The idea of a marathon comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger who was sent from the Battle of Marathon to Athens—26 miles away—to inform the Greeks that the Persians had been defeated. Legend has it that Pheidippides ran the entire 26 miles without stopping, and upon delivering his message collapsed and died.

Although there’s debate about the historicity of this event, the practice of the marathon is real. According to the 2014 Annual Marathon Report (yes, it’s a real report), 541,000 people were classified as “finishers.” In other words, 541,000 people who started a marathon actually completed it.

Here’s a real simple principle when it comes to completing a marathon: anyone wishing to start and finish a marathon must have what it takes to stay the course.

In the beginning …
Leading a church is similar to running a marathon. For church planters there is much practice and preparation done before the big launch day. They cover a lot of groundwork prior to launching—building relationships, evangelizing people, connecting with community entities, creating communication pieces and attempting to engrain themselves in the daily rhythms of the community. All of their preparation prepares them for the official launching of their church.

For pastors in established churches, often there is a crisis of heart that leads to a more intentional push toward evangelism—preaching, teaching, praying and encouraging the congregation while getting out into the community more. Church members begin to respond by sharing their faith, while lost people respond to the gospel. Organization becomes necessary to keep up with it all.

And let the good times roll!

You can’t lead what you don’t live.

Being swept up in the current of the aftereffects of a church launch day or revitalization plan isn’t bad—in and of itself—unless the busyness and distractions of other important things take the planter’s or pastor’s focus off a key thing—evangelism.

The question becomes: now that the marathon has officially begun (with the launching of the church, or re-emphasis on evangelism) with the potential distractions, how can we stay the course of making disciples through evangelism?

I have addressed this issue in Planting Missional Churches, which comes out in a second edition later this year (now with Daniel Im as co-author). But, let me list three ways we can stay the course in keeping evangelistically focused.

1. Keep the mission before the people.
Every time the church gathers together for corporate worship, you must remind them that gathering together is not the goal; that the church doesn’t exist for itself, but for others. You must remind them—even to the point of sounding like a broken record—that the church exists for mission.

The church was created by mission and for mission.

If the mission stops with the Sunday gathering, then you’ve created a religious organization, not a church. To protect your church from becoming just another new religious organization, keep the mission before the people week in and week out.

To do so, you can create videos of people who have recently come to know the Lord; you can share personal testimonies of members who have recently shared Christ with someone; you can make baptism a big, celebratory deal; you can create opportunities for the church, corporately, to engage the community in an evangelistic way; and you can recite your mission statement and emphasize how the church doesn’t exist for itself but for God’s glory and for others’ good.

By doing these things you safeguard from mission being placed on the backburner.

2. Carve out time to engage in personal evangelism.
If personal evangelism isn’t a priority for the planter or pastor, it will not be a priority for the church. In other words, the planter/pastor must set the tone for the church’s passion to engage others in evangelism. Carving out time—on an ongoing basis—to engage in this endeavor is a must.

Raise up a group of people in your church who will oversee the church’s outward focus.

Every church leader is busy, and I understand that. I’m busy, too. Show me a pastor who isn’t busy in ministry and I’ll show you a pastor who pulled up short of the finish line.

Carving out time requires discipline and intentionality.

One of the ways I encourage church planters to discipline themselves to stay on top of personal evangelism is to divide their time into four blocks. These four blocks works well for those in full-time ministry, working 50+ hours a week. The first block sets aside 10–15 hours for administration; the second block is 10–15 hours for ministry; the third is 10–15 hours for sermon prep (if you’re a lead pastor); and the fourth sets aside 10–15 hours of evangelism.
Those times can be adapted for established church pastors as well.

If you don’t purposely manage your time wisely—setting aside time to engage in evangelism—you may find yourself doing a lot of admin and ministry work.

When I planted a church in the ’90s, we sent a mass mailer marketing a marriage series. It said, “Got marriage problems? Come to our church.” And lo and behold, they did.

For the next six months it seemed like I became Dr. Phil in the life of broken couples. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: ministry to these couples was great; I just allowed ministry to take precedence over my responsibility to personally evangelize.

Remember: like many things, when it comes to evangelism you can’t lead what you don’t live.

3. Raise up leaders to oversee the church’s outward focus.
Not only should you continue to dangle mission in front of your people, and carve out time to personally engage in evangelism, but you also need to raise up a group of people in your church who will oversee the church’s outward focus. Create a structure that organizes the church in a way that propels it forward and helps keep it on course.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–12). In short, church oversight should be missional oversight to ensure that the church continues the work of ministry in making disciples of all nations.

I’ve been thinking through the role of the evangelist in the local church, a position specifically mentioned in Ephesians and elsewhere, and think that we need to see more evangelists at the local church level (see Rice Broocks on that subject).

The Evangelism Marathon
Keeping a church focused on evangelism is similar to running a marathon—and anyone wishing to start and finish well in planting and pastoring a church must have the ability to stay the course evangelistically. It’s been my experience that it’s easy for churches to become inwardly focused. My prayer is that planters and pastors will lead their churches to run the race of missional endurance as they stay the course of keeping themselves and their churches evangelistically focused.

I would love to hear from you on other ways churches can finish the marathon of evangelistic focus. Leave some thoughts in the comments.

Read more from Ed Stetzer »

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.

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