By Ken Davis

As the director of Project Jerusalem, a Baptist Bible Seminary church planting ministry focused on reaching lost communities in the spiritually impoverished northeast, I’d like to share what God has been teaching us about reaching our Jerusalem. It is our conviction that effective outreach ideas discovered on the front lines of new church planting can be fruitfully applied to older, established congregations as well.

 I’d like to start the conversation by focusing on servant evangelism.

Servant evangelism involves demonstrating the kindness of God by offering to do humble act of service with no strings attached. It’s doing small things with great kindness to unexpectedly interrupt a person’s day with the love of God.

These acts of kindness are limited only by the creativity and resources of those doing the outreach—anything from washing windows or handing out cold Cokes in a park to raking leaves or cleaning the toilets of businesses (which some call the 21st-century equivalent of foot washing).

Whatever the act is, the point is not to take anything in return. It’s a no-strings-attached gift.

The only thing that can and should be attached is a “connection card” that simply states the purpose of the service or gift. Often this small business-size card is customized and says something like: “We hope this small gift brings some light to your day. It’s our way of saying, ‘God loves you’—no strings attached.” The card’s backside gives the name, address, phone, and website of the church in case people want to contact or visit.

Project Jerusalem teams recommend that churches don’t hand out tracts, because they believe that defeats the concept of “free.” If we serve someone and distribute tracts, we convey conditional love. In other words, “We will help you if you read our literature.”

Our church planters see nothing wrong with having tracts nearby for spontaneous conversations that might come out of the serving projects. But they caution others not to come across as though one has an ulterior motive. Nonbelievers can smell a mixed motive from a block away.

Is it really evangelism?

Some criticize servant-style evangelism because it shies away from an immediate, direct presentation of the gospel. Is there a risk that someone touched by the outreach may never again come into contact with the good news? Advocates of this type of outreach acknowledge these risks, but they believe they’re minimal and stress the attraction of kindness in drawing people to Christ. They point to Romans 2:4, which says the kindness of God leads people to repentance. They believe servant evangelism is more like sowing seeds than harvesting.

As we show kindness to people by showing God’s love in a practical way, it tenderizes hearts so they can later receive the good news message. It changes their thinking and their opinion of church and church people.

This past two summers, one of our young church plants has handed out over 10,000 bottles of water in Scranton, Pa. During the 2008 gas shortage, they held a $2,000 gas giveaway. As a result of repeated servant evangelism, this three-year-old church has already developed a reputation for being a caring community.

Busting stereotypes

Gallup and Barna polls indicate that most adults in the U.X. don’t have much confidence in organized religion. Many non-Christians view evangelical Christians as focused only on themselves and always begging for money. Clearly the church has an image problem.

Servant evangelism helps combat negative stereotypes often associated with the church by allowing people to see the gospel lived out. It’s more of a “show-me” thing than a “tell-me” thing. People are tired of being told. They’re uninterested in a message of words but very interested in messages of works and demonstrations.

“People are used to having churches try to sell them things or come on ‘hot and heavy,’ ” says James Schmidt, team leader at North Valley Baptist, which gives away thousands of free smoke detector batteries every fall. “However, through servant evangelism we’ve been able to show a very simple message: God’s love is free for the taking.”

True compassion is something people cannot argue against. Those resistant to the gospel are often open to works of service and compassion.

Repeated touches

In today’s largely postmodern culture, showing vs. telling has new significance and great appeal. Many people are going to need to be lovingly touched over and over again before they are ready to listen to our message. Sowing seeds must come before harvesting. Church planter Paul reminds us of how God works: “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). This implies evangelism is a process, not an event. It’s also often a team effort.

Servant evangelism often introduces nonbelievers to a new kind of selfless Christianity they’ve never seen—sometimes planting a seed of curiosity or interest in the faith for future harvest. Our joy often prompts people to ask questions about our message.

Recipients often ask why the service acts are free. Servant evangelism teams are taught a standard “tagline” reply: “We just wanted to show you God’s love in a practical way.” That’s all we need to say.

“It blows people away that we’re not asking them for anything,” says Dennis D’Augostine, Scranton team leader. “Then when they’re looking for a place to go on Easter or Christmas, they come visit us. And when they finally hear the gospel, they hear it in the context of all the service and caring they’ve received over the last year in our community.”

Benefits of servant evangelism

  • Easy. Anyone can do it—even new believers.
  • Inexpensive. Many projects require little budget and only a few people.
  • Attention-getting. It creates a positive impression of your church; money can’t buy reputation.
  • Impactful. Givers are transformed, moving believers closer to a lifestyle of consistent witnessing.
  • Heart-changing. Churches are changed, becoming more others-focused and generous with God’s love—an antidote to consumerism.

“Small things done with great love will change hearts.” That’s the ministry philosophy of Pastor Steve Sjogren, whose book, Conspiracy of Kindness, has become the “Bible” for those doing servant evangelism. It gives hundreds of practical projects any church can do. His website, servantevangelism.com, gives lots of ideas as well as sample connection cards and suggestions on where to order supplies in bulk. You can also sign up for his free e-newsletter.

In today’s world, talk is cheap.  That’s why “go-and-do” churches tend to thrive more than “come-and-see” churches.

Ken Davis has over 30 years of church-planting experience in Indiana, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Besides training and coaching church planters at Baptist Bible Seminary, he is one of the main teachers at the annual School of Church Planting, which has trained over 350 church developers. Formerly he taught missions at Crossroads Bible College in Indianapolis, where he focused on reaching urban and ethnic Americans. Ken is now finishing up his DMin in missiology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Ill., and can be reached at kdavis@bbc.edu.