Three Critical Keys for Cultivating Evangelistic DNA

Vince Antonucci

I’ve started two churches, one in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1998, and another in Las Vegas in 2010. At each we have been determined to keep the mission at the forefront. That focus has proved effective. At both churches, about 70 percent of the people were unchurched non-Christians when they first showed up. At both churches, we baptized 50 to 100 people a year. And we’re talking about people who were very far from Jesus: atheists, pimps, prostitutes, Buddhists, drug dealers, strippers, skeptics, gays, gang members, child pornographers, you name it.

Why? Because we have been obsessive about the “why”–why our church and the church at large exist. We’ve never lost sight of what we were trying to accomplish. We know that our Mission Zero is to reach those far from God.

So how do you do that? How do you rediscover why your church exists and create a church with evangelistic DNA? And how do you keep your church’s passion for Jesus’ mission red hot?

Let me share a couple keys that have been critical for us (for more best practices on creating evangelistic DNA in your church, check out my new free eBook, Mission Zero).

Cultivate evangelistic DNA in you. If you want to have a church with evangelistic DNA, you need to have the same DNA in you. When my wife and I had a baby, no amount of hoping, no seminar, no planning could have produced a baby that would become a 7-foot basketball player who would play center in the NBA. Why? Because we couldn’t pass on DNA we didn’t have.

In the same way, no amount of hoping or planning can produce a church with evangelistic DNA if you (the church planter, the pastor, the leaders) don’t have a passion for evangelism. It has to start with you.

Do you have evangelistic DNA in you? If not, you may be wondering how you ignite your passion for lost people. I’ve found the best way is to hang out with lost people.

I became a Christian from a completely non-Christian background at age 20. All I could think about was people who didn’t know Jesus and weren’t following Him. I ached for them and wanted them to discover what I had. I spent all my time with lost people and led a bunch of them to God. Then I started interacting with Christians. Soon, I transferred to seminary and found myself surrounded by Christians. After seminary, I worked churches., and in both I was almost exclusively with Christians. During that time, my heart stopped pounding for those who were far from God.

Then it happened. It was about 1 a.m. My wife and I were driving to Virginia Beach where we planned to start a new church. She was sleeping in the passenger seat next to me. I was listening to the radio and a song came on I had never heard, “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows. The singer, Adam Duritz, sang, “Please help me to believe in something. Because I don’t believe in anything. And I want to be someone who believes … .”

I started thinking about this guy who wants to “believe in something,” but can’t, who has no faith, no hope, no real love. And he’s writing songs begging for someone to talk to him and to give him something to believe in. Suddenly, I began to feel ill. For several years, I had closed my eyes to people like Adam Duritz. In fact, I wouldn’t even listen to their music because I was told it might have a bad influence on me. I had been learning about Jesus’ mission and teaching others about it, but not engaging in His mission myself. I had secluded myself from lost people.

I realized my wife wasn’t really the one asleep. I had been sleep walking through my Christian life for the past several years. It was a holy wakeup call from God, and I made a commitment right then that I would never lose the rhythm of God’s heartbeat again.

So the principle I’ve learned is that we find God’s heart for lost people by being around lost people, and we lose it when we’re not. I continually have to ask myself: What can I do to get myself around lost people? If I’m going to have evangelistic DNA, and if I’m going to lead a church with evangelistic DNA, I need to be around lost people. And you do, too.

Also, you need to pray for a passion for evangelism, hang around Christians who are passionate for lost people, read evangelistic books—just do whatever you need to do to ignite that passion and keep it burning within you. When the leaders of a church have an evangelistic DNA and follow that impulse, that passion changes everything. It’s contagious.

Start immediately. A second key to keeping Jesus’ mission central is to start immediately. If you have a launch team that is together for six to 12 months, they will do life and faith a certain way. But you’re expecting that at some point you’re going to flip some magic switch, and everyone is going to start doing life and faith differently. You’re deceiving yourself. There is no magic switch to flip.

Perhaps this is part of the reason so many churches want to reach lost people and plan on reaching lost people, but never reach lost people. Maybe it’s because in the early days, when the DNA of the church was being set, the people were waiting for the day when they’d start living the way they were supposed to live. But when the day came, it was too late. A way of life had set in. They had become too comfortable. The church started, and would remain, inward-focused.

So my advice: If you ultimately want to be a church that reaches lost people, start now! Because if you wait, you won’t.

If you’re a church planter in the launch team phase, make sure you have something to which people can invite their friends. And tell them to start inviting people now. There’s no magic switch coming.

John Burke, pastor of Gateway Church in Austin, Texas, and author of the great book, No Perfect People Allowed, says that the first 100 people will set the tone for your church’s future. So if a church’s first hundred people were all Christians, what future would you predict for that church?

You may be thinking, This doesn’t apply to me, because I’m at an established church. Yes, established churches have established DNA that is difficult to change. But if what your church is passionate about accomplishing isn’t seeking and saving the lost, you have to change it. And you need to start immediately. Every day you wait is another day where wrong DNA is setting in. Every day you wait, you’re practicing and getting better at having the wrong priorities.

So start the DNA transplant–and start it immediately

Live sacrificially. To keep the focus on Mission Zero, we need to be willing to make the sacrifices it takes.

Are you willing to sacrifice to be part of a church that reaches lost people?” Because it is a sacrifice to be part of a church that reaches truly lost people. You will pay some costs.

If you reach out to truly lost people, you will have people curse in your sanctuary. We had someone curse in a baptistery!

There will be hours of extra work that go into having facilities that look great, rather than settling for good enough.

The people you reach will have very messy lives, and you will get dragged into their messiness.

There’s the burden of having to fire people on your staff who don’t live up to the standards you’re striving for.

Other churches will criticize you for the methods you’re using.

You’ll have thumb-sucking Christians whining to you about how they’re “not getting fed.”

You will lose people in your church who don’t understand why you do things the way you do and why you focus so much on unchurched people. And those people you lose may be tithers.

And if you seek to reach people who are truly unchurched rather than those who go to other churches, you’ll discover that non-Christian unchurched people don’t tithe. That means less income for your church, and therefore probably less salary for you.

You will have people who dress wrong, people with Mohawks, people who smoke on the church patio, people sitting in the middle of your sanctuary smelling like beer.

The size of your church will probably be smaller. If you do church for people who don’t like church, it really narrows the number of people who are likely to show up.

It’s very obvious what is and isn’t important to you; which battles you’re willing to fight; and which ones you walk away from. People are naturally selfish, and if you try to have a church focused on people who do not yet attend, you will face resistance. The easy thing to do is to give in and let your church become inwardly focused. Then you’ll never need to make all the sacrifices it takes to have a church that reaches truly lost people.

You may be asking, “But wait. Are those costs that we should be willing to pay?” Good question. Another question points to the answer: Was Jesus willing to make those sacrifices?

Knowing the people He hung around, do you think people cursed around Jesus?

Was Jesus criticized by religious leaders?

Were there people who didn’t understand what He was trying to do and wouldn’t follow Him because of His methods?

The obvious answers are yes, yes, and yes. If we’re really following Jesus, we’ll probably experience what He did. There are costs, and we should be willing to pay them.

And if you are willing to take on those costs and rediscover why your church exists, trust me, all kinds of benefits will come.

This article is excerpted and adapted from the FREE eBook Mission Zero: Rediscovering Why Your Church Exists by Vince Antonucci.