Is cleaning toilets a conduit to Christ? Servant evangelism leaders have
seen how doing vs. telling the Gospel draws people closer to Christ—and
was Tuesday night in Mobile, Ala., and the evening’s destination was Provident
The agenda that night: Distribute gift bags to patients and their families in
the emergency room.
In two hours, the small group from local church Deeper Life Fellowship (deeperlifefellowship.com)
had blanketed the area with their free gifts—complete with enclosed cards that
read, “We hope this small gift brings some light into your day. It’s a simple
way of showing you God’s love in a practical way, no strings attached. Let us
know if we can be of any more help.”
Nine days later, Deeper Life Fellowship Pastor Mark Wyatt answered a phone
call. The voice on the other end informed him that her husband had received one
of the ER bags.
A series of questions ensued:
“Did you mean it when you said you want to help?” she asked Wyatt.
“Absolutely,” he replied.
“What kind of help do you give?” the said.
“We give spiritual help and any other kind we can. What kind of help do you
That night, Wyatt visited the caller and her husband to discover that the
family of five was Iraqi refugees and Muslims with no friends or family in
America. While they did have some definite material needs, they were mostly
hungry for relationship. The couple asked numerous questions about Christianity
and the church, and at the end of the night, Wyatt invited the family to visit
his church. The following Sunday, Ahmed, Salma and their three children, Sera,
Hanin and Ebrahim, showed up at Deeper Life. A few weeks later, they asked to
see the “JESUS Film.”
“A couple of our families in the church are reaching out to them on a
consistent basis, fixing their cars, keeping their kids for sleepovers,
basically loving them in any way possible,” Wyatt says.
And it all began with a simple free gift and a card.
EMBERS INTO FIRES
Ahmed and Salma’s story is one of thousands worldwide that have taken place
as a result of the method and world-wide movement known as servant evangelism—a
term coined in 1985 by Steve Sjogren, founding pastor of Vineyard Community
Church in Cincinnati, Ohio (cincyvineyard.coin), and now launching pastor for
the 6,500-member church. Sjogren and his church began practicing servant
evangelism almost 20 years ago as a means of serving and connecting to their
Since then, the embers that started burning in Cincinnati have raged into
roaring wildfires across the world, from the U.S. to Ireland to even Africa,
leaving in their path trans formed lives and churches. Defining servant
evangelism, Sjogren explains, “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 cleaning the toilets of businesses (what
Sjogren calls the 2 century equivalent of a foot washing), to washing windows,
to handing out cold Cokes in a park, or mowing lawns. Whatever the act is, the
point is to not take anything in return. It is a no-strings-attached gift.
The only thing that can be attached, and should be attached, is a
“connection” card that simply states the purpose of the service or gift, offers
a phone number to call if anything else is needed, and may include the name and
address of your church.
IS IT REALLY EVANGELISM?
That servant-style evangelism (servantevangelism.com) shies away from an
immediate, direct presentation of the Gospel draws some criticism. Is there a
risk that someone who is touched only by a servant evangelism outreach may never
again come into contact with the Gospel? How does washing windows for someone
without telling him or her about Christ actually lead to salvation?
While those practicing this brand of outreach acknowledge these risks, they
believe they’re minimal and stress that the attraction of kindness draws people
“We don’t push the Jesus stuff very hard at first,” says Sjogren, explaining
how an outreach works. “We tell them we are showing God’s love in a practical
way because the word ‘God’ is more palatable to people. Often people respond,
asking, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Then we bring up Jesus and say, ‘Well, we
think that if Jesus walking around the streets of the city He would be doing
things like this for people.’ Often people respond, ‘Yeah, I think He would,
too.’ That’s the heart of servant evangelism and the heart of the Gospel.”
Plus, Sjogren and other servant evangelism practitioners are quick to point
out that it is not the act of evangelism itself, which moves a person’s heart to
accept Christ; it’s the Holy Spirit. Servant evangelism relies on the acting of
the Holy Spirit. Outreach activities are covered in prayer, and participants are
actively praying as they offer acts of kindness.
For the last two years Victorious Life Church (victoriouslifechurch.com) in
Tampa, Fla. has practiced servant evangelism in the city of 300,000. During that
time, Senior Pastor Ed Russo has seen firsthand its effectiveness over the long
haul, and to the question, “is servant evangelism really evangelism,” replies
“Servant evangelism basically enables the congregation to engage their own
community,” he says. “It puts into practice the scripture that says the kindness
of God leads people to repentance (Romans 2:4). As we show kindness to people by
showing God’s love in a practical way, it draws them closer to God.”
Phil Jeansonne, senior pastor of Vineyard Kenner (vcfk.com) just west New
Orleans, La., agrees with some qualification. “It’s very effective if you know
what your target is,” says Jeansonne. “If your target is to get conversions on
the spot, then, no, it’s not as effective as some of those other things.
Although, I’m not always sure if the other thing produces real conversion
“Servant evangelism is more like sowing seeds, and at some point you know
fruit will come. It may not be in your church, but you’ve certainly sown seeds,
and one of these days someone some where will reap the harvest.”
In the eight years Jeansonne and his congregation have practiced servant
evangelism, the church has touched thousands of people, yet only a handful of
them have actually visited the church. Still, he is convinced that the church
should continue these acts.
“I believe it’s something we need to keep doing,” he says. “It keeps us in
front of people, and pushes them up the pipeline a little closer to the Lord. It
changes their thinking, their opinion of church and of church people.”
In 2003, a Gallup poll indicated that almost half of U.S. adults do not have
“a great deal” of confidence in organized religion. Moreover the same year, a
Barna Research Group study reported that a sample of non-Christian adults ranked
evangelicals tenth out of 11 groups evaluated, rating them one place above
prostitutes. Clearly, the Church has an image problem. Servant evangelism, its
proponents believe, helps to combat negative stereotypes often associated with
the Church by allowing people to see the Gospel lived out.
Doing kindness, Sjogren says, draws curiosity. “It’s more of a ‘show-me’
thing than a ‘tell-me’ thing,” he explains. “People are really tired of being
told. They are not interested in a message of words but are very interested in
messages of works and demonstrations.”
Keith Giles, outreach director for The River in Tustin, Calif.
(therivertustin.com) adds to Sjogren’s insights: “True compassion is something
you cannot argue against,” he says. “People who are resistant to the Gospel are
open to works of service and compassion. This becomes a path for them to take
Jesus seriously, out side the theoretical framework or intellectual argument.”
That’s how Andy Healy, a single father and electrician, connected with
Riverside Church in Cincinnati, Ohio (riversidech.org), and ultimately Christ,
one hot July afternoon. Stopped at an intersection, Healy accepted a free cold
soda from two women. As he recalls, “There were some crazy church people handing
out pop. I thought, ‘Sure, I’ll take your free pop. No problem.’” He placed the
connection card on the truck’s dash. As summer turned to fall and his daughter
headed back to school, Healy sensed he needed something more in his life. The
card was still in his truck, and he remembered the kindness of the two women
that day—something he hadn’t seen in Christians he knew in the past. The next
Sunday, he and his daughter visited River side, and a few weeks later he
Servant evangelism has been key to breaking down negative stereotypes in the
Lancaster, Pa., community where Jerry Shannon pastors Lancaster Vineyard Church
(lancastervineyard.com). The area he says is “highly religious” and steeped in
legalism. “People are used to having churches try to sell them things or come on
‘hot and heavy,” he says, “However, through servant evangelism, we’ve been able
to show a very simple message: ‘God’s love is free for the taking.’ We get
people from all walks of life who discover that evangelism is not a guilt-driven
exercise, but rather a life-changing experience.”
Just as showing vs. telling appeals to today’s world, another servant
evangelism concept—planting vs. harvesting takes on new significance in a
postmodern culture that requires repeated touches, or “impressions,” to be moved
Says Doug Roe, senior pastor of Vine yard Community Church in Dayton, Ohio
(daytonvineyard.org): “What I’ve found over the years is that people are going
to need to be touched over and over again with the Gospel.”
Sjogren references the apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “I have planted,
Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (Cor. 3:6).
“Paul implies that evangelism is a process,” he writes in his book,
Conspiracy of Kindness (Vine). “Paul’s view of evangelism is quite unlike our
American mindset, which tends to focus on the harvesting aspect of soul-winning
rather than the planting part. Opening hearts which have been closed to God’s
love isn’t something that normally happens quickly.”
Apparently, the Rev. Billy Graham agrees. Sjogren shares, “I was with Billy
Graham twice in the past 18 months. He loved the idea of servant evangelism and
its concepts. He said that he’s seen too much harvesting ministry going on today
and not enough seed planting for the future. He told me to keep planting seeds.”
RECEIVERS READY TO RECEIVE
However, when people have been nudged to the point of readiness, handing them
a free bottle of water doesn’t usually cut it. At that point, they’ve seen the
Gospel and are now ready to hear it.
Sjogren points to the Engel Scale to explain. In his 1975 book, What Gone
Wrong With the Harvest? (Zondervan), James Engel presented a scale to indicate
how to approach a person based on their level of readiness to receive—and
familiarity with—the Gospel. A person at -8, for example, is said to have
“awareness of a supreme being but no effective knowledge of the Gospel.”
“Servant evangelism is not an end-all answer,” Sjogren explains. “It just hap
pens to work well with people who are extremely far from the Gospel. So many
people are at -8 that it works very well with them. But a person who is at -2
might be more receptive to something more along the line of the Gospel rather
than just another nudge of kindness.”
Vineyard Kenner Pastor Jeansonne recalls a gift-wrapping outreach a couple years
ago at a local mall and a life-changing conversation for one of the kindness
“One particular shopper was just over whelmed that we’d be out there doing
that,” he says. “She wound up telling us she was going in for surgery the
following Monday She had cancer. We got to pray with her.” After the surgery the
woman came to the church and soon accepted Christ. “She was at a place in her
life to hear and receive the Gospel,” Jeansonne says.
Other servant evangelism adherents report similar experiences. Roe remembers
how one simple question led to an opportunity to share Christ while washing
windows at a gas station.
“I noticed this one guy who came through three times,” he says. “I asked him,
‘So what’s going on in your life?’ His response came pouring out. His wife had
left him. He told me, ‘You know, it really feels good to stand here and talk to
you. I’m not exactly sure what’s going on, but talking with you feels better
than anything else I’ve done.’ I shared with him that what he was feeling was
the presence of the Lord. He ended up accepting Christ right in the middle of
the gas station.”
While immediate decisions are the exception rather than the norm in most
servant evangelism encounters, practitioners say that few people react
negatively to a free act of kindness. At most, people politely decline the
offering and go on their way.
But for those doing the giving during a servant evangelism outreach, a
transformation occurs in nearly every instance.
Last October, Pat Sneed, a member 0 New Vision Church in Athens, Tenn.,
(newvisionchurch.info) shared Christ with someone at a Halloween festival
servant evangelism outreach. While the man dressed in a devil costume didn’t
accept Christ there, he continued to ask spiritually charged questions.
“I’ve been on a high ever since!” she says. “Before that, I wouldn’t have
been interested in any kind of evangelism. Now, I have more confidence and feel
emboldened to share Christ. I’m eager to tackle just about any type of
The same evolution characterizes the lives of Vineyard Boise
(vineyardboise.org) members Graham and Stephanie Taylor. “As two people who were
afraid to share God with others in the past, servant evangelism has really given
us the confidence to take the next step with people,” Graham says. “We have
learned to pray with confidence and offer prayer to people right then. Until a
year or so ago, we might have said something like, ‘We’ll keep you in our
James Cherian, associate pastor for Vineyard Church of Ithaca, N.Y.
(ithacavineyard.org), offers insight into the reasons for these transformations:
“Doing servant evangelism melts away impatience, selfishness and other
‘me-ness,’” he says.
“The people who serve definitely go through some kind of transforming process.
And with consistency it begins to change the way someone views those who do not
know Jesus. When we are not consistent with the outreaches, this passion wanes.”
Specific statistics directly tied to servant evangelism are hard to come by
with most pastors indicating that results would be difficult to track. They are
quick to say that it’s not about numbers.
However, in many instances, growth is a by-product. Ed Russo’s church in
Tampa has grown by more than 700 people over the past two years, after the
church started practicing servant evangelism. In the past eight years, Phil
Jeansonne’s church has grown from 200 to more than 1,400 showing up on weekends.
And Doug Roe has an average attendance of nearly 3,000 in his Dayton church,
planted in 1991.
But, while all these pastors say their commitment to servant evangelism
played a part in their churches’ growth, they note that these encounters alone
are not the only factor. Each one has also implemented complementary programs
such as Alpha, Evangelism Explosion, discipleship small groups and other
ministries to complete the process of evangelism and fully establish newcomers
in their faith.
Yet practicing servant evangelism, Sjogren says, is an easy method for moving
a church’s focus outward.
“You’ve got to have some inward focus to get the church going and keep it
alive, such as small groups and strong leader ship,” he says. “But ultimately
the thrust of the church is either inward or outward. ‘What’s your mission
statement? Is it all about us or all about them? I think most churches are all
about us, not about them.”
As a result of becoming outwardly focused, most churches’ internal strength and
unity begin to grow through the process.
“Our goal for doing servant evangel ism,” says Jeansonne, “was never to grow
our church with it. We just simply wanted to serve. As a result, we’ve made
evangelism doable. Our people are being mobilized and seeing how non-threatening
outreach can be.”
For Deeper Life Fellowship in Mobile, Ala., servant evangelism has been vital
to building unity in the church, says Pastor Mark. “Unity comes because people
get used to thinking about others, nor themselves, which is where most strife
comes from anyway,” he observes. “They stop thinking about what they need, and
they get excited about working together to make a perceivable difference in the
That visible difference attracted Ahmed and Salma to the Mobile church, and
ultimately to Christ. it’s the strength of servant evangelism. The touch of
kindness disarms the skeptic and prepares a hungry heart for eternity—even when
it’s the heart of a Muslim.