Signs and Wonders in Evangelism

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One of the most deeply entrenched beliefs and ministry practices in the North American church is the mindset that life-style/friendship evangelism is both the biblical and most effective way to share the faith. Some studies indicate over 80% of Christians solely use this means as their method of sharing the faith with their unsaved neighbors, friends and family members. Yet rarely do people take the time to analyze whether or not this ministry practice is actually effective in reaching the unsaved for Christ.

In my experience, living an exemplary good and godly life along with being intentionally kind and helpful and thoughtful to others rarely provides opportunities for Christians to share personally the particulars about the gospel message, nor does it even open up many opportunities for Christians to invite others to faith-based events. The vast majority of churches are not growing (some estimate 80-85% are plateaued or declining) and even those churches which are growing can account for their growth by ‘transfers’ from other churches. Verbal sharing of one’s personal faith is scarce. Twenty years ago, George Hunter found that only 1-2% of Christians share their faith (Church for the Unchurched, 1996, p. 179); Ed Stetzer recently found the number to be much higher, but still lacking. Yet church leaders consistently promote lifestyle and friendship evangelism as the primary means to evangelize those around us who are heading towards a lost eternity.

Even a cursory overview of Scripture reveals that lifestyle evangelism was not the reason why the gospel message exploded around the Mediterranean in the first three centuries. Many of those the Apostle Paul evangelized rarely knew him, his lifestyle, or that of any other believer. The unsaved had no idea whether or not his lifestyle backed up his message. Yet clearly thousands came to faith in Jesus through his ministry and those of the other apostles. Nor is lifestyle evangelism the reason why the church is thriving and growing so rapidly outside of North America.

While C. Peter Wagner remains one of my personal heroes, his oft quoted statement, “Church planting is the most effective form of evangelism,” is simply not true…it is the second most effective form of evangelism. Instead, as I unfold in By Signs and Wonders (Seedbed, Franklin, TN: 2016), church services which are marked by the supernatural expressions of the Holy Spirit (signs, wonders, miracles, visions, prophecies, etc.) are the most effective form of evangelism. This insight is true and has strong biblical and historic backing, and is presently true in Christian ministries outside of North America. Whenever and wherever the gospel message is substantiated by God’s miraculous activities, the church almost inevitably experiences dramatic conversion growth.

In 1983 my wife and I planted a church in the Ottawa, Ontario suburb of Kanata. The church began with just the two of us. (We knew 2 other people living in the community, but they were already attending another church.) Over the next 13 years, the church grew slowly at a rate of about 10-15 people/year. In 1996 I was discouraged at the meager evangelistic results we were experiencing, which caused me to do an extensive Bible study to determine what factors had contributed to the rapid growth of the Christian church in the first three centuries. The result of that study profoundly changed the way I viewed and approached evangelism. I discovered that there is little biblical evidence that lifestyle/friendship evangelism contributed in any way to the conversion process. I was shocked to discover that 50% of the conversion stories had an identifiable miracle which had just taken place. A good example is the story of the raising of Lazarus. The concluding statement in the biblical narrative says, “many … put their faith in Him” (John 11:45).

Beginning in 1997 we switched our focus from relying upon friendship evangelism, to an intentional focus on the miraculous activities of the Holy Spirit as the primary attraction and transforming influence in our midst. The results were dramatic. Instead of seeing 10-15 people joining our church per year, we immediately began seeing 50-100 people joining the church. Instead of primarily having transfer growth, we began to see a dramatic increasing in conversions.

On a regular basis we began inviting people to be anointed with oil for healing, and carving out more quiet/silent time in our worship services for hearing from God. We began to have people receive words of knowledge and prophecies. As a result, the non-Christian community became interested to come and see what was happening, and our people we more emboldened to share their faith. Perhaps the most dramatic healing we witnessed was the immediate healing of a lady from aggressive breast cancer. For over 10 years now, there is no sign of a return of her cancer. Just this week we were with that same lady! Stories of healing, accurate predictions of the future, and other displays of God’s power have a profound way of drawing people to come and find out what is going on, just like they did with Jesus’ ministry. My own doctoral research concluded that those who both hear the gospel message and personally experience some miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit are two to three times more likely to become Christians than those who simply hear the gospel message.

My research also led me to discover some interesting insights about the reasons behind John Wesley’s amazing evangelistic efforts. John Wesley’s services were frequently marked by signs and wonders (John White, When the Spirit Comes with Power, Intervarsity Press: 1998, p. 128). Suddenly the multitude of biblical references to signs, wonders, and miracles began to fall into place, including the Apostle Paul’s concise and unequivocal statement that the reason for his amazing success as an evangelist was because of the power of signs and miracles through the power of the Spirit” (Rom. 15:18-19).  Many of the greatest revivals of the past we marked by God’s miraculous activities and those same results are still happening all over the world whenever churches cry out for God’s presence and intervention into their midst.

I am not appealing for non-charismatic churches to suddenly become charismatic. Rather I am asking churches to place a much higher emphasis on the person and work of the Spirit. Too many churches are Trinitarian in doctrine, yet binitarian in emphasis. We speak much of God the Father and God the Son, but rarely do we even talk about the Holy Spirit. Yet so critical is the Holy Spirit to the mission of the church that Jesus told His disciples not to undertake the Great Commission until they were filled with the Holy Spirit’s presence and power.

Is your present system of evangelism reaping the results you believe you ought to be experiencing?” If not, how can your church lean more heavily into the Holy Spirit? Our post-Christian world will never be convinced to follow Christ by offering more excellence in preaching, building better facilities, using fancier equipment or more creative programming.  There is nothing wrong with these projects and ministries, but they are not nearly enough. We need more. What we need is what we see in 1 Kings 18, when God showed up in power on Mount Carmel and the people of God fell to their faces and cried out “The Lord, He is God, The Lord, He is God”. May it happen again today.

For more information, please check out Dr Elliott’s, “By Signs and Wonders: How the Holy Spirit Grows the Church” (Seedbed Publishing), which pleads for the church to place a much higher emphasis on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. It is written as a small group study (questions at the end of each chapter for discussion) and is written from a solidly Wesleyan perspective, containing some very interesting yet rarely talked about insights concerning the reasons why the evangelistic ministry of John Wesley was so effective. The book is filled with real-life stories, historic and current day research, and biblical insights which challenges the church to take seriously the need for demonstrations of God’s Spirit.

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Rev. Dr. Stephen Elliott is Director and Professor of Pastoral Ministry & Church Planting Degree Programs and Campus Pastor at Kingswood University in Sussex, New Brunswick. He began his full-time ministry in 1983 when he and his wife Helen began a church plant in Ottawa, Ontario with just 2 people. When he left Ottawa 22 years later to pursue doctoral studies, the church was the 4th largest evangelical church in the Ottawa area and the second largest Wesleyan church in Canada with a staff of eleven and a church constituency of over 1300. He is known for his creative and dynamic pulpit ministry, his emphasis on visionary leadership, his passion for healthy/vibrant local church ministries, and his tender and compassionate pastoral heart.

2 COMMENTS

  1. A timely article. Where do I purchase the book?
    Like the author, I am a fan of C. Peter Wagner, at whose feet I sat while taking a degree at Fuller Seminary in the 1980s. Peter went out on a limb when he befriended and helped open doors for John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Fellowship movement (and a behind the scenes catalyst for the Anglican based ALPHA program). Dr. Wagner loved Christ and –based on his worldwide ventures in missiology– sought to pursue evidence wherever it leads. He came to believe that the “hand of God” in powerful and otherwise inexplicable occurrences helped bring people into a faithful following of Christ. In the 1980s C. Peter quietly but firmly stood by the belief that new church starts were high on the list and integral to effective evangelism. But I got the impression via occasional reports that by the 1990s Peter would probably concur with Dr. Elliott’s conclusions regarding “signs and wonders following.” With regards to spiritual gifts (he published a book entitled “Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow.” It was first published in February 1979. In 1984 I heard him say to a group of Southern Baptists, “Seek the gifts with which you are comfortable, and leave the rest on the shelf.” He had an open mind yet sought to stay rooted in scripture.

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