Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19–20)
Every Christian leader I know realizes that Jesus calls his disciples to make disciples for Jesus. And yet, as I interact with leaders of churches small and large, and from any number of denominations, I hear the same sentiment: Our people don’t know how to make new disciples — they don’t know how to share the gospel with nonbelievers. We can build strong Sunday experiences, preach compelling exegetical sermons, design and lead creative programs, but so many of us don’t know how to equip and mobilize believers to do one of the most basic things Jesus commanded us to do.
So, what’s the solution? How do we confront and overcome this trend in our churches? Change will require leading by example, offering intentional training, making space for hospitality, and rethinking our metrics.
Leading by Example
Change starts with the leader. Jesus said, when a student is fully taught, he resembles his teacher (Luke 6:40). The church you lead or the ministry you oversee will inevitably become some reflection of your own life and ministry. I have found that most believers are good followers. They follow the example of their leaders. So, good leaders begin with the same question: What example am I setting for our people to follow?
I have gone in and out of seasons of providing a good or bad example of sharing the gospel with nonbelievers. When I first began the work of planting a new church in Tacoma, Washington, I prayed that God would give me an opportunity to share some truths about Jesus to nonbelievers every day. At the end of each day, I would look back and evaluate the opportunities I was given and how I stepped into those opportunities (or not) to share Jesus. Intentionality and prayer produced an alertness that aligned me with the work God was already doing around me to prepare hearts and open doors. I had more gospel conversations those first few years in Tacoma than at any other time in my life.
“All leaders must begin with the same question: What example am I setting for our people to follow?”
What’s sad for me (and many leaders) is that we become so consumed with leading a church and ministering to believers that we miss the gospel opportunities God puts in front of us every day. We can’t with conviction lead people to do something that we ourselves are not doing. We also need to bring others along to see and experience us sharing the gospel. In those early days, I often had someone I was developing with me as I shared the good news about Jesus to a server at a restaurant, a college student in the University of Washington library, or a barista at our local coffee shop.
As leaders, we also need to demonstrate sharing the gospel through our teaching and preaching. I regularly tell our church, “If you come to a Sunday gathering and listen to a sermon and we fail to give you Jesus, you have permission to confront the preacher.” I have long admired Tim Keller’s preaching. He preaches the gospel, sermon by sermon, from every text of Scripture. As he does, he assumes nonbelievers are sitting in the room. In doing this, he is not only sharing the gospel with nonbelievers, but he is also equipping Christians in how to share the gospel to their friends as well.
This should not only be true in our preaching. This should be the case in our Bible studies, small groups, and classroom experiences. Jesus is the reason we do all of this, and he is the means by which we continue to grow up into maturity. As every church gathering is saturated with gospel truths, every Christian grows in gospel fluency.
Developing Through Training
We also need to offer intentional training. Most training is primarily informational. We tell people what the Bible says and inform them of what they should do. Jesus’s training was much deeper than that.
DEEPER is an acronym I use to explain how Jesus trained his disciples. He demonstrated everything he expected them to do so they could see it. He expounded from the Scriptures as he trained. The disciples personally experienced Jesus’s training. Then, he sent them out to practice it. This exposed their unbelief, ignorance, inability, and fear. Which he followed up with times where they could reflect on their experience together. Whatever the skill or practice we are leading Christians to engage in, we need to provide similar training.
At Doxa Church, we specifically designed our Gospel Fluency training to embody this DEEPER paradigm. As we form disciples, we train our members to share the gospel. We teach them what the gospel is (Expound). Then, the trainer shares the gospel through his own story (Demonstrate), which allows them as listeners to receive it personally (Experience). After that, we ask them to share their own story, showing Jesus to be the hero (Practice), which reveals their proficiency in sharing the gospel (Expose), as we then encourage them in smaller groups to process their experience (Reflect).
Apart from the official training, we aim to make most of our church experiences fit the DEEPER model of discipleship training. For example, even our Sunday liturgy is intentionally designed to bring people through the larger narrative of God’s good-news story as we walk through Creation-Fall-Redemption-New Creation in our liturgical experiences — expounding a portion of Scripture, demonstrating and experiencing it through song, art, and story, and then, sharing those truths with one another, exposing our hearts, and reflecting on our own lives together through some process time in smaller groups during the gathering.
Making Space for Hospitality
Beyond the example of leaders and the training we provide, we can also lead our people to become hospitable. Some Christians have only Christian friends. Yet Jesus was a friend of sinners. And he regularly shared meals with outsiders. I believe we need to re-embrace the lost art of hospitality. Hospitality makes space for the stranger. Space to be (as you are), space to receive (what you need), space to be known (and accepted), space to be transformed (through gospel demonstration and declaration).
Biblical hospitality directs us to make space at our table, space in our homes, space in our schedule, and space in our budgets for those who don’t yet belong to the family of God. Sadly, some Christians not only have no non-Christian friends but no space available for them either. The “No Vacancy” sign hangs on their lives because they have no margin left.
As Christians begin to make space for hospitality, I encourage them to start by listening really well. Jesus was a brilliant rabbi who knew that asking questions is the most effective way to begin exposing the heart. The reason many of us have a hard time sharing the gospel is because we don’t really know the needs, desires, hopes, and hurts of the people we are with. As a result, we end up sharing what often sounds like a cold, canned sales pitch to a disinterested “customer” instead of good news to the hearts of real people in need.
Francis Schaeffer was known to have said, “If I only have an hour with someone, I will spend the first fifty-five minutes asking them questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then, in the last five minutes, I will share something of the truth.” I have discovered that you know you have listened long enough when what you are about to share about Jesus not only sounds like really good news to you, but it also sounds like good news to the person listening to you.
“Every church gathering ought to be saturated with gospel truths so that every Christian grows in gospel fluency.”
I also encourage Christians to listen for ways they can provide a tangible demonstration of the gospel message they want to proclaim. For instance, as we exercise hospitality and listen well, we will discover real needs that we, together with other believers, can meet. Those needs provide opportunities to bring a display of the truth of the gospel. For instance, I know of one group that heard how one of their friends was stuck with a large debt he couldn’t pay. The group came together and paid off the debt. When the man asked why they did this, the believers shared how God had removed their debt through Jesus’s life given for them on the cross. Another way of saying this is that Christians live in such a way that it makes no sense apart from a gospel explanation.
Rethinking Your Metrics
Last, I often encourage church leaders to rethink their metrics and recalibrate what they celebrate. In many cases, our metrics fight against the mission we are on (and they’re often measurements we can’t even control).
One of those is conversions versus what we call “Jesus conversations.” We can’t control whether someone believes or not; we can control whether we share the gospel or not. One church I know decided to set a goal for the church collectively to have one thousand Jesus conversations in a year. They developed a creative way for people to identify every time they had a Jesus conversation. They hit their target and celebrated the members’ faithfulness. They also saw the number of people baptized grow by 150 percent from the year before. Their target metric was Jesus conversations, which led to more baptisms.
Think about it. What do you measure to gauge the health and fruitfulness of your church? Would the people know that their pastors value and celebrate gospel conversations? Where do you celebrate people making space to be with nonbelievers? What might need to change in what you measure and how you celebrate it?
As you consider how you might help your church grow in sharing the gospel, start with you and the culture you’re creating personally. Then, consider how your training might be more intentional and effective. Encourage people to make space for hospitality, and as you do, really listen to the people who come into your homes. And then, measure and celebrate what you can control, entrusting the rest to the one, the only one, who can save.