Innovation often comes from pooling the resources you already have around you.
Launching new outreach programs, events and ministries is much like trying on an outfit. Because every church has its own shape, size and style, one outfit does not fit all. One of the best things a church can do is to commit to trying a variety of outreach approaches, ministries and programs, and discover what fits best.
Where do you find new outreach programs, great events and innovative ideas for your church to try on? Here are five proven suggestions with examples of what this can look like.
1. Borrow great ideas. What is familiar and common to others might be new to your church. Why not borrow what someone else is doing and see if it fits you? Do an internet search to see what healthy and evangelistic churches are doing to reach their community. Call outreach leaders at other churches and ask if you can have a 30-minute conversation about how God is using their church to reach out with the gospel. Most leaders will be honored to share their ideas and help you. Remember, we are in the work of the gospel together. We have an enemy, but it is not the Bible-believing, Jesus-loving churches around us.
Innovation in Action: A church in a very artistic community borrowed a great idea. They heard about an open-mic night where people could share their music, art or poetry. The artists in the church decided to do this, and invite their community to come and share their art. The only boundary was that it had to be family friendly. They saw dozens of community artists and friends come to a series of evenings at the church and celebrate the beauty and creativity of believers and non-believers alike.
2. Brainstorm with church members. No one knows your community better than the people who live there. People in your church are the best qualified to identify what your community needs and what will connect the unchurched in your region to Jesus. Why not gather 10 to 15 people from your church to pray and dream about new ways you can reach your community with the love, truth and grace of Jesus? Invite people to contribute any ideas (with no judgment). If you want to get really creative, you might want to invite some people who are not yet followers of Jesus to share how your church could extend love and care to your community.
At our church, we do this with a big blank wall (or foam core board) and lots of Post-it notes and pens. Everyone is invited to write down any idea with the understanding that no idea is a bad idea in this process. After we have 50 or more suggestions, we group them by the kinds of ideas. Then, we talk about five to 10 that could work at our church and flesh out some of the details. Out of this, our hope is to find one or two new ones we can get a volunteer team to develop and launch.
Innovation in Action: We used this process as we planned an outreach sermon series on the kings of Israel and Judah. We had a Western theme and asked for ideas of how we could make things fun before, during and after the worship service. The group came up with more than 50 creative ideas. Here are two that made the cut: We had a petting zoo on the church property before and after the services for the five weeks of the sermon series. We actually had a few miniature animals that kids could pet and a big horse they could get a picture on. The other idea that we embraced was having a local cowboy give lessons on roping. We used a bale of hay with horns on it, and the children loved it.
3. Tailor ideas to your church. When you find an idea that someone else is using, never try to use it in your church without tailoring it to your shape and size. No two churches are exactly the same, so you need to contextualize everything to the unique church and community you serve.
Innovation in Action: The lead pastor of Lifezone Church in Tauranga, New Zealand, got an idea from my church. We had decided to do a community barbecue and invited all our neighbors, who were mainly businesspeople. We had no idea if anyone would come, but we walked in faith, prayed, and prepared a lot of food. The first year over 300 people came. Now, we have close to 600 neighbors come over for lunch and many have come to church, met Jesus and experienced radical life change.
At Lifezone Church, they did the same thing, but they made homemade hot cross buns and invited their neighbors, who also were local businesspeople, over for tea. They were amazed at how many people came, hung out and became friends. This creative tailoring of a barbecue opened the door for them to do something that works in their context.
4. Learn from the past. Almost every church has outreach ministries and programs they have used in the past. Some of these ideas were fruitful and effective. Over time, new ideas won the day and the old ideas were set aside. Why not prayerfully look at older ideas that worked and consider reviving them?
Innovation in Action: One church revived the idea of a volunteer team making a home call to first-time visitors and bringing them a homemade pie. Church leaders were nervous about this because hospitality and home visits can seem like artifacts of the past. But in their church and context, it was a huge hit. When they renewed this outreach follow-up ministry, it was powerful. It was so old it seemed new. Many of the people they visited invited the church volunteers into their home, which led to great spiritual conversations.
5. Try something wild. Every church should commit to trying something a little over the edge at least once every year or two. If it bears fruit, that’s great. If it doesn’t pan out, that’s OK too. God is honored when we take risks. Talk with your church board or a group of leaders who like to do things a little crazy. Identify one outreach ministry or event that would stretch your church, and give it a try.
Innovation in Action: At a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, someone came up with the idea of doing worship in a public area. It seemed a little over the edge to some church leaders, but they decided to try it.
A group of about 15 people went downtown on a Saturday evening and found a place where there was a good flow of people walking through. They did not amplify the music but played and sang with all their hearts. They also had a few prayer warriors do some prayer walking, asking God to draw people near and move them to stop and listen or even join in the singing. In addition, the church set up a table and offered free Bibles, books for spiritually hungry people, song sheets and even some little handheld percussion instruments with church information on them.
They were all amazed and delighted when almost 60 people gathered from the community and sang along. Over the next couple of hours, they experienced rich spiritual conversations, prayers, new friendships and great worship. When the church group finally packed up, many people from the neighborhood asked, “Do you promise to come back again?” And they did.
Innovation comes in many shapes and forms. Take a risk. Try something new. See what God might do.