Q. What is Servant Evangelism? A. Servant evangelism is a simple, straightforward approach to sharing God’s love in simple, practical ways. In 1984, founding pastor Steve Sjogren and several people from the Vineyard Community Church loaded up bags of groceries and bought Christmas trees and took them to housing projects on the north side of Cincinnati. Out of this action was born a vision to reach the city of Cincinnati and the world by serving others with no strings attached.
Q. How does Servant Evangelism fit in with other approaches? A. God is ultimately overseeing the process of evangelism in each person’s life. We are the seed’s fingers; He is the Master Gardener. God uses numerous connections to bring new children into His family. We are continually amazed at the diverse stories of conversion we hear from new believers.
Every person is at a unique place in their gradual awakening to the love of Christ. Servant Evangelism draws everyone it touches closer to accepting Christ regardless of their own personal situation. In some cases we will be making initial contact with people. At other times we will be watering the seeds already sown by others.
By itself Servant Evangelism is incomplete as an approach to sharing the gospel. Traditional approaches alone are also incomplete. By focusing on the earlier phases of planting and watering, deeds of kindness tenderize hearts; so they can later receive the message of God’s love. We don’t believe Servant Evangelism will work unless we also use more traditional approaches to actually harvest those accepting Christ. As we serve people, God will provide opportunities to explain the Gospel message and eventually pray a sinner’s prayer with someone. Many useful aids have been developed for this purpose, including Evangelism Explosion, the Four Spiritual Laws, and Steps to Peace with God.
Q.How do people respond when served? A. Our service projects usually draw some sort of response, often in the form of inquiries about our church. One of the most often asked questions is “How long do your services last”? Others who are looking for a Bible-based fellowship ask, “Does your church believe in the Bible?”
Other responses vary. People in a good mood tend to react with surprise and gratefulness. Big city people, who tend to be more skeptical, wonder what we’re up to and what we want from them. They also tend to be in a hurry most of the time; so we need to gear our projects to their pace. We touch a few people while they’re in an open frame of mind. These individuals sometimes will talk at length with us. When we’ve had a chance to openly chat with folks, it seems that about 5 percent are open to coming to Christ right there on the spot!
Q. What are the most typical questions people ask? A. “Who are you people anyway!”
“What are you selling?”
“What’s the name of your church?”
“What time do you meet?”
“How long do your services last?!”
“Can I make a donation?”
“What do you believe?”
“Are you the kind of Christians that believe in prayer?!”
We find it interesting that we hear very few theological questions. Someone hardly ever asks exactly what we believe.
A. Responses vary greatly, but seldom do people get overtly upset with us. One Servant Evangelist in New York City has been reaching out with Servant Evangelism projects for about a year now. He has washed literally thousands of windshields in arguably the world’s least friendly city. To date he has received only one negative response, surprisingly from two women with a big Bible on the dashboard! They “shooed” him away before he could say a word.
When people are frightened, it is usually because they don’t know how to respond to such an unusual offer. We have found the best way to put someone at ease is simply to smile. Smiles are incredibly disarming. Once Steve Sjogren, the pioneer of Servant Evangelism, was washing windshields in a mall parking lot when he saw three big, college-aged guys running toward him. Their look of suspicion turned to laughter when Steve turned around smiling. They said they thought he might have been breaking into their car, then thanked him enthusiastically and went their way.
Simply making good eye contact and looking confident are other ways to let people know that they have nothing to fear. When any kind of tension develops, it is very helpful to mention the word “free” as quickly as possible. Having been conditioned to requests for donations, people automatically expect us to ask for something in return for our service. Use the word “free” with a big smile; and almost all of the negative responses will be eliminated. When we go door to door, residents are sometimes afraid to open their doors. They may yell, “Who is it?” through the closed door. Try yelling back, “We’re giving away great free stuff.” That usually overcomes their resistance.
A. We usually seek the minimal amount of permission when doing projects. When it seems appropriate, we even wash windshields of unattended cars. On occasion people will walk up as we wash their windshield and say, “Hey, stay away from my car!” Usually they express appreciation once they hear our explanation.
Sometimes people assume that we’re selling something. Many who pass by are afraid of making eye contact with a stranger, especially in busy downtown areas where there are a lot of panhandlers. One of our small groups is comprised of business people who work in downtown Cincinnati. About once a month, this group does some sort of outreach to other business people in a center section called Fountain Square. Usually they give away gourmet coffee, wash windshields, or clean toilets for area businesses. The group leader reports that they have gained increasing credibility from the usually skeptical business people as they have continued serving in these ways.
In any single project, we find some measure of rejection to our offer to serve. Whether we are giving away Cokes or raking leaves or refilling bird feeders, some people give us a curt “no” with little explanation. We are not disappointed because we have consistently seen that the power of what we’re doing isn’t confined to the particular product or service we offer. A greater reality shift is occurring as people’s views are changed by very idea that we are doing this to show God’s love. That offer is so powerful that it really does unsettle people when they consider it.
One example of this occurred during one of our projects downtown. For months we had been cleaning the front windows of an Ohio State liquor store. The manager’s first response to our offer to wash his windows for free was, “Sure it’s free this time, but how much will it be next time?” We’ve never taken money from anyone for any of our projects, and this man would be no exception. After five or six months of serving this man, we were on a first-name basis. Then one day he confided in us that he’d returned to the church he grew up in after being gone for several years, all because we had begun to serve him. Our offer was spurned at first, but the invitation had an eventual effect.
When we clean toilets, we experience about a 50 percent rejection rate on our first offer. About the worst that happens is that we are denied permission; the usual reason being that the employee wants to check with the boss. Sometimes the person is so shocked that they don’t know what to say. When we are denied permission, we usually offer to come back some other time to do something practical. Then we make it a point to return to that same home or business a couple of weeks later. Usually we aren’t turned down the second time.
A. We realize before we even set foot outside of the church parking lot that a certain percentage of our seeds of kindness will be rejected. Some people will say no to almost anything offered to them. Those who do reject our offer are usually mad before we ever talk to them. Even these people are being worked on by the grace of God, but they probably aren’t ripe for harvesting.
One summer on a hot Friday afternoon, we were giving away soft drinks to motorists on their way home from work. One woman was furious at us for approaching her car. She yelled, “How dare you offer me a drink! I’m calling the police as soon as I get home because I know for certain this is illegal.” Apparently she was having a rough day. We did nothing to irritate her. She didn’t even know who we were, and yet she was mad at us.
We didn’t allow this woman’s rejection to stop us or even to slow us down. We continued on to the next driver. Coincidentally, the next car happened to be a police cruiser. He gladly took a diet drink, thanked us, and commented, “This project is a wonderful idea. More churches ought to do this sort of thing.”
In short, we don’t take rejection personally. We aren’t doing anything to elicit rejection. They don’t even know us, so how can they be rejecting us? If they do refuse, they’re actually rejecting the offer of kindness. Our job as bringers of God’s kingdom is to find the people who are open and invite them into God’s family. With those who aren’t ready to respond, we just smile and keep going. The important point to remember is that we can’t let a negative response scare us away from the next person, someone who may be more open.
It’s impossible to know what’s going on inside of those with whom we interact. The Holy Spirit might be working on these people, and we might be one more point along the way to them starting a relationship with Jesus Christ. Somehow, our presence as representatives of God irritates them; and they react in anger. The apostle Paul, for example, was most violent just before his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9).
We need to trust that God will redeem every episode of rejection. Don’t forget the inherent power of the offer we are making. We once had a crew cleaning toilets in a local mall. At one store the employee running the cash register said, “I don’t know if you should. It’s probably okay, but I’d better ask the boss first. Please come back next Saturday.” When the team returned the following week, the employee reported that not only was the owner willing to let our team clean but when the boss heard that we had come to clean the toilets, he began to openly weep. The employee admitted, “I’ve never seen him get emotional or anything. He was really touched by your offer to help us!”
A. We’ve had our share of failures. We view each mistake as an opportunity to grow in our effectiveness as servants. Most of our failures are actually great ideas that just need a little adjustment or fine-tuning. Here are some of the more creative failures we’ve experienced:
accidentally filling a radiator with windshield fluid. The washer reservoir looks a lot like the radiator reservoir! We paid fifty dollars to have the woman’s radiator flushed.
washing the windshield of an already clean car — we paid to have the car washed again.
washing the windshield of a car with dogs inside — the dogs were hyperactive and went berserk, doing some damage to the interior. We agreed to pay for damages, but the owner never followed up on our offer.
accidentally setting off car alarms — sometimes a sensitive alarm will go off when we lift a wiper to clean the windshield.
Even though this has happened dozens of times, we’ve had only one negative encounter with a man who appeared to be in a big hurry. Typically when people come to check out what happened, they are relieved to see that we’re simply there to serve them. We always look for stickers indicating a car alarm, but not all cars post such a warning. Our rule of thumb is to stay away from vehicles that appear to cost over twenty thousand dollars. To date we’ve never had the owner of an older car get angry at us for serving them!
Q. What are the immediate results of applying Servant Evangelism?
A. 1. Most important, non-Christians will begin to open their hearts to God’s love. People are a lot like porcupines: they either run to us with their soft, vulnerable side or their prickly, skeptical side that says, “I don’t want to hear anything about this Jesus you’re talking about.”
A free car wash in New York City prompted one “porcupine” to turn his soft side to us. The man worked for the sanitation department. When he drove into our car wash, he was angry and disgusted because we had caused a traffic slowdown on his route. This emotionally charged encounter changed instantly when we offered to wash his entire garbage truck for free. Before he could say no, we were eagerly serving him. This man stood in stunned silence just shaking his head. A couple of the girls explained that we just wanted to show him “God’s love in a practical way.” The driver of the garbage truck muttered, “When I get back to the garage, I just know the other guys aren’t gonna believe this happened.” A few minutes later, he asked for prayer for a number of issues in his life.
2. Christians will be built up in their courage to share their faith with unbelievers. I’ve found that about 50 percent of Christians have shared their faith at some point, but only about twenty percent have actually prayed to lead someone to Christ. Servant Evangelism serves as a “baby step” toward more risky approaches. As fearful Christians meet unbelievers in a safe, non-confrontational setting where they experience success, they will gradually grow in their ability to tell others what Jesus has done for them.
Q. What are the long-term results of doing Servant Evangelism?
A. 1. The church will become oriented toward action. The church is in continual need of redefining. It seems clear that the church in America is living in an age of great inwardness. In one week only five of a thousand books in a large Christian book distributors catalogue concerned evangelism and outreach. About two dozen books addressed the challenge of raising teenagers; about one hundred dealt with codependency issues. And about fifty discussed the end times.
In light of this inward focus, we need to ask the question, “Why does the church exist?” We certainly exist to worship God and to grow in wholeness and Christlikeness, but Jesus made it clear that we must also give of ourselves if we hope to keep growing. The Great Commission links God’s special presence to the action of the church going into the world. “Go therefore and make disciples… and lo, I am with you always” (Mt 28:19-20, RSV). God is with us in an immediate sense as we carry His life into the world.
Human nature always points the emotional compass inward. To be the church, we must on occasion point that compass outward. Jesus promised that “rivers of living water” would flow out of the hearts of all who believe in Him. Try as we may, God will not bless attempts to make a stagnant and cloistered pond of that river of life. As we bring the kingdom of God into the community, we will change the world in which we live.
2. The church will be redefined to the surrounding community. The church in general has taken a lot of blows over the last few years, especially in the wake of scandals involving sex and money. The world has falsely pictured the entire church as beggars always on the verge of going out of business. We’ve also been pegged as hucksters always looking to get something for nothing. The third picture the watching world has of the church is that of a monastery whose residents have only one message, “Come in and join us.” The world isn’t looking to be part of a failing cause, and they want nothing to do with fast-talking, slick approaches.
As we begin to do humble acts of service in the community, we will restate our identity. Instead of separatists who are constantly judging the world, we must extend forgiveness, acceptance, and love from God. New definitions are slow to catch on, but hard work will get their attention. We become viable in the eyes of the world as we get beyond ourselves and serve our way into their hearts. In an age when the church has been judged by the world as being irrelevant and out of touch with people’s very real needs and pains, we prove ourselves worthy of trust.
3. The community will be saturated with the presence of these deeds of kindness. The word “saturate” may seem like an odd word in reference to evangelism, but consider the long-term effects of this approach. Cincinnati may be an exception to the general rule, but it suggests the level of potential impact. We have been doing Servant Evangelism projects consistently for the past eight years, each year expanding our outreach. One year we directly touched about 100,000 people in greater Cincinnati. Add to that the other congregations in the city who are doing these outreaches, and the total number touched reaches one hundred twenty thousand.
The current population of the Cincinnati area is 1.75 million. That means we are touching approximately one-tenth of the city each year. Of course, we encounter many people more than once during year, but we are still touching a significant part of the city each year. As we continue to serve more and more people, we will touch 10 or even 20 percent of the city per year. Over a several year period, we could touch huge numbers of the population.
Q. But aren’t you really just using these service projects as a means for advertising your church to the community?
A. I can honestly say that we aren’t. Our outreach often leads to growth as a side benefit, but we would lose our integrity if growth was our reason for serving. Such an attitude would also rob the service of its power in people’s lives. We aren’t giving to get anything. Even if we stopped growing altogether, we would continue to serve just as consistently. We must serve for the sake of our own spiritual health. Growth, which seems predictable, must be viewed as serendipity.
As we go about loving with no strings attached, God seems to attach a string of some sort to those actions. He seems to create a tie between the person we serve and Himself. Our prayer in going out into the community has often been, “Oh God, let them forget us, but let them never forget you!”
As we serve with a good heart, God sends people to us, many of whom we’ve never served! A spiritual siphon draws people into our church. With very little advertising, we had thousands of people visit us; 60 percent of whom were unchurched. In summary you might ask, “You mean that as we serve and don’t go out of our way to make our church known in the community that God is going to bring people to us anyway!” That’s exactly what we have seen in Cincinnati.
Q. I thought we were serving with “no strings attached”? Isn’t a card a hook in the serving project?
A. We don’t want to pester people, but we do want to leave them with some sort of follow-up point if they choose to find us. Without a card those we touch would have no idea what we did or why we did it. It is a small but necessary element of Servant Evangelism.
A. To give out a tract as we serve would defeat the concept of free. If we served and distributed tracts, we would convey conditional love. “We will help you if you read this literature.” However, there is nothing wrong with having tracts nearby for spontaneous conversations that might come out of the serving projects. Be careful not to come across as though you have an ulterior motive. Pre-Christians can sense a mixed motive from a block away.