is the kindness of God that leads to repentance.” Kindness is a key that opens hearts. Kindness opened one man’s heart to God when I was doing a “Free Lawn Care” outreach. I loaded a mower and rake into a truck and drove around until I saw long grass. I approached the house and knocked on the door to tell the owner what I was up to. Through the screen door a man barked, “What do you want?” I gave him a brief explanation and, without even looking up, his response was simply, “Yeah, whatever. . . .”
He sat motionless in front of the TV, watching a Reds baseball game. I mowed enthusiastically—I sometimes call it “power mowing”—and finished in about 30 minutes. When I stopped by to tell him I was done, I asked if I could pray for any needs in his life. He said he didn’t have any needs. As I began to walk away, I felt sure this man had some emotional need and that I ought to insist on praying for him. I turned around and prayed, “Come, Holy Spirit, and touch this man’s pain, whatever it is.” The response was instant and surprising—he erupted in deep sobbing that continued for some time. As the crying died down, he told me his son had been arrested the night before for stealing a car in order to support a drug habit. That day God’s presence and power penetrated this man’s pain and isolation in a tangible way—because I was willing to cut a little grass.
3 Ways to Get Started
So how do you begin to open closed hearts to God’s love?
1. Ask the Lord to show you the needs of your city. Every city has unique problems, hurts, and pain. Cincinnati has long and wet winters that leave road salt on cars. During the cold months we offer free de-salting washes. Cold weather also gives us a chance to give out free coffee and hot chocolate at grocery stores.
In Toledo, there’s a park where many parents walk about with their families on pleasant summer days. One church has photo teams that walk around the park offering to take instant pictures of the families for free “just because God loves you.” They place a sticker on the back of the picture with the church’s name and phone number. I believe those families will save those pictures for years. Every time they look at that picture they’ll recall the kindness of the Christians who served them.
2. Begin to meet the practical needs of your city. Robert Schuller says, “Find a hurt and heal it.” As you begin to look at the needs in each stratum of your city, you’ll begin to see some of what God sees.
A friend of mine pastors a church in a college town in Colorado. They do servant evangelism by going door-to-door in the dorms offering to clean rooms for free “just because God loves you.” A lot of curious college students are starting to come to their fellowship. In another outreach to the students, the church members provide free tutoring and then pray with the student for success on the upcoming test.
3. Lead the way. Most of us aren’t natural evangelists. However, we’re all called to do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5). When I take personality inventories, I consistently come up a borderline introvert, but I find these low-risk outreaches feasible for me. I’ve heard positive responses from other people who are normally scared off by the thought of high-pressure evangelism. We determine to have fun serving our community and leave the results to God.
I look forward to mobilizing more outreaches into the community. We are now using our small groups as our primary force for these projects. Just think what could happen if it became commonplace for each small group to do an outreach like this monthly. Consider the sort of impact a church could make if it decided to serve its way into the hearts of the community.
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