There are two ways to reach lost people with the gospel; bring them to the message or take the message to them. While both have been used throughout the church age, the Great Commission given by the Lord Jesus puts the emphasis on taking the good news to those who need to hear it (Matt 28:18-20, Mark 16:15 KJV). This was not a new idea. After Adam and Eve sinned, it was God who took the initiative and came looking for the couple. We could wish they had reasoned, “We’re in trouble; let’s seek the Lord,” but the natural response was to hide.
The history of Israel is much the same. Writing toward the close of the Old Testament, the chronicler sums up prophetic history this way: “And the Lord God of their fathers sent to them by His messengers, rising up early and sending, because He had compassion on His people, and on His dwelling place” (II Chron. 36:15).
Passing into the New Testament, we find the same priority expressed by the Lord Jesus: “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). No wonder, then, that the operative word in the great commission is “Go!”
How then can elders encourage this mindset in the church? Not everyone can be a missionary. Here are some ideas to consider.
First, elders should be sure there is a clear understanding of the mission of the church. Worship, teaching and prayer are vital, but serious questions must be asked if we are claiming to glorify the Lord and edify believers, yet have no concern for the lost.
Second, make certain participants understand that, while not all Christians are evangelists (gifted to initiate), all are witnesses (prepared to give an answer when asked—I Peter 3:15).
Third, take an active interest in those who are on the “front lines” reaching out to others with the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness. It is wonderfully invigorating when a local fellowship “adopts” a missionary family to love, pray for, correspond with, and even visit. But don’t forget the efforts of those in the home assembly who are reaching out to family and friends close by.
Fourth, and the focus of this article; consider small groups as a tool of outreach. Let’s think about how this can work. We’ll look at 1) Getting started; 2) Developing the outreach, and 3) Over-coming obstacles.
By now you have probably concluded that no matter how many flyers you pass out, and no matter how many attractive programs you design, lost people just don’t usually seek God, and have little interest in coming to “God’s house” as they call it. But they may come to the home of a friend or acquaintance in their own neighborhood. Small groups are lights shining in neighborhoods. One author puts it this way in the title of his book, “Your Home, a Lighthouse.” Some are critical of any meetings not held in the church building. We won’t spend time on this, but you need to get beyond these arguments which sound spiritual, but are based mostly on tradition. Stop and reflect upon the fact that although the Lord Jesus had many disciples, He chose out a “small group” of twelve to work with intensively (Luke 6:13). Being sensitive to and providing for the different needs within the flock is a principle lived out in assemblies whenever there are elders meetings or committee meetings or Sunday school classes. In any case, remember that you are not holding a formal “church service,” but an informal get together of friends. The format of meetings should be simple, built around the basic idea of fellowship. For some suggestions, see the four articles on small groups in ESN beginning July, 2002 (Volume 3, Number 4).
Developing an Outreach
Turning to the specifics of outreach, the question may arise as to why unsaved people would seek the Lord in a home when they wouldn’t in a church building. And of course, they probably won’t. For this reason, small group meetings must not be simply religious services on a smaller scale. In fact, it’s wise not to begin the group with a focus on lost people at all. Rather, spend the first few months developing closeness among the believers so that there is a family spirit. Seek to establish a smoothly functioning group marked in its fellowship by harmony, supportiveness and yes, fun. Not silliness, but the joy of looking forward to being with true friends to share in the pursuits of practical Christianity. Once this environment begins to develop, and it takes time, visitors can simply “look in on” a spiritual family in action, loving and caring for one another.
Begin by praying by name for 2 or 3 people that each person in the group would like to win to the Lord. Have each person share how they are reaching out to these individually. The small group in some ways is like a family expecting a baby. Getting the nursery ready is part of the work. When someone does bring a friend to the meeting, carry on as usual, being careful not to single out or embarrass the visitor by undue questions.
Most problems a group may encounter can be solved through prayer, study of the word, and good leadership and communication. A few problems need particular mention.
Churches that have been small for many years can be so hungry for growth, that it’s all but impossible for them to resist smothering (or preaching at) outsiders that may visit a group. Keep in mind that the Holy Spirit will work best if we leave the work of conviction to Him. The love of Christ is contagious; people are drawn to the source, and whenever someone draws nearer to God, they become more aware of their own condition. Once visitors begin coming, resist the temptation to divide the group mentally into “saved” and “lost.” God alone knows the heart. We may have our discernments, but in an informal setting all are accepted as friends (in the sense Jesus was a friend of sinners) who are seeking to know the Lord better.
Other problems have to do with formality and dwindling of the group.
Studies from the Bible, prayer times, and group discussions should be down to earth, encouraging participation from all who attend regularly. If the needs of people are being met, it won’t be hard to maintain a faithful attendance. Allow time for open hearted conversations, prayer and help for those facing special needs, attractive refreshments, and even the occasional creative project. When there is good leadership and challenging content, people will place this time high on their list of personal commitments for the week. The goal is to enjoy the freedoms received under grace, and learn to reach out to others–first those in the immediate small fellowship, and then to “strangers.”
Finally, pray for fruit and expect God to answer. When people come to Christ and are saved, begin immediately to pray for their contacts of family and friends. When the group gets too large, consider starting some other groups in other neighborhoods or even forming a new assembly! There is a tremendous joy and satisfaction in seeing new believers and new assemblies begin through practicing the principle that fellowship is an important key to evangelism.