I don’t think event-based evangelism is wrong or sinful. So, however you read the rest of what follows, know that I am not saying anyone is sinning if they do what I (usually) wouldn’t do. Nor do I think you necessarily shouldn’t do event-based evangelism. If you run events and see hordes of people giving their lives to Christ, who subsequently turn up to church regularly and show all evidence of having been saved – tracing their testimony of faith back to the event you ran – praise God for that. If on that basis you want to commit to continuing whatever event that is, and it is bearing fruit, I have absolutely no desire or intention of encouraging you to stop that fruitful work. So, this is not dealing with the realms of sin, matters of right and wrong nor me telling you to stop clearly fruitful evangelistic ministry.
What this is, really, is me explaining why I think event-based evangelism is (usually) not worth the effort we put in. I will outline a few exceptions, but as a broad rule, I think event evangelism is a waste of everyone’s time. I think it is usually fruitless and often takes more time and energy than other things that would bear better fruit.
At heart, I think we often misunderstand the nature of genuine fruit. For most of us, our event was a great success if it pulled a load of people in. Well, without wishing to burst anyone’s bubble, bums on seats is ultimately irrelevant. You can pull the entire world into your event, but if half of them didn’t understand the gospel as it was presented, another lot understood it and were vehemently opposed and everyone else (including some in the aforementioned groups) – whether they thought there was credit to the message or not – essentially forgot it in the following days and we had no other follow up with them and probably won’t do until next year at the same event if we’re lucky, how fruitful and valuable has that been?
The sadder truth is, though we might run the occasional event that will pack them in, we’re usually not even getting that. We might get a handful of people, perhaps some of our folks will bring somebody, but there just aren’t that many people chomping at the bit to come at any rate. If the event that packs people in is often unfruitful, what are we to say of the one whereby all those same things apply but, along with them, very few people come altogether?
Realistically, most of the time, the evangelistic output at such events boils down to a short talk or epilogue. It’s essentially an hour or two of the main event that everyone has been hooked in with and then a 10-15 minute talk that people will sit through. Whilst, of course, the Lord can indeed use anything he wishes, I just don’t think that is a great evangelistic strategy. A one-hit wonder, fairly short talk, with often little to no follow up, and we think people will become believers. I don’t so much as buy pegs from someone giving me a 10-minute pitch at my door, how many people are realistically going to turn their entire lives upside down because a stranger (very briefly) told them the essence of the gospel one time at an event they were coming to because of the something else that we tacked the talk onto?
Now, don’t get me wrong. The Lord works through his Word and people may be arrested by the power of the gospel, even through a short gospel talk. I’m not saying that talk has absolutely no value whatsoever. What I am saying is, the whole setup is unlikely to yield great results if it is a short talk, tacked onto something else, where there is little follow up. I am increasingly of the view the church event, the one-hit-wonder bit of attractional evangelism has well and truly had its day. I am quite prepared for a slew of comments demonstrating how wrong I am (if you are going to send them, please do it with reference to the fruit described above) but experience tells me – not just personal experience, but the wider experience of many other churches (some of whom are resolutely wedded to events) – most people ain’t coming and, those that do, certainly aren’t converting.
Some would argue that perhaps the event is less to the benefit of unbelievers but helps God’s people to grow. It is a means of involving themselves in evangelism and serving the kingdom. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is really true either. We often abdicate that responsibility to the person speaking. Merely bringing my friend along, we think, is evangelism. We tell ourselves that serving in the kitchen away from all the people is evangelism. But it isn’t. Evangelism is telling people the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we haven’t spoken the gospel, or talked to someone about Jesus in some way, we haven’t really done evangelism. We may have supported someone else doing it. We may have helped run an event where some people heard it. But we haven’t, ourselves, shared the gospel with anyone. If there is no gospel follow up either, we haven’t really done a great deal for the kingdom. Sometimes, events can feel a bit like ways of evangelicals keeping ourselves busy and making us feel better rather than actually doing the work Jesus has called us to do.
I am not totally against all events. Our church does some every year. But I am very much against standalone events. Events done that exist on their own and are not part of any sort of wider package of evangelism and mission. Events that are in essence the evangelism of the church.
Where events may be helpful is if they are part and parcel of ongoing friendship and bridge building. So, we ran a couple of BBQs this year and we didn’t have any talk at them. They were essentially just social events and people from the local community could come and hang out with us. But the people who came were already plugged into other ongoing ministries that we have or are already in friendships with people where the gospel is spoken about. These events are really and opportunity to build further on the gospel work already going on. They are means of building friendships and furthering relationships that have already been built for the gospel. The event is part of a package that already exists.
The same is true of our regular Light Party. At the Light Party, we do tack a gospel talk onto it. We get lots of Muslim families coming in for it too. But they come because we already know them, and invite them, and they are plugged into friendships with us already and engaging with us (and the gospel) through Food Club and English Class that happen more regularly. More to the point, the talk itself is not just a one-hit wonder bit of evangelism. It is food for further conversation with those we are already in friendships with. It is a means of helping us have further gospel conversations with people later on – gospel conversations that we are already having in different ways and at different times.
I would be disinclined to have these events if we did not already have gospel relationships in the community. I don’t think these events would achieve very much for the kingdom on their own. As standalone things, I think their kingdom value is limited. But as part of wider package of mission and evangelism – whereby we are serving people’s need in the community, we are in regular contact with friends locally, we are already sharing the gospel – it is another means of building on those friendships and extending our gospel reach into their lives.
Most importantly, I think events – if you’re going to run them – not only need to be part of wider relationships and a package of outreach within your church, they need to be actual vehicles for every believer in the church to speak to people about Jesus. Abdicating the ‘gospel bit’ to the speaker is not actually empowering our people to see that they are able to share the gospel just as well. In fact, they may be better placed to do it because (if they have done anything at all) it is their friend they have brought along. Who better to speak into your friend’s life than, well, their friend – you! Who better to share the gospel with them than someone who they can see the outworking of the gospel at work long after the event has finished? If events are set up in such a way that everyone can share the gospel and those that come are meaningfully able to engage with believers afterwards, over the course of days and weeks, hearing the gospel further and having their questions and thoughts discussed honestly with a friend, then they may be more value so far as kingdom work is concerned.
Generally, I prefer to emphasise ongoing relationships. Weekly works where you can engage with the same people again and again seem better to me than one-off events. Regular friendships where you are able to build on prior knowledge and share in the strength of a friendship seems better to me than one-time opportunities. Getting all of your members to engage in sharing the gospel seems to have better reach and impact than getting the expert evangelist in to do a talk. For these reasons, I prefer to emphasise frequent contact and context rather than one-off events. But as part of a wider package, events can have value if set up helpfully, they just ought not to be our go-to approach.