I dislike the term "public evangelism" and I believe we should retire it.
The term is a misnomer. Is it "public" because we do it in the open air, public space, in view of all people? Or do we suggest that it is directed to the public, the secular, the strangers, the world? The issue is that I have a hard time figuring out what about the Great Commission is not public. My question would be, then, what is "private evangelism?"
The gospel is not a secret. And in no case when I share it do I suggest that I don't want the whole world to know all about it. Evangelism is always public. I'll share the gospel with anybody. This morning I witnessed to a girl while I was jogging. Yesterday, I gave a Bible study to a man at his place of employment.
The gospel is always with me and I take it everywhere I go -- to share with anyone I meet. That is public evangelism.
Please don't misunderstand; I am not suggesting that we abandon evangelistic events. However, my main objection to the term "public evangelism" is that it tends to lead us toward a seasonal or event-based approach to sharing the gospel.
In his 2008 book Preparing for Your Harvest, Jessie Wilson makes it clear that our major evangelistic events are like a grain harvest, which requires a quick and decisive effort. He adds, however, that many harvests are like a fruit harvest where many people pick the fruit by hand, piece by piece.
I suggest that most of our churches, most of the time, are in better position to hold a fruit harvest than a grain harvest. We need every member in the groves examining the fruit and picking it as it ripens, even though it's a longer and more painstaking effort.
What denominational leaders say
I echo the consensus drawn by Mark Finley and other church evangelism leaders when they met this past April. "Evangelism is not an event, but rather, a process," Finley said. I would take this concept a step further by saying that evangelism is not an event, but rather part of the process of discipleship.
As disciples in the process of being shaped in the image of Christ, we are committed to the task of inviting others to join us in this journey. This journey does not happen overnight, but rather, in the words of early Adventist writer Ellen White, "Sanctification is the work of a lifetime." This demands a great commitment.
We are all disciples and thus we are all committed to making more disciples -- not just converts or proselytes (see Matthew 23:15). Just as God is not finished with us, we are not finished when a person accepts Christ and buries their past life in the watery grave of baptism. We must be committed to seeing them through to the other side of their journey. We must demonstrate a commitment to their full spiritual development.
Just as you were careful to win that person to the faith you must be just as careful -- and perhaps even more careful -- to teach him how to walk in the Spirit.
This is exactly what Jesus did for the disciples. He spent every day with them for three and a half years. He taught them everything he could and then promised them that the Holy Spirit would come to teach them everything else they needed to know (see John 14:26, 15:3). Then he turned them loose on the world and said, "Go...do for others what I just did for you." Jesus displayed an undying commitment to their spiritual development and demanded the same type of commitment from them.
Supporting a new believer
I have worked with churches that have attempted to retain new members by assigning to them "spiritual guardians." This process often falters because the two people who are thus connected often have had no prior connection and feel practically forced to be friends. Just think how much easier spiritual guardianship becomes when you serve to "guard" the one whom you have won to the kingdom. It's not a burden that has been forced onto you, but rather a responsibility that you have already shouldered when you first introduced them to Christ. The process of discipleship simply continues after their baptism.
Other pastors suggest that we retain new members by quickly assigning them to some ministry within the church. While this is important, without a trusted friend who brought them into the church standing close by their side to help them, support them, equip them and encourage them in that ministry, it is more likely that they will become discouraged and let go of the reins before they have had a chance to provide and receive the blessings that will result from Christian service.
All of this happens naturally when we begin to empower our people with understanding, resources, and skills concerning the "why," "what" and "how" of personal evangelism and spiritual mentoring.
At local administrative levels, let's appropriate less funding for public evangelistic events and more funding for training in these methods of personal evangelism and spiritual mentoring.
I appreciate the approach taken by Paul Ratsara, president of the Southern African-Indian Ocean region when he said, "We tell our pastors, 'We are happy to receive the report about [the number of] your baptisms, but we would like to wait three months and then again in one year to see how many of those people are still in church and involved in outreach.'" The emphasis is not being placed on how well we win people, but rather how committed we are to building people up in Christ.
Discipleship is the process in which a person is conformed to the will and character of Christ. I am committed to that process and my commitment includes assisting others whom I know God is leading in the same path.
--Christopher C. Thompson is pastor of the Rock of Faith Adventist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States, and the Berean Adventist Church in Pittsburgh. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Disciplemaking" from AdventSource.