Chapter 1.
The Setting of the Evangelistic Sermon

Steve Gaines

One of my favorite things to do with my wife is to eat at a nice restaurant. Donna is an excellent cook, but she enjoys periodically having someone else prepare a meal and then wash the dishes afterward. Though we both enjoy eating out, my wife and I often differ about the selection of a restaurant. Personally, I am interested primarily in how the food tastes. I do not care whether the tablecloths, the curtains, and the carpet are color coordinated. As long as the steak is tender and the salad is fresh, it does not matter much to me if the tables and chairs are old and the walls need fresh paint. But beauty and aesthetics matter to my wife. She is concerned as much with the environment of the restaurant as she is with the food. For her, the atmosphere in which the meal is served and eaten is a critical ingredient for enjoyment and intimacy.

Likewise, the environment in which an evangelistic sermon is preached is crucial if the preacher desires to win the lost to Christ. Thus, in this opening chapter, we will begin our study on preaching evangelistically by focusing on the setting in which the evangelistic sermon is preached. Several characteristics that should mark effective evangelistic services will be discussed. Also, key elements of a worship service that are instrumental in assisting the preacher to win souls from the pulpit will be suggested.

Characteristics of an Effective Evangelistic Service

Know Your Listeners

Some preachers study the Bible. Others study people and culture. Effective preachers analyze both. Why? Because the effective evangelistic preacher will preach differently to a group of senior adults than he preaches to a group of high school seniors. Likewise, he will preach differently to a group of unchurched, white-collar, upper-class people in suburban Los Angeles than he preaches to a group of church-oriented, blue-collar, middle-class people living in a rural area in the southeastern United States. Although the message of the gospel never changes, how it is presented should connect with the cultural persuasions and unique personalities of the people addressed.

Fishermen who are successful do not keep only one type of bait in their tackle boxes. Nor do they insist on using one technique as they attempt to land a catch. Sometimes they fish on the bottom of the lake or ocean. At other times they troll, allowing the bait to drag along as the boat moves forward. On other occasions they work the bait around trees or underwater debris. They have lures and jigs of many shapes, sizes, and colors. Why? Because different kinds of fish are attracted to different kinds of bait. Thus, if a preacher wants to be an effective "fisher of men" from the pulpit, he must know what kind of fish he is trying to catch and the most appropriate ways to reach them.

The bottom line is this: Preachers need to think and speak like missionaries! To be successful, we must learn the culture, customs, and "language" of those we are trying to reach. For instance, you are in for a rude awakening if you try to reach most of today's teenagers by singing two-hundred-year-old hymns and preaching out of a four-hundred-year-old version of the Bible. That, my preacher friend, is definitely "poor fishing." Indeed, I love the great hymns of the church. I also have read the King James Version of the Bible through several times, and I personally appreciate it. These have their place. But they are not always the best way to reach certain groups. Get to know the people you are trying to reach for Christ. Sing Christ-honoring music to which they can relate. Use a version of the Bible they will understand. Remember, Jesus never spoke English!

It will be a great day when the preacher asks himself these questions: What are the people whom I am trying to reach?

What are their religious backgrounds? What kind of music do they prefer? What is their level of education? What are their predominant cultural customs? What do they like and dislike? When you start evaluating these and other issues like them, you will be well on your way to being more effective in making an initial evangelistic contact with your audience.

Focus on God, Not Man

The most important emphasis of a worship service is focusing on God. Worship services should be God-centered, not man-centered. Those who lead in worship will do well to steer clear of elaborate introductions of those who sing solos, lead in prayer, etc. Elaborate introductions of preachers should be avoided. The more we emphasize Jesus and deemphasize people, the more anointed a worship service will be. Worship services should not exalt people; they should exalt Jesus Christ. Likewise, worship services should not be designed primarily to attract people. Instead, they should seek to attract the manifest presence of God. When He "shows up," He will attract the people. "In [His] presence is fullness of joy" (Ps. 16:11 NNAS).

While evangelistic churches should try to be seeker friendly, their priority is to be Savior focused. We should strive to be gracious to those present in a worship service, providing comforts such as good lighting, relaxed seating, and appropriate temperature. But we should never focus on the people who are attending the worship service to the neglect of God. Jesus said that if we will worship and seek Him in spirit and truth, He will in turn seek us to be His worshippers (see John 4:23-24). If people leave a worship service saying, "What a preacher!" "What a sermon!" "What a choir!" or "What a church!" then we have failed. But if they leave a worship service saying, "Hallelujah, what a Savior!" then we have succeeded!

Present a Warm Atmosphere

Evangelistic preaching is most effective in a friendly, hospitable environment. Someone has said, "You cannot hatch eggs in a refrigerator." Likewise, you cannot expect to see people converted to Christ in a cold, inhospitable setting. Those who attend an evangelistic service should be met by greeters (in the parking lots and at every door) and ushers who welcome them warmly after they enter the place of worship. Christians in attendance should be sensitive to the presence of lost people in the service and seek to be cordial to everyone sitting near them.

Those who lead in worship should be genuinely enthusiastic and positive. The preacher should convey an inviting, positive, encouraging message through his facial expressions, the tone of his voice, and the content of his message. After all, the word gospel means "good news." The preacher should emphasize the salient demands of the gospel without shouting and snarling at his listeners. When the atmosphere is warm and friendly, people are more receptive to what the preacher has to say. "The wise in heart will be called understanding, and sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness" (Prov. 16:21 NNAS). Evangelistic preachers are called to "feed the sheep," not "beat the sheep."

Emphasize Jesus

If we want to win people to Christ through our preaching, we need to intentionally focus on Jesus Christ. We need to speak the name of Jesus frequently. The words God, Lord, and Christ, are all biblical, but there is something particularly powerful about the name of Jesus. That is why the angel said to Joseph (stepfather of Jesus), "You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21 NNAS). It is also the reason Peter said, "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12 NNAS). The name Jesus literally means "God is salvation."

The worship music prior to the evangelistic sermon should highlight Jesus Christ. Songs that speak His glorious name are powerful and persuasive tools for softening the hardened hearts of lost sinners. Whether it is a familiar hymn that says, "My Jesus I Love Thee," or a less traditional song that says, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there's just something about that name," or a more contemporary chorus that says, "My Jesus, My Savior, Lord there is none like You," music in an evangelistic setting should magnify the name above all names—the name of Jesus.

Likewise, throughout his sermon, the evangelistic preacher should focus on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. He should talk about the cross and the redemption that Jesus purchased for lost sinners. C. H. Spurgeon, who preached to about six thousand people each Sunday morning for almost forty years in the 1800s in London, concurs by saying:

Let your sermons be full of Christ, from beginning to end crammed full of the Gospel. As for myself, brethren, I cannot preach anything else but Christ and His cross, for I know nothing else, and long ago, like the apostle Paul, I determined not to know anything else save Jesus Christ and Him crucified... Preach Jesus Christ, brethren, always and everywhere; and every time you preach be sure to have much of Jesus Christ in your sermon... We preach Jesus Christ to those who want Him, and we also preach Him to those who do not want Him, and we keep on preaching Christ until we make them feel that they do want Him, and cannot do without Him.

In the most precise sense, evangelism is the proclamation of the gospel. The word "evangel" is a transliteration of the Greek word euaggelion,translated gospel, which is a contraction of the Anglo-Saxon term god-spell, meaning good tidings or good news. The New Testament evangel referred to either the good news that Jesus preached (the proclamation of the kingdom of God) or to the good news about Jesus, who was both the announcer and the revelation of the kingdom.

Herschel H. Hobbs, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, also stressed that the message of evangelistic preaching must center in the life and work of Christ. We should emphasize His virtuous life, His vicarious death, and His victorious resurrection. According to the apostle Paul, these are the essential facts that constitute the gospel (see 1 Cor. 15:1-4). Like Philip, we must open our mouths and preach Jesus to a lost world (Acts 8:35). What greater news could one man tell other men?

Emphasize Participation, Not Performance

People today do not come to church to be entertained. The truth is that the world can entertain them better than the church can. Through television, videos, movies, and the Internet, people are exposed to the highest level of artistic performances and productions. When they come to church, they are looking for something that Hollywood cannot give them. That "something" is the presence and power of God. Evangelistic churches and preachers must remember that the world will always be able to outsing, outspeak, and outperform us. But the good news is that they will never be able to "out-God" us!

To promote a sense of audience participation, effective evangelistic worship services should emphasize songs that sing to God instead of about God. Sing songs that address God directly. Sing, "My Jesus, My Savior, Lord there is none like You," or "I love you, Lord, and I lift my voice to worship You, O my soul, rejoice," or "You are good, You are good, and Your love endures!" Songs sung about God help educate people. Songs sung directly to God are more effective in helping people encounter Him.

Effective evangelistic preaching should also take place in an atmosphere that makes use of images. Because of television, people are more visionary than auditory. That is why, if at all possible, hymnals should be replaced with overhead screens of some sort. Large screens at the front of the sanctuary are preferred by a generation that has grown up going to movies and watching television. The words to the songs of worship should be shown on these screens.

This allows for the worship music to "flow" from one song to the next without having to stop for introductions and announcements of hymnal page numbers. Senior adults will enjoy being able to see the words that are larger on the screens than those printed in a hymnal. Also, the volume of the singing will increase when people are looking up at screens as they sing instead of looking and singing down into a hymnal. Musical purists might argue that screens prevent people from being able to read the music. But few people read the music when they use hymnals.

While screens may seem as uncomfortable as Saul's armor for some who "have not tested them," preachers who want to reach people in today's society should force themselves to become comfortable with them. Screens help engage more of the worshippers' senses and aid in gaining and keeping the attention of those in the congregation. The "listeners" become "seers," which enhances participation and increases involvement and interest. The pastor's sermon title and main points should also be shown on the screens along with supporting Scriptures.

Screens also solve the problem of not being able to read Scripture publicly with the entire congregation because of the many different Bible versions among the people. With overhead screens the preacher can display any version of the Bible he prefers and ask the congregation to read along with him at any given point. This one element enhances participation.

Reverence? Yes! Formality? No!

Those who would reach people for Christ in the coming years must realize that our society is becoming less formal. Churches that would reach people for Christ also should avoid excessive formalities such as having their preachers, worship leaders, deacons, and choir members making a grand entrance by "filing in" at the beginning of a worship service. The preacher and other leaders should not bring attention to themselves through such pompous displays of ceremony. The preacher could well be one of the greeters mentioned earlier. Then, as the service begins, the preacher should be seated near the front. When the time comes for the preacher to speak, he can move from the pew among the people before proclaiming the message.

Worshippers today should be allowed to worship by clapping and lifting their hands to the Lord. When worshippers hear something they like in a sermon, they are much more likely to applaud than to say "Amen." They are also likely to shut their eyes and lift their hands to the Lord when singing a praise song. While no person should ever be coerced to clap or lift his hands to the Lord, there should always be complete freedom in our worship services for people to participate in these biblical methods of worship (see Neh. 8:5-6).

For older generations who were taught to "be still and quiet" in church, these suggestions might seem irreverent. But reverence and silence are not the same thing. A person lying in a casket is being still and quiet, but this is not because he is being reverent. Preachers who want to reach people must not allow themselves or their congregations to get hung up on such incidentals. Sing the great hymns of yesteryear, and sing the great choruses of today as well.

A Suggested Format for an Evangelistic Service

What kind of worship service is conducive for preaching an effective evangelistic sermon? I believe such a worship service should begin in corporate prayer. It is good to invite people to gather at the front of the worship center for a time of prayer led by the person who will be preaching the evangelistic message. The musicians should play softly while the people pray along with the preacher as he leads them. The musicians should select a song that the minister of music or the pastor can lead the congregation in singing immediately after the prayer is finished.

After prayer, a brief time of welcoming guests should follow. The preacher or someone else who is warm and enthusiastic should lead in the welcome time. It is best not to point out who the guests/visitors are at this point. Many churches do this, but I believe they are risking embarrassing their guests. Some ask their guests to sit while the members stand. Other churches even ask guests to wear lapel pins to indicate that they are indeed visitors. In my opinion, churches should not isolate their guests that way.

Instead, they should have a perforated piece of paper attached to the church bulletin which requests pertinent biographical information. Ask the guests to fill out these forms, tear them off the bulletin, and give them to an usher at the conclusion of the service. Tell them in exchange they will receive a complimentary packet that contains information about the church and a gift (perhaps a sermon tape/CD or a tape/CD of music by the choir and orchestra). Our church made these simple changes years ago, and the number of visitors who gave us the biographical data we requested more than tripled!

During the welcome time, the first song of the worship service should be played by the orchestra or the praise band. After the people have greeted one another, the minister of music should begin singing the song being played, asking the congregation to join in. This makes for a smooth transition from the prayer time, into the welcome time, and into the praise element of the service.

The service should then continue in an uninterrupted period of musical praise (between fifteen and twenty minutes). The songs that are sung should be a blend of the traditional hymns (teenagers and children need to learn them) and the newer choruses (adults of all ages need to learn them). Years ago I realized that God put a hymnal in the middle of the Bible. It is called the book of Psalms. But I noticed that He gave us only the words to these songs without also giving us the original musical accompaniments by which they were sung. In that way, every generation is able to "sing to the LORD a new song"

(Ps. 149:1 NNAS) by singing the same biblical text while using different musical scores that are culturally relevant to both the singers and listeners.

Billy Graham, one of the greatest evangelistic preachers of all time, has always used a blend of the old hymns and contemporary music. Though Dr. Graham is over eighty years old at the time of this writing, he is wise enough to utilize contemporary Christian groups to sing special music at his evangelistic crusades. In one of Dr. Graham's recent evangelistic crusades, a group known as Mercy Me sang their popular song, "I Can Only Imagine." At the conclusion of the song, the audience, young and old, applauded with enthusiasm. In that same worship setting, the congregation also sang the old hymns, "Amazing Grace" and "Just As I Am." If we want to reach our children and grandchildren for Christ, we must use the newer songs as well as the older hymns.

The music that best serves evangelistic preaching should be aimed at the heart as well as at the mind. As a rule it is best for the musical praise to begin with songs that have an upbeat tempo and then taper to a slower pace as the singing draws to a close. All of the lyrics of the songs should be biblically based and theologically sound.

The congregational praise should be followed by a special song offered by the choir (and orchestra if possible). Again, soloists should not be introduced publicly. Their names can appear in the bulletin if people want to know who they are. It is more effective if the special music and the theme of the sermon are related. It is frustrating to get up and preach on the death of Christ immediately after the choir has sung about His second coming! A little communication between musicians and the preacher will go a long way toward solving this problem.

After the music is over, the preacher should enter the pulpit and deliver a warmhearted, winsome, biblical message. Preferably, it should last between twenty and thirty-five minutes. Again, the preacher should engage as many of his listeners' senses as possible by using overhead screens to display his sermon title, text, and major points. He should use appropriate humor as well as relevant, engaging illustrations. He should maintain as much eye contact with his listeners as possible. If possible, he should at times leave the pulpit area and step to the level in the room where the people are seated, talking with them on their level physically as well as intellectually.

The evangelistic sermon should conclude with an open invitation to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. The listeners should be exhorted to make that decision public by coming forward to meet the pastor or a designated counselor at the front of the worship center. The preacher should share the gospel with the listeners, then lead them in a prayer a phrase at a time if they wish to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior. After that time of prayer, the preacher should invite those who have accepted Christ and those who would still like to do so to come to the front and meet him for further counseling. The choir or the congregation should sing a hymn of commitment at this point to allow people time to walk to the front of the sanctuary to register their decisions for Christ.

Some preachers balk at such procedures. They say that "sinners' prayers" and public invitations are not biblical or necessary for people to be saved. I disagree. To preach the gospel of Christ without giving the listeners the opportunity to receive Christ as Savior and Lord on the spot is unthinkable! It is like telling a thirsty man about water but then denying him the opportunity to drink. To preach evangelistically is to preach persuasively for an immediate verdict. Our listeners should be asked either to receive or to reject Christ at the end of every message we preach.

The invitation is the most important time of the worship experience. No person should leave the sanctuary during the invitation unless there is a legitimate emergency. I also advise the preacher not to shut his Bible just before he extends the invitation. Closing one's Bible sends a nonverbal message that the important part of the sermon is over. We must preach all the way through our invitations.

Once the invitation is completed, financial offerings can be received and church announcements can be made. These should never come during the service itself because they tend to interrupt the flow of the Holy Spirit. Worship services should not be "choppy.' There should be a natural progression from one phase to the next.

The pastor is the leader of the worship service. He and the minister of music should plan the order of service during the week and work out all details so there will be no surprises. Once the worship service begins, the pastor should be sensitive to the Holy Spirit's leadership. He may feel led to have a special time of prayer during the time of congregational singing or just before he preaches. He might even feel led to give an invitation for people to be saved before the sermon is preached. I have done this with great responses on several occasions.

Conclusion

An evangelistic sermon that is focused on Jesus Christ, culturally relevant, proclaimed in a worship service filled with heartfelt, biblical worship and praise, followed by a passionate, persuasive, polite, public evangelistic appeal is still a valid and vital means of winning lost people to Jesus. The setting of that evangelistic message is very important. Remember, the food is the most significant part of a meal. But how and where you serve it is crucial if you want to feed the masses with the eternal Bread of Life! And does that Bread still satisfy? Yes, indeed. Sinner, "Taste and see!" (Ps. 34:8 NNAS).

—Preaching Evangelistically