Why are some churches so effective at reaching people and making disciples, while others remain stagnant year in and year out? The answer to this question is not geographical, denominational, philosophical, or generational. Today in the U.S. there are all varieties of churches in size, shape and color that are effectively reaching people in their community. Most are applying one or more of these five proven outreach principles. We would encourage you to do the same…
Outreach Principle #1: Outreach is THE Priority
Here is one reason why older churches are generally less effective at outreach than newer churches: The longer a church exists, the more concerned members become with self-preservation…and the less concerned with the church’s original reason for being.
Over time, churches become increasingly self-centered and self-serving. The result, not surprisingly, is that such churches stop growing. This most important principle says that leaders must turn the focus of their congregation away from themselves, and back to their original mission—and Christ’s mission—of making disciples. This outward re-orientation occurs through programming, praying, budgeting, staffing, and honestly evaluating the church’s success at birthing new Christian disciples. While there are many good things a church can do…and there are some important things a church should do…there is only one essential thing a church must do: “…go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life…” (Mt. 28:19, The Message).
Outreach Principle #2: Social Networks are the Vehicle
There is a 2,000 year-old insight that any congregation can apply to reach more people. Here it is: Non-Christians come to Christ and the church primarily through relationships with Christians.
Christian friends and relatives bring twice as many new believers into local churches as all the other reasons…combined! To apply this principle, encourage each person in your church to list their unchurched friends and relatives in the community. (The average person can list 4-5.) Next, encourage members to pray specifically for these people. A church in my home town distributed a 2” x 3” card reminding members to pray for one person on their list, at one o’clock, for one minute, during one month. Third, encourage members to invite one of the people they’re praying for to an appropriate church-related event in the next six months. And remind members that they may be God’s only connection to these unreached people.
Outreach Principle #3: Felt Needs are the Connecting Point
Most unchurched people are not walking down the streets of your community thinking about the eternal destiny of their soul. But they are thinking about something; usually something of immediate concern or interest: their job…a relationship…their health…kids…finances…hobby.
If the Gospel of Christ is really relevant to all aspects of life (which, of course, it is), we need to show unreached people how it is relevant to their lives, as well. Research I conducted for the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps found that the most common response of 18-21 year-olds, as to why they don’t attend church, was: “it’s irrelevant.”
Jesus began his conversation with the Samaritan woman on a topic of her interest—water. Then, in a microcosm of the disciple-making process, he talked about water where she would never thirst again! The implication? Don’t start with your agenda, start with theirs. Some key felt needs of people in your community are disconnection and isolation (they are looking for a place to belong) andthe pressure of a busy and stressful world (they are looking for a greater sense of balance and ways to manage priorities).
When your church speaks to unreached people’s felt needs, you will get a hearing. Because now your message is, from their point of view, relevant.
Outreach Principle #4: Relationships are the Glue
Seeing people come in the “front door” is one thing; keeping them from leaving out the back door is another.
What is the primary ingredient that keeps people active in church? The research is conclusive: Relationships. According to one study, new members who stay beyond their first year make an average of seven new friends in the church…versus two for drop-outs. Put simply, if people have friends in the church they will stay, if they don’t they won't. Friendships develop when people share things in common, such as common age, interests and family status.
Be a “relational matchmaker” when (and even before) people join your church, and you’ll see them around for a long time.
Outreach Principle #5: Transitions Provide the Window of Opportunity
All unchurched people in your community are not similarly inclined to become Christians and members of your church. Some are quite responsive, others not at all.
Jesus spoke of this principle in telling us to turn our eyes to the fields that are “white unto harvest” (John 4:35)…to plant the seed of the Gospel in good [receptive] soil (Mt. 13:1-9)…to preach in the towns that are receptive (Luke 9:1-6). So, how do you identify the receptive people in your community? One way is through life-transition events. Significant changes in people’s lifestyles move them toward spiritual receptivity. These may be controlled events (i.e., marriage, divorce, relocation, retirement) or uncontrolled events (i.e., death of a spouse, medical crisis, fired from work, etc.). People experiencing change in other aspects of their life are more open to change their spiritual life.
Several application ideas for this principle: Encourage your members to be aware of transition events of those in their social network (Principle #2), and respond with genuine Christian love. Develop specialized ministries that focus on transition events, and then develop a plan to share God’s unconditional love with these people whom the Holy Spirit may have prepared.
These outreach principles work. They should be applied not in order to grow a big church, but in order to reach God’s dearly loved children, and bring them into the caring fellowship of the body of Christ.
NOTE: For more on these and other important principles—and how to successfully apply them in your church—see the new book, What Every Pastor Should Know—101 Rules for Effective Leadership and Ministry in Your Church (Baker Books, 2013).