by Bruce E. Swanson
Halfway through Sunday mass, Father José walked slowly to his pulpit. As usual, his church was packed. The town of Benedita, Portugal, clings tightly to its Catholic traditions. “All Benedita has been talking about the evangelicals’ desire to start a church in our town,” Father José said, “and I’m going to tell you exactly what I think about it.”
Halfway through Sunday mass, Father José walked slowly to his pulpit. As usual, his church was packed. The town of Benedita, Portugal, clings tightly to its Catholic traditions. "All Benedita has been talking about the evangelicals’ desire to start a church in our town," Father José said, "and I’m going to tell you exactly what I think about it." A surprised, expectant hush fell over his parishioners. "I think it’s a great idea. Benedita needs a spiritual awakening and maybe a Baptist church can help." His words, which hit Benedita like a bomb, flowed directly from our church’s compassionate pre-evangelism. At a meeting with the town council in Valado, also targeted for church planting, the mayor said, "Pastor Bruce, we strongly desire to see you succeed at initiating a church in our town. Just let us know what we can do to help."
Once again, our compassionate pre-evangelism had done its job. As we struggle to gain a hearing for the gospel, we work with people who either ignore evangelicals, or suspect them of various motives, none of them good. We also struggle against the various sociological factors that make small towns difficult to penetrate. However, thoughtful, compassionate pre-evangelism, like a master key to the city, can and does open communities to our presence and message. Further, the basic principles make this kind of pre-evangelism useful in other settings as well.
Principle 1. Work from an established nearby church. As a representative of a nearby national group, the newcomer gains a hearing. I work with the Baptist Church in Alcobaoa, the county seat. Time after time I have seen officials’ faces relax when I identify myself as part of a known local entity.
Principle 2. Find the most significant, pressing need in the town, one that you can address. The key is to identify a need you can really do something about. Talk to social workers, government officials, and newspaper reporters to find out the critical needs. For example, the county of Alcobaça feels keenly the need to fight drug abuse. We knew evangelical experts who could help us, so we promoted—in the name of the Baptist church — a series of drug prevention seminars. They were well-attended and greatly appreciated, as we noted later in the actions of Father José and the mayor of Valado. A town’s closely knit society magnifies its problems and the impact of what we can do to help. One day, while driving through Benedita, I was delayed by hundreds of people solemnly following a hearse. Another young man had died from a drug overdose. Here, compared to large cities, heroin addicts do not die anonymously. Everyone knows at least one family suffering the ravages of drugs. That’s why people who help get noticed.
Principle 3. Get involved with the community’s problem personally before trying a large-scale program. That keeps us from exploiting the need simply to plant a church. I did not organize our drug prevention seminars until I had fought "in the trenches." It began when Victor’s wife, mother, and sister asked me for help, because his heroin abuse was slowly destroying them. In their desperation they turned to our church. By helping them I could feel the drug problem in my gut, not just my head. Then we organized the drug seminars as a genuine service to the community. I also explained to town officials our long-range plan to start a new church. Since the drug seminars showed the benefit evangelicals could bring to the town, our goals were well received.
Principle 4. Don’t offer a "home-grown" answer to the need. We imported recognized evangelical experts. Their credentials provided the necessary clout to overcome a community’s natural tendency to doubt evangelicals. In Benedita, Valado, and other towns we brought in an evangelical organization accredited by the government. I simply acted as the salesman, coordinator, public relations manager, and — alongside our Portuguese pastor — master of ceremonies. We put the seminars together and squeezed the most out of them as both true preventionagainstdrugs and a ministry of compassion.
Principle 5. Network with townspeople already trying to meet the need. While planning our seminars, I spent half of my time in government offices talking (and listening) about the county’s drug problem. As we shared our common concerns and frustrations, we became comrades in arms. I gained access to the local anti-drug network and worked with it in the name of the Alcobaca Baptist Church. The network also worked with me. Father José gave us the parochial hall, and the county government told a very resistant sports club to give us their gym, or else. Anti-Protestant barriers fell under the weight of local leaders who supported us.
Principle 6. Use only first-rate publicity and present a classy image. Good publicity helps to attract an audience, but most people still won’t come. However, they will see the publicity and evaluate the event—and evangelicals—by what they see. If we want to enlist local leaders, we must be sure they won’t be embarrassed by an amateur effort. We spent a lot of money on image and publicity. Our posters and handouts were professionally designed and printed on glossy paper. We paid to put flyers in every mailbox. We advertised in local papers and on radio stations. We put an attractive program into the hands of people as they entered the hall, which we had carefully decorated.
Principle 7. Sell the idea to the local government and businesses and solicit financial support. The town should support something designed to address one of its major problems. When the community backs the initiative, you have gained an ally. Community support also covers you from criticisms about spending so much money. Our local businesses and governments rallied behind the drug seminars and completely underwrote all expenses. Importing accredited experts was the key to gaining their financial backing.
Principle 8. In terms of planting a church, such events are useful for pre-evangelism and gaining credibility, but they should not be used for direct evangelism. Evangelism comes later, once the town appreciates the evangelicals and listens to what they have to say. During the drug seminars we did not present the gospel and gave no evangelistic invitations. Jesus Christ was honored by the testimonies of two former drug addicts. However, this set the stage for a remarkable evangelical concert later on, cosponsored by the Valado town council and the church.
Principle 9. Pray consistently. Compassionate pre-evangelism requires the Holy Spirit’s power to achieve its spiritual and social goals. The program looked so risky that it was not difficult to summon urgent prayer. The evangelicals were out on a limb in front of everybody who was anybody in the town. In this case, thousands of people were praying, in both Portugal and the United States.
Principle 10. Be willing to work with the community’s need over the long haul. Town leaders can tell if the initiative is just a trick to gain contacts. Compassionate pre-evangelism means being open to a long-term ministry, so be sure your people are committed to this. Through the drug seminars, we gained a countywide reputation for caring about drug addicts. We get pleas for help. We respond, spending time, money, and energy. At times, we are exhausted. However, we rejoice when God meets people in their sorrow and turns it to joy. One addict, António, was about to lose his job, wife, and two small children. After he chose to follow Christ, he gave up heroin, and his family is learning to be a family again. Manuel used cocaine, dabbled in the occult, and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals. His town feared him because of his violence and dissolute lifestyle. Now, as a disciple of Christ, Manuel has become a model citizen with his own business. This transformation has shaken his town to its core.
Of course, not all stories end this way. Pre-evangelism takes patience. Missionaries often want to rush out right away and sow the seed of the gospel. But we have found in this case that the time and energy spent inshowingChrist’s compassion for hurting people and towns brings honor to his name, gives evangelicals credibility, and prepares the soil for future sowing.
BRUCE SWANSON was a Conservative Baptist church planter in Portugal when he wrote his article. He now serves as missionary development director in the mission’s home office in Wheaton, Ill.
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