The bad news is that fewer and fewer churches are highly intentional about reaching their immediate community.
When I began my journey as a church consultant in the 1980s, I had one tried-and-true approach to determine the outreach effectiveness of a church. I would simply ask to see the records of the number of home visits the prior month. I would then compare that number to the average attendance of the church. It was a pretty basic, yet accurate, way to see if the church was likely to grow in the future.
From my perspective of over 30 years ago, churches that knocked on more doors were more likely to grow. Indeed, even today if you can visit with receptive hosts in their homes, the effectiveness of that contact is very high.
But my previous statement has two clear caveats. The first is “If you can visit … in their homes.” I began to see the trends shift in that same 80s decade when I was also serving as a pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida. Second, I used the word “receptive.” People were becoming less receptive, even hostile, to drop-by visits. And, at least in that city, more gated communities made drop-by visits impossible.
As a pastor, I would continue to use the traditional home visit as our church’s primary outreach mechanism into the 1990s, but I saw it become less and less effective. Those most faithful members who showed up for outreach night were becoming more and more discouraged. It was not uncommon for a couple to attempt to make five or six home visits with no success. Even those who tried to make appointments at night had very minimal success.
Almost every church leader understands that the congregation is called to be faithful to the Acts 1:8 command to be witnesses to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The practical application of that, of course, is to send members into our communities and, ultimately, throughout the world.
The good news is that more churches are indeed sending members throughout the country and the world. The bad news is that fewer and fewer churches are highly intentional about reaching their “Jerusalem,” or immediate community.
There is a direct connection between the demise of traditional outreach and the decreasing effectiveness of reaching the respective communities. Spending time in someone’s home was a highly effective connection that usually led to other relational opportunities. But, as noted, this type of outreach is highly problematic in most communities. What’s the solution?
I have done an informal survey of church leaders the past several months. My simple question has been: What is your church doing to reach her community? Here are the top nine responses.
1. Nothing. The church leaders who gave me this response knew that it was not a good answer. They simply have not found an effective means to reach their community.
2. Social and caring ministries. Usually these ministries are effective in helping people, but I have heard few success stories of getting those same people assimilated in the church. Often the socioeconomic barriers are too large, despite the church’s best efforts.
3. Big event. The church puts many of its resources toward a major production at Easter, Christmas or Fourth of July, to name a few. Usually a good number of community residents do attend these events. Usually, most of them do not return to the church.
4. New venues or campuses. The multicampus and the multivenue models are becoming increasingly popular. Because they are able to attract new segments of the community, this approach does seem to be more effective than most.
5. Community events. This approach is similar to the big event, except it is held in the community instead of the church facilities. I recently saw, for example, a church put significant resources into an event called “Carnival in the Park.” Like the big event in the church, I am not hearing of significant outreach success with this approach.
6. Natural relationship building. A number of leaders indicated problems with structural outreach approaches. They believed that the members should be naturally developing relationship with nonbelievers. I believe that too; I’m just not seeing it too often.
7. Intentional invitations. Our research shows that many unchurched persons will have a high level of receptivity to an invitation to church. Many churches encourage this approach to outreach, but I would like to see how some type of accountability could be created so that the approach can be sustained.
8. New groups. I am perplexed. Churches that are intentionally and aggressively starting new groups are having significant outreach success. They are seeing more unchurched people accept invitations to join the new groups. But relatively few churches are intentional and aggressive about starting new groups. Why?
9. Sticking with the traditional outreach. A few churches report that their traditional approach to visits in the homes works well in their communities. Great! If God’s using it, stay with it.