Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Evangelize 2024

Evangelize 2024

Growing a church that proclaims the gospel

Dear friends,

This week, Marty Sweeney (from the US branch of Matthias Media) joins Tony as they discuss the challenges of evangelism in our churches today–both in Australia and the US–as well as suggesting some ways to overcome these challenges. They also discuss what is truly at the heart of evangelism, and how doing it as a body is more crucial than we might realize. 

We hope this conversation is edifying and encouraging for you to take into your own churches and communities. We would love to hear your thoughts, questions and comments, which you can share with us by emailing or by hitting ‘reply’ to this email.



Evangelize 2024

Tony Payne: It’s so good to have you with us again, Marty. There is much we could discuss about what is happening in the US at the moment, such as the state of politics, the election, and all kinds of important things going on. But I'd like to talk to you more about some actually important things—and that is the gospel things that are happening in the US. You’re often having phone calls and workshops and gatherings with elders and pastors to talk about the ideas that have come out of the Trellis and Vine, and you recently had a really interesting conversation with a group of elders about evangelism, which is a topic you and I have spoken about a lot. Tell us about what happened.

Marty Sweeney: Thank you, Tony. First of all, it's good to be back on Two Ways News, and the fact that people would listen knowing that I'm on again … well, thank you, dear listener, I appreciate it. And second of all, I would say I am very much humbled every time I talk about evangelism, because I think about my own personal deficiencies in the area. And so anything I say to others, I certainly am saying to myself concurrently. 

So I was at a workshop leading a group of elders from a small Presbyterian church, a good church doing good ministry. And we were working through what we've called the four E's that you and Colin Marshall wrote about in The Vine Project, that ministry moves from left to right across a little arrow–from engaging non Christians in a relationship, to evangelizing them in God's kindness. As he brings them into the kingdom of the Son, we establish them as Christians into the family of God. And then we equip them so that they can bring the gospel to others and to establish others in the faith. 

We do this little exercise where we visualise it on the whiteboard, talk about the different trellises (or structures) that a church would have—the large structures or trellises, the smaller group-based ministries, and right down to personal endeavours in ministry. And we got talking about the evangelism section particularly, and what was happening evangelistically across the whole church— everything from what happens on a Sunday morning, down to things like an event-based or small group-based activity, and even down to what's going on individually.

As we worked through that, Tony, it was really interesting. We talked about how historically, especially in the US, we have a heritage of the Billy Graham crusades, which I know happened in Sydney too. And we realized that those things were all great, but they don't work anymore. We don't even really try them anymore. No one just comes up to a rally to hear about Jesus. So we check that off the list and say, “We don't do that. We're not even trying to do that.”

TP: Yes, I'd say no one's really doing things like that all that much out here as well—the big evangelistic mission week rallies with lots of evening meetings and such. There are some that still happen at the moment, such as a nationwide student mission happening in Australia. And there are some public meetings and speakers that are especially evangelistic to bring people too. So that's still happening to some extent here in Australia, but not a lot. Certainly from what you're saying, in the US context there’s a shift away from that method—almost a sense of disillusionment with that approach. Would that be fair?

MS: Absolutely. I think it's actually looked down upon. Here in the US, some very faithful brothers in partner ministries would say that the old school programmatic evangelistic rallies or events just don't work and we shouldn't even be trying them. 

So then you lower it down one more level to what we could call our inner circles. We have things like running Christianity Explored courses in small groups, which is a very fine and faithful resource. But I raised this option they said, “We’ve tried running Christianity Explored and no non-Christians came.” So that doesn’t work either. Big events, smaller events, evangelistic programs, they all don't work. 

Now, we had this all up on the whiteboard, and I said, “So evangelism doesn't really happen much on Sundays because there are not really non-Christians amongst us regularly. We don’t have any large events. We’re not running Christianity Explored or anything like it either. So in the end, it's just up to you personally. How is that going in your church?”

And you can just see and feel that internally everyone has just sunk down. There was this silence. And we realized together, that there was no intentional evangelistic anything. At best, they thought of some people who might be doing evangelism in their neighbourhoods or workplaces, and just crossed their fingers and hoped for the best. 

Is that similar in Australia, Tony?

TP: It's similar, of course, because we all have the same inner problem with evangelism, which is sin—we’re fearful or complacent or self-obsessed, or for whatever reason, we don’t share the gospel as lovingly and urgently and as often as we should. I wouldn't say that we're firing on all cylinders and doing a fantastic job evangelistically here.

But I think in Australian evangelicalism, most of the nominal Christians left our churches decades ago. And for a long time, we’ve had to sit with the reality that we can't see people converted by waiting for them to come to church and evangelizing them in church. We're not a Christianized culture where people will just come the church anymore (if we ever were). So in that sense, the sense of urgency has probably been on our hearts more than it has been for many American churches. Do you think that's a fair reflection of the scene in the US?

MS: Yes, I think so, especially in the Midwest where I live, and in the South–the Bible Belt. But on the coasts–New York, Portland, San Francisco–they have probably been dealing with the reality you face for longer than we have here in the Midwest.

TP: That's very true. I remember we did a workshop once in Providence, Rhode Island. It was the part of America that felt most like Sydney that I'd ever been to, in the sense of being really post-Christian, of there being very little social or nominal Christianity at all. And if you’re in that kind of small, marginalized context where Christianity is no longer in any sense a mainstream culture, the temptation is to hunker down into a self-protective mode or become a bit passive or apologetic. So that’s one of the dangers we face, of being complacent or even fearful, or giving up on the possibility and success of evangelistic activity in the face of a large and hostile culture. 

But for those Australian churches that do have an active, urgent, well-planned evangelistic culture—I’d say it’s partly because we've been dealing with the reality of a pagan society for longer, and we've been experimenting for longer as reformed evangelicals. We’ve had to think and work hard on how can we work together as a congregation to engage and evangelize our neighbourhoods, to reach the people who are lost all around us because they're not going to come to us.

So there are some differences. But I would certainly say that the experience of being a church who wants to be evangelising but realises that not a lot is actually happening on that front—I think that’s a pretty common experience over here as well.

MS: So, Tony, there are three or four common problems or objections, and I’m curious how would you respond to these. The biggest one that we’ve mentioned is: nothing works. So what do we do? 

TP: Yes, that’s a good question. One of the key things we were saying in The Trellis and the Vine is that everything is connected. Structures in and of itself are just structures, trellises. They are things that facilitate the real ministry of the Word, and that ministry is what produces growth and changes to people. So any particular structure is liable to not work, because it depends on the people involved in the structure. It depends on how those people are doing the basic ‘vine’ work, which is moving people to the right through the word of God over time. We often express this through the four P’s–God’s people, proclaiming or presenting the word to others, prayerfully and patiently over time. For example, small group structures can either produce all kinds of fruit or become harmful ‘cliques’. The structure itself doesn't guarantee anything. It’s the quality of the people in the structures, and what they are doing. Does that help? 

MS: Yes, it does. So it's not the failure of the structures. It's the failure of what makes up or goes into the structures, because you have to have real people doing real discussions with the Word of God with non-Christians for it to work. Is that fair?

TP: Yes, exactly. It's almost always a failure to train, equip, motivate and excite our people to use this trellis (for example, a course like Christianity Explored), and have the confidence and ability to use this trellis for the sake of evangelism. Andrew Heard has spoken about it in terms of ‘temperature’–raising the heat or urgency of our congregation needs to come through our preaching, through our prayer, through everything we do in our church lives, our priorities, our examples as pastors. It's all connected.

MS: That's really helpful. I remember you once said something that was very convicting: raise your people’s willingness (or temperature) to be talking with and inviting other people into all aspects of their lives. It’s really hard to invite someone to a Christianity Explored course if you’ve only ever talked about lawn-mowing and sports. But if you’re an inviting person–come over for dinner, come over to the backyard, let’s have a chat, come over and watch the game–then when you invite them to something more directly spiritual like a Christianity Explored group or a Sunday morning, it’s a lot less abrupt.

TP: Yes, absolutely. While I didn’t appreciate Bill Hybels’ book Just Walk Across the Room in its entirety, he did communicate one brilliant concept—that the problem is we’re not willing to walk across the room and talk to somebody who is obviously new or who is not one of our own people. It takes a certain act of love and generosity, and Hybels likens that to what God has done. God has emptied himself and come to be among us for our salvation. And Hybels is quite right. It's that same self-emptying, compassionate, self-sacrificial love that imitates the Lord Jesus Christ that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 8-10. And that’s a sign of spiritual maturity–that as you grow in maturity, you look around you and say I need to help those people grow in Christ as well, and I need to reach out and love those people who aren’t Christian as well. So the failure of any structure or evangelistic activity is usually the failure of an overall enthusiasm and spiritual maturity among the congregation. It's not the structure's fault as such. And I think that would be the same for a big evangelistic rally or for anything like that.

MS: Yes, that's actually where our conversation with this group went. To take a really clever chapter title from Craig Hamilton's Wisdom in Leadership, ‘anything worth doing is worth doing badly’. If we believe that evangelism is important, let's just try something. Now, of course, we also use wisdom and observation and think sociologically, so we might not try the big community evangelistic event, but it is still worth trying something. Our encouragement to this church was: even if we think nothing works, doing nothing will absolutely not work

TP: If you think how we go about encouraging and growing our people in church and then use that same mindset to think about evangelism, they are quite similar. How do people grow and change in Christ, the people in your congregation? By being exposed to the powerful word of God in whatever way that can happen—not just on Sundays through sermons, but through their own personal Bible reading, through encouraging them to read the Word with one another, through Sunday school class, and so on. You're praying that God would make all these different ministries of the word effective, and it happens in and through people who share this Word with each other. It’s a process over time; it takes time for things to sink in and for people to change and grasp things and grow. 

And it’s very much like that with our non-Christian friends. It takes time for people to grapple with the ideas of Christianity, to talk it all through, to think through the Word and to share the Word. And they're starting from all sorts of different places, often from way, way back, and they almost don’t have any biblical language or categories of thinking, and there are lots of false ideas to dispel. And so you're looking for opportunities where you can get together with people over some period of time and share the Word with them and answer their questions. And do that in a way where you help each other and work as a team. It's difficult to see that happening just through personal witness and leaving people to do things on their own, or just through hoping people come to church. There's got to be some kind of trellis or structure or intentional opportunity, in which we can invite non-Christian people in to sit under the Word and come to understand the gospel over time.

MS: Yes, that's really helpful. And it picks up on the next point I wanted to make, which is that this is personal. As Rico Tice says, you've got to get through the pain point. Whether it's talking to them about the gospel explicitly or inviting them to hear it in some kind of group or event, there is a pain point you have to push through. There's no way around that. And that is a challenge to our heart and mind and how much our affections are for Christ. 

At the same time, the other objection I've heard is: programs are bad. Not only do they not work, programs are what the big slick churches do that aren't faithful to the gospel. What do you say to someone who says programs are bad?

TP: We've touched on it a little bit already. Culturally, the word ‘program’ is not the most positive word in the world or often has a mundane vibe to it. But if we’re talking about structures, then you could label almost anything we do as a program–such as Sunday school, and adult Sunday school–basically anything that has a structure to it, is regular, and you can invite people to. I can understand why there's a negative vibe, though, because when when we first wrote The Trellis and the Vine, the idea of only having a structure or a program and whacking people through it as the way to produce real growth and change in people’s lives was the mindset we were trying to shift people away from. But if we want to find opportunities to share the Word of God with people over time and we find some way and structure of doing that, then we can’t say it’s not a great thing just because we label it as a ‘program’. 

MS: Yes, we have to do something. We can't leave it to personal efforts because that’s not working, and programs in and of themselves don’t necessarily work. But if we tie those two things together, then we might get some traction. You and I are both, in our respective neighbourhoods, trying to evangelise. And we’re also trying to invite people to a program or group aimed to answer and raise more questions. So I don’t want us to just give up; we should be trying something, and we should be trying something both individually and together. Is that fair? 

TP: I think that's fair. I think we can't give up because there's this thing called the Great Commission. We’ve been given a commission and charge, and I don’t want to be that servant who just takes what he’s been given by the Lord, sticks it in the ground, and says “I've done nothing with it” when the Lord returns. Faithfulness is not giving up. The personal or individual aspect, while it may not be the answer on its own, is certainly an important part of the answer. If we're a bit discouraged that our people aren't more active in personal witness–and by extension in personal invitation and gathering people to church–could it be because we haven't intentionally thought about how we might train and teach and equip and encourage and give confidence to our people to do that? Have we thought about a teaching series or some training and equipping that actually helps to build the temperature and confidence of of individual church members to be part of this mission, that we're all in this together, that we're encouraging each other, praying about it, and working together to invite some friends over for dinner and have conversations and begin things. So I certainly think that the personal is a huge part of it because each person needs to be motivated and part of this whole effort we're about. We all have a part to play in doing something together. So the personal is very important, but it can't just be purely personal or individual. 

MS: To quote you at a workshop once, Tony, you encouraged us with this vivid imagery: we hunt in packs.

TP: It's actually something that we learned from our British friends. I think there was a time in ministry here in Australia where we tended to think of evangelism as something you did individually—and then when someone became a Christian, you followed them up as a group or got them into a small group to be encouraged. And I forget who it was in the UK scene who said, “We do it the other way around. We evangelize as a group, we help each other and invite people together and get together and talk with our non-Christian friends together. We try to help each other evangelize. And then when we follow up a new Christian, we absolutely make sure that someone is following them up individually and meeting with them one to one.” 

I think that's a very helpful insight. So I don't claim any credit for that. But in a sense I think we really need each other pretty much across the board. We need to help each other both evangelistically and in follow up. 

I think the other thing I'd really want to say, Marty, is that we need to talk about these issues together. We're all aware that evangelism is something that we want to do better at in our churches, and that we've been called by the Lord to reach out to people around us. And we're kind of aware we're not doing that well at it. And this, again, is another area where we need to get together and talk and look at the Bible and share ideas and challenge each other and help each other because I don't think anyone's going to stand up and say, “I've got this all completely sorted.” Each year when I come to the US, we often do some workshops and talk to people about these different issues. But this year, you suggested we do something different, that is to not have a bunch of workshops but to run a conference for a few days in the US to talk about exactly this issue together. And I think this is a fabulous idea. Tell us a bit about the conference we're planning and why we should come. 

MS: Yes, the conference is not a conference where we're bringing in the experts who’ve got it all together, but we are bringing in some people. You (Tony) and Dave Jensen who is another Sydneysider. And Mac Stiles, a beloved evangelist here in the US who's done evangelism in churches around the world, and some others, to get together to think about such things. And we’re trying to gather as many people who are able to come to Denver on October 7-9 for what we’re calling Evangelize 2024. You can find all the details on or by going direct to the conference website.

It's a conference to encourage one another, pray together, commiserate together and share ideas together. But it's also at the same time aiming to be more like a workshop where we want to leave people with some specific ideas that they can try. 

So I’d like to send people back to their contexts—whether that’s Sydney or Ohio or North Carolina or Wyoming—with some key theological principles, and with some new ideas and approaches to try. We each might come up with different tactics on the ground when we go back and work these things out in our churches and ministry teams—but we're energized by the same first principles, and the same gospel heart.

This is a ministry conference for anybody–including staff and lay ministry people–and not just for pastors. I'm very much looking forward to that. So I hope that anyone who is able to come can come. If you have any more questions about that you can get in touch with us at Mathias Media US.

TP: The conference is called “Evangelize 2024”. I like that. And I would come to this conference even if you hadn't invited me to come and be one of the speakers! In all the times that I've come across to the US over the last 15 years, it's always such an encouraging experience, because as you meet with brothers and sisters who deeply believe the same thing and who are on the same page theologically, you learn things from each other and encourage one another in ways that you weren't expecting. I keep finding fantastic things that you are doing over there in the States that we aren't doing over here in Australia, or you have a way of approaching or thinking about things that just hasn't occurred to us, or because of your context has become normal for you while it’s not normal for us. And it’s the same in reverse. There are things that we've developed and done here in Australia that you think, “Wow, that's interesting, we would never have done that, but maybe we could try that.” So I always come back from my trips to the US feeling like I've been the beneficiary more than the giver. And I'm really looking forward very much to that in October as well.

MS: Yes, Lord willing, it will happen. And I really can't wait for that. And if the Lord is kind, we will have lots of people there to share ideas with. 

TP: Thanks, Marty, for your efforts in getting this off the ground, and for talking today.


If you have been finding Two Ways News beneficial and encouraging, we would love for you to consider joining our Supporters Club—the people who make it possible for us to keep producing this newsletter/podcast—if you haven’t already.

To subscribe for free or join the Supporters Club, follow the link below to the ‘subscribe’ page. You’ll see that there’s:

  • the free option (on the far right hand side)

  • but also a number ‘paid options’. To join the Supporters Club you take out one of the paid ‘subscription plans’, and as a thank you, we send out bonus episodes and other material to Supporters Club members from time to time. 

Sign up for free or join the Supporters Club. 

Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
Listen on
Substack App
RSS Feed
Appears in episode
Tony Payne
Marty Sweeney