Geoff was perhaps the most irritating person I’d ever met. Not only that, he quickly became the most antagonizing person I’ve ever tried to live my faith in front of and share my faith with on a one-on-one basis.
For starters, Geoff wasn’t just an agnostic. He was a well-read, articulate, and highly intelligent agnostic, the kind who could make first-year theology students run screaming for the clichéd hills. And he remained just as adamant about trying to convince me I was an idiot for believing inGod as I was to convince him he was missing out by not believing. For nearly two years we went back and forth in the copy room we shared with two other workers, listening and debating, often doing our best not to let conversations degenerate into petty arguments—often failing—neither of us swaying the other.
So why didn’t I quit, just give up and write him off?
Because of Cassandra, or San as her friends called her. San was my mission partner in prayer, in encouragement, in active sharing of my faith, and in accountability to keep me from becoming un-Christlike in my zeal to help Geoff come to faith. Simply put, San was part of a group that “had my back” when I needed it. Without San’s help and partnership, my time spent with Geoff could have—and probably would have—been much less effective and Christ-focused.
There were others besides San—Todd, Dan, Tim, my wife, my pastor. Although we never formally dubbed ourselves an evangelism support group or held regular meetings, we learned several lessons about not going it alone in the Great Commission. It was the support of this “posse” that helped me be ready even when I was alone with Geoff or others with whom I shared my faith.
It was a lesson learned from the example of Jesus. While it’s often spiritually romantic to think of Jesus as the lone religious rebel, turning the world on its head, we can’t forget that He spent His entire ministry surrounded by a group of friends. Peter, James, and John formed His closest group, followed by the rest of the disciples, and then there remained the group of 72 others who apparently also dedicated their lives to following Him around. While Jesus was a unique person, His ministry was characterized by a network of group support.
Jesus never wore a black mask
Jesus is often labeled with various job titles for His time on Earth. We talk about Him as a pastor, a roaming healer, a traveling preacher, a religious scholar, a spiritual rebel, a missionary, or even a church planter, but He was never primarily any of those things, according to Alan Huesing, strategist for Youth Mission Education for the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board. In that role, Alan bears the responsibility for starting and strengthening mission and evangelism support groups for students in local churches.
“Jesus was never a pastor like His brother James,” he says. “He wasn't a church planter like Paul or a missionary to another culture like Philip. Although Jesus personally led several people to salvation, He was no mass evangelist like his cousin John the Baptizer. Occasionally He fed, healed and restored physical life to needy people, but He clearly did not want to be known as an administrator of social services. Jesus left the Christian book-writing contracts to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He preferred to delegate baptizing, ordaining and conferring of degrees to others. Jesus never had a ministry through music. He would have laughed out loud at the thought of being a denominational worker like me.”
What Jesus did was invest His life in 12 men to train them, equip them and model for them how to do the mission He was going to eventually turn over to them. Everything else—the preaching, the healing, the run-ins with religious leaders—was icing on the proverbial cake. His focus fixed on those men and getting them ready for His plan for them. He began—to put it in blatantly corporate terminology—by assembling a team and giving them not only the resource of Himself but of each other. For their “field training,” He even sent them out in groups of two, not alone. And when they arrived in a new location to do the work, one of His first commands instructed them to find some folks to support them. If they couldn’t, the next command told them to split and hit the road for another town.
So, why do we so often treat evangelism as something that must be done as a Lone Ranger?
“I believe time commitment is the main reason,” says Scott Overby of Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. Scott leads a group that strives not only to do ministry projects but also to hold each other accountable for verbally sharing the reason for the ministry.
“Most people already feel overwhelmed with everyday life and just find it hard to commit to another person,” he says. “Unfortunately this is a weakness, for I believe just as Christ traveled with His disciples and even had a few a little closer to Him, we too should have that. Having a support group is more important than most realize. I think of the model Jesus gave us where He sent the disciples out two by two. He did this for a reason. He knew we needed encouragement and support.”
Retiring the Lone Rangers
While evangelical soloists must often face discouragement and rocky soil alone, those involved in a group can look to one another for prayer support, encouragement, accountability and help each other discover and use spiritual gifts.
Lone Ranger Christians, however, can be in for “a difficult road when it comes to sharing their faith,” says Tony Whittaker, editor of Web Evangelism Guide (www.gospelcom.net/guide/). “Christians are not islands, and we should always be accountable to someone for what we are doing and how we are doing it,” he says. “Maybe we don't realize the dangers. Certainly, there are forms of evangelism that can be done very much as individuals rather than as part of a team. Yet the Bible indicates that any evangelism is spiritual warfare, and so we should expect opposition and need prayer.”
Accountability is at the heart of Scott Overby’s group. “Ongoing commitment to one another is crucial,” he says. “I believe Satan will use discouragement in any form to steal the joy from a person. Through a commitment to one another, the right to accountability is established. You now can ask your partner how things are going and get very ‘in your face’ if need be. Through accountability, you can encourage or rebuke whatever is necessary. The common goal of serving the Lord can be the reminder for any man to draw back closer where one’s relationship with the Lord may be lacking.”
With the advent of Internet chat rooms and e-mail, accountability no longer necessarily means a group of people must meet together in a room in the church basement on whatever night the church isn’t hosting children’s activities.
“The Web makes it seriously easy to keep in touch with prayer partners or mentors and support each person,” says Tony Whittaker. He’s even learning lessons from his non-church projects on how to better incorporate Internet communication into his evangelistic endeavors. “A secular heritage preservation project I know is incredible. They take the trouble to do a daily email roundup of progress. It really makes me feel I belong to it.”
While prayer, accountability, and encouragement may often become the highlights of a group, helping each member find and use his or her spiritual gifts is perhaps one of the most crucial responsibilities if a group wants to remain focused on spreading the good news.
“One of the most important things to deal with in a group,” Scott Overby says, “is plugging in all the people involved, helping them discover their uniqueness and how God has designed them, helping them make the connection between who they are and how God wants to use that for the kingdom.”
Often God will use members in ways they don’t expect, as Scott discovered during a recent mission project. “One of the guys serving that day had a brother who was unchurched and unsaved who wanted to help. It turned out that the whole day was not about helping this poor widow get her house ‘warm, safe and dry.’ It was about sitting on the roof of the house and helping another brother share our faith with this lost soul. He did not receive Christ that day, but we know our job was to be faithful and share out of the overflow of our own lives. His comments got back to us a few days later. He said we were the most real people he had ever worked with, that what we were doing was really making a difference, and he wanted to be a part of it.”
The Dangers in Them There Hills
“The enemy does not like people doing evangelism,” says Tony Whittaker. “Especially effective evangelism. So Christians doing it will be attacked—of course at their weakest spot.”
That’s where having group support can be a strong help, but be warned—being in a group also comes with its own dangers. For example, a group can take up a lot of time. “The speed bumps may come in inconsistent attendance or participation. Another may be overcommitting time to the project or ministry instead of to the number one ministry—your family,” says Overby, whose work involves him primarily with other men.
It’s also not uncommon to have a strong, energetic start that leads to a more leisurely pace or perhaps even a complete stop because of spiritual burnout. Overby cautions, “This is a marathon walk with the Lord, not a 100-yard sprint.”
Burnout and time consumption are not the only potential pitfalls, according to Overby. “Another caution is confidentiality,” he says. “You must find or have the Lord direct you to the right relationships so that trust can be established.”
Moses Catan and Lorenzo Cosio, leaders with the Gen Rev ministry (www.genrev.net), echo the importance of maintaining trust. Without trust, a group designed to deal with intimate accountability regarding evangelism can quickly become superficial and ineffective.
“One thing that must be guarded very well within a support group,” they say, “is that trust is not violated. This must be guarded well—by seeing to it that everyone involved lives a life of integrity, and to correct and discipline those who are not—or else the teamwork simply corrodes. Distrust and suspicion will only breed rivalry and unhealthy environments.”
An unforeseen danger for a group, ironically, can be success, warn Catan and Cosio. “When GenRev goes on campus concert tours,” they say, “they are usually received by high school and college students very well. Sometimes, they are even treated like celebrities, with teens screaming and asking for autographs. Belonging to a support group drills the ‘sense of mission’ in them, that this is all about proclaiming Christ and helping transform youth culture through the gospel messages, along with the message that this is a ‘team effort,’ with no single member having a right to claim singular responsibility for success. In the light of successful missions like this, the support group instills focus on the team—a focus based on Luke 17:10—that we are merely unprofitable servants doing what we are obliged to do.”
So, what happened to Geoff?
While San and I invested a lot of time in modeling for and sharing with Geoff what it meant to become and be a Christian, Geoff never acknowledged his need for a Savior. Still, long after he left the job, San and I continued to pray for him and each other and hold each other accountable for telling people about Christ. Perhaps Geoff was our “trial by fire,” as the saying goes. Or perhaps something we said took root—or will take root—later.
Regardless, I still pray for Geoff, a skill and discipline I learned from the time San and I prayed together, and in almost every accountability group I’ve been a part of since, I’ve asked the members to add Geoff to their prayer list and stay on me about praying for him. I hope to one day have the opportunity again to ask him if he’s been mulling over any of the conversations we used to have years ago in that cramped copy room.
And I know that I have San and my other support partners to thank for the change in me that led to becoming that type of person.
Tips for maintaining an evangelism support group
Alan Huesing’s job requires him to organize and equip evangelism support groups all over the United States and Canada. As such, he has quickly learned quite a few things about how that’s done. Here are some tips from Alan for maintaining and strengthening your group:
- Write (and sign) a group commitment and/or mission statement.
- Agree on a daily time to pray for each other.
- Maintain a group prayer journal with prayer concerns about others—especially lost people.
- Select a specific mission field to focus on as a group... like family, neighbors, colleagues at work, etc.
- Help each other to discover ways to reach members of your mission field for Christ.
- Work together to build relationships and trust with people you are seeking to reach.
- Help each other discover gifts and talents for ministry.
- Share with others what you see God doing in and through you.
- Work together to disciple new believers.
- Stay closely involved and connected with your local church.
- Evaluate your work together according to your mission statement.
He also provides these cautions and warnings to help your group stay on track:
- Don’t let your group be simply one more study or discussion group.
- Don’t spend more time with people in your support group than with people on your mission field.
- Don’t forget your mission.
- Don’t let your support group replace the role of the church in your life.
- Don’t compare yourself to others in your group.
- Don’t use prayer as a religious "ritual."
- Don’t let your meetings together get stuck in a rut.
- Don’t be a "closed" group.
- Don’t be inconsistent in meeting or praying together.
- Don’t forget that prayer powers and guides your mission.
- Don’t neglect opportunities to serve others and build relationships.
- Don’t underestimate how God wants to use you.
- Don’t stop or give up.
- Don’t be hypocritical.
- Don’t let others in the group drift away.