There is an interesting story in the book of Joshua that I think relates to our church situation today. The book of Joshua, of course, is the story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan, entering the land of promise and defeating the Canaanites who lived there.
The story actually begins in the book of Numbers, because the Israelites began to conquer land even before they crossed the Jordan River. Numbers 21:21-35 describes military victories over Amorite kings who lived north and east of the Jordan. This was good grazing land, and the Gadites and Reubenites, who had large herds and flocks, asked Moses for this land (Num. 32:1-5).
It may have been an innocent request, but Moses was harsh with them: "Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites?" (vs. 6-7). Moses then compared their request to the fiasco at Kadesh Barnea, which resulted in an entire generation dying in the desert (vs. 8-13). "And here you are, a brood of sinners, standing in the place of your fathers and making the Lord even more angry with Israel" (v. 14).
Moses thought they wanted to enjoy safety while the other 11 tribes fought the Canaanites — that they wanted to quit fighting and not help their brothers, even though their brothers had helped them. They then promised to Moses that they would help fight the Canaanites, leaving their wives and children east of the Jordan (vs. 16-19). Moses accepted this suggestion, but warned them of the consequences of reneging on their promise (vs. 20-24).
That brings us to Joshua 1:12. Joshua reminded the Reubenites, Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh of what Moses had told them: "The Lord your God is giving you rest and has granted you this land¼ . All your fighting men, fully armed, must cross over ahead of your brothers. You are to help your brothers until the Lord gives them rest, as he has done for you¼ . After that, you may go back and occupy your own land¼ east of the Jordan" (vs. 13-15).
So the two and a half tribes promised to fight — and they were true to their word, apparently fighting for seven years to help the other tribes acquire their lands. Joshua 22 concludes the story: "For a long time now — to this very day — you have not deserted your brothers but have carried out the mission the Lord your God gave you. Now that the Lord your God has given your brothers rest as he promised, return to your homes¼ on the other side of the Jordan" (vs. 3-4).
It was a story (in contrast to the time of the Judges) of tribes working together to help each other. The people were faithful to the commands Moses had given them, and faithful to what they said they would do.
What does it have to do with the church today? I believe it is fair to compare the Reubenites and Gadites to Christians who, by God's grace, have weathered the doctrinal storms well and whose congregations are strong and stable. Now, a few of them would simply like to "stay home" and enjoy their blessings, being independent and no longer contributing to the general good and needs of the whole denomination through which God brought them to where they are. I believe, like Moses believed of the tribes who secured their territory early, that these congregations have the responsibility to "stay in the battle" and work until their brothers and sisters can enter "the promised land" and also enjoy their rest.
Most congregations, of course, are eager to "stick it out," and I am thankful for them. However, it grieves me that a few congregations have begun to think, in effect, "Thank you for making the doctrinal changes. We are glad you taught us about grace and led us out of exclusivism and legalism. We are glad you have taught us about the priesthood of all believers and the importance of evangelism in our local area. We appreciate all this, but now we want to go on our own. We aren't going to help you teach anyone else. We are glad you helped us, but now that we are where we are, we aren't going to help you any more."
In many ways, I understand how they feel. They are happy for the benefits and for the new vision of ministry, but now they want to begin implementing those benefits in their local area, and they see the rest of the denomination as just an impediment to their goals. They have what they need, so they no longer have a desire to put their goals on hold in order to help the rest of the congregations survive until the properties have sold. I believe this is the sort of attitude that Moses so strongly warned against.
It is important to understand that there is no need to sit on our hands during this transition period. Even while we are waiting, there is much good work that is already being done for the kingdom. As many congregations are demonstrating, it is quite possible to be effective locally while supporting the kingdom work in the denomination, too. I recently received this report from Sonny Parsons:
On Pentecost in San Antonio we had a full house. We were glad to see so many people there. At the end of the service we took communion and, rather than taking up an offering in the usual way, we asked the people, as they came forward to take communion, to bring their offerings to God and place them in the baskets provided. (We had four communion tables set up in various parts of the sanctuary where people could come individually or as groups to take the communion, give their offerings, and pray.) It was well received.
Since beginning our community outreach, we have had over 20 new people visit services. Some of them have invited their friends to come, too. The community children are really fine examples of this. Jane uses our van to pick up neighborhood children, and several are attending church regularly and have also invited other children .
The following are some of the things our congregations have done to encourage evangelism. We give God all the credit for what He has allowed us to do.
1. I recommend that pastors be involved in ministerial alliances. I attend five, and take some of my leading men with me if they are able to go. Each alliance is made up of different ministers. Some attend one or two others, but not many attend the others. This has given me a view of a wide spectrum of beliefs. The Billy Graham Crusade helped open up doors for attending these alliances. It is surprising how interconnected many of them are. There are always opportunities to serve by being a part of them. In each of them I had a chance to tell of the church's transformation, and I have been graciously received. We have been asked by some of these groups to participate in many different ways. One alliance has asked us on several occasions to host them. This has allowed quite a few of our members to help prepare meals, etc. and fellowship with ministers and Christians from other parts of the body of Christ.
2. After meeting with Paul Cedar at the Billy Graham School of Evangelism and hearing about his prayer walks, we began these in November, and they have produced good results. As we walk through the neighborhood, we pray discreetly for God to call people to saving knowledge.
We asked the people in December to start praying that God would show us a community to begin to evangelize, and that He would provide a meeting place in that area, and He did! It is awesome how God showed us an area and provided a church building, which we now have seven days a week. It is right in the center of the community that He showed us. It is less than a quarter of a mile from my home, so I can be right among the people in the community. We know it was an answer from God because we couldn't have orchestrated the events that led up to this. One of our slogans is "Let go and let God!" and that is what we did, and He responded.
3. When we finished our Congregational Mission Statement (which is, basically, to fulfill the great commandments, to love God and neighbor, and to carry out the great commission), the parts all seemed to start coming together. I asked the members, as our mission statement mentions, how far are you willing to go to show love to your neighbors? I then asked: Would you be willing to go so far as to change the day on which you worship to accommodate the needs of new people? We then began a series of messages about the possibility of changing our services from Saturday to Sunday. Easter Sunday was our first Sunday service, and God has led the people into making this change. We have had only four or five people who did not want to change. So we offer an alternative service on Saturday afternoon at 5 p.m., and the regular service is on Sunday at 11 a.m. If attendance stays as it is, we may also offer a 9 a.m. Sunday service.
4. In December I delivered a note to 125 homes in our community inviting them to our home for caroling, and to get to know each other. Surprisingly, 50 people showed up in our front yard for hot chocolate, cider and cookies (and carols...). It was supposed to last 30 minutes, but lasted two hours. Everyone had a great time.
5. We started a community outreach ministry called New Beginnings. (This is the name of our outreach, not a name for the local congregation.) It is based on 2 Cor. 5:17. We feel that everyone wants a chance to have a "new beginning." We had T-shirts made up with a sun breaking over a white cloud, and the title NEW BEGINNINGS Community Outreach Ministry on the front and back. They look very nice. This opens the door for a conversation about the church. We have sold nearly 500 of these shirts to our congregations and to others that were interested.
6. We often have "T-shirt day" in services, and then go into the community to pick up paper, etc. The shirts help identify us and show unity. If people just saw 50 or 100 people in the community picking up trash, they wouldn't have anyway of knowing that it was a church group. We felt that we had to let the community first know that we cared for them, before they would listen to us sharing the gospel, or want to attend services. One of our slogans is "We care, we share, and we bear."
7. I told our congregations that unless we began to evangelize and take seriously God's word about seeking the lost sheep, making disciples, etc. that we were going to die as a congregation. We need to be nourished congregationally, but we also need to reach out to the unsaved community.
Shortly before this, I had been in a meeting with John Quam of Mission America, and he talked of ways to involve the community in evangelism. One of the ways he recommended was using an outreach method called "canning hunger": the congregation goes door to door asking for donations of canned goods from the community to be given to the homeless, and then you also mention to the donors that your church prays for peoples' needs. They are asked if there is anything they would like for us to pray about, that only God can solve. We did this in the community and in less than an hour collected enough canned goods to feed 150 people, and some of the people asked for prayer. It was amazing to see the results.
We delivered the food to the Salvation Army in Kerrville, since we have had a chance to meet and work with the director of the Salvation Army there. We later sent a note to each home in the area canvassed, thanking them for their response and inviting them to services. We showed all our congregations the video "The Harvest" from Mission America to lay a foundation.
9. We had a day of prayer in December in which we had members in our congregations pray for God to show us a community that we could evangelize in, and then provide us with a building, if it was His will, in that same area. We realized that to try to work with a whole city is too much to start with. We feel it is best to start small and build, as God opens the doors. The day was divided into 15 minute increments, and people could sign up to pray at specific times throughout the day. It worked!
10. In preparation for this evangelistic move, we took the first six weeks of the new year to have each congregation go through the Statement of Beliefs, word for word and scripture by scripture, in services. All who completed this study were then presented a certificate stating that they had completed the class. We felt that if we were going to bring in new people, we had to understand and support our denominational beliefs. If we are going to find ourselves some day discipling new people, we need to first be sure that our own people understand theology and doctrines, and know what we stand for.
11. In March we hand-delivered to the homes in the surrounding community an invitation to come to a resurrection service on Easter morning. It went very well, and some new people attended.
12. In early May we delivered a 12-page brochure to 500 homes in the immediate area telling what we have to offer the community, and asked for input on other outreach activities they would like a local church to sponsor. This has produced results. As a result, we are now offering a craft class on Thursday mornings, and it has been a success.
Note: No aspect of our evangelistic outreach has been very expensive. The brochure we printed cost only $79 for 500 copies. The Statement of Beliefs booklet we printed was only about $40. There are minimal costs, but the returns are greater. There was no charge for the prayer walks that were done daily. The neighbors are now noticing us, turning out, and talking.
13. We have praise and worship services on Wednesday nights, and our ministries, like small groups, meet on other evenings at the building. Our Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops meet on Wednesday nights as well, so the parents can come to P&W services while the kids are in scouts. The Scout troops are available to people in the community.
14. I recommend attending conferences and workshops as they come available in the various areas. We have been blessed by having the opportunity to meet with several people here, which has increased the visibility of the church locally. All whom I have talked to are aware of our changes and are supportive of what the church is doing. The people I have met include John Stott, Tony Evans, Max Lucado, James Robison, Alan Andrews (head of Navigators), Alice Patterson (head of Pray Texas!), MOMS In Touch! state coordinator, Joan Bond (Women's Neighborhood Prayer), Soapy Dollar (head of Campus Crusade for Christ in SA), Larry Backlund (head of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism), and Bob Cullum (American Bible Society State coordinator for volunteers. He has an interesting story, too. He also gave me 110 Bibles free.)
I feel that the keys to successfully evangelizing are:
Prayer in groups about evangelism, and also individually, including prayer walks. I have seen the power of prayer walks in action. Paul Cedar feels that everyone who comes to Christ has had someone praying for them.
Having a local mission statement and with God's help fulfilling it.
Have a day of prayer where you beseech God congregationally for a community (a field in which to evangelize), and a place to meet in that community.
Show the community that you care, by doing something beneficial, like a community beautification project (another name for a trash pickup). You don't just talk religion, but do a service project.
Taking principles such as Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Church, and putting them into practice.
Take the principle of being fishers of men to heart. We need to go fishing, not just sit around and talk about it.
Target the unbelievers, the unsaved, and those who don't attend any church.
Make services Christ-centered and practical, and help people understand that Christianity is a way of life.
When God answers the prayer and the harvest begins, don't stop praying, assuming that we have it made now, but every week, seek God as a congregation, and from the heart pray the scriptural response to the call to evangelism: "Here I am Lord, send me!"
I didn't mean to make this as long as I did, but it is exciting to see God at work in a local community. There is much more I could say about our plans, if it is God's will for us to do them. We know that without God's help and His guidance we can't achieve anything. As Franklin Graham says in his book, we have to learn "to give God room." There is a limit as to how far we can go, and then we simply have to let go and let God. That's what we're trying to do in San Antonio.
Not everyone can do what Sonny and Jane are doing in Texas. And probably some of the things they try will not be fruitful. But much good fruit is already being borne. They are eager to make a difference for the kingdom of God. They are thankful for what the denomination has done to make this possible, and they support the ongoing work the church has to do, so that more congregations can become increasingly effective in God's service!
In the time of the judges, everyone did what was right in their own eyes, and the nation suffered tremendously for it. We see this attitude in American churches today, too, in our highly individualistic culture. Many people in every denomination think of their own desires first, and give the church the crumbs that are left over. In both time and money, they are short-changing the church. Ironically, even on a individual basis, wealthy Christians (on average) give smaller percentages than less financially blessed Christians do!
Friends, there is work to do — incredibly important work. It is not easy, but it is the job that Christ sets before us. If you have received benefits from the church, I urge you to help others receive them, too. If you have received spiritual benefits, I urge you to give material benefits (1 Cor. 9:11).
If you have received a spiritual harvest, do not just take the benefits and run away. Stay to help your brothers and sisters until we conquer the "Canaanites," and all of us can enter the rest that God has promised (Heb. 4:1-11).