Getting outreach backwards

A great frustration for many pastors is the common expectation of church members, including lay leaders, that it’s the pastor’s job to grow the church.  The truth is, most pastors have less ability to grow the church directly than any committed member of the congregation.  That might seem strange to say, given that so much of the American church has convinced itself that programs and style are the keys to growth, but it’s true.  Programs and style may help one congregation steal members from others, but they will not grow the churchDean Inserra makes the point well:

“We need an outreach event to bring in some young people.”  I hear that from Christians often about their church, assuming it must be the key for City Church in getting the “young folks.”  Other times I eavesdrop on conversations at Chick Fil A, where a table of staff members from another church in town are hoping their pastor will take off the tie and “go contemporary,” since they want to be “relevant,” and “reach the young people.”

– Do an outreach.
– Change the music.
– Dress in jeans.
– Use more technology in the service.
– Increase social media presence by getting on Twitter.
– We need to be more creative.

I hear it all.  It once made me sad for these nice folks who I do believe sincerely are trying to reach more people, but now I just roll my eyes.  An unbeliever doesn’t care about any of those things because, wait for it . . . he’s not a Christian.  Why would someone who isn’t a believer and doesn’t attend a Sunday church worship service, care about the music at the local Baptist church?  Have you ever met a new believer who in his or her testimony mentions that he or she heard the pastor didn’t wear a suit, so this new believer decided to try it out, heard the gospel, and was baptized?  Maybe that story exists somewhere, but I haven’t heard it.  Why would an unbeliever follow your church on Twitter?  I’ve never heard someone who came to church because the pastor sits on a stool rather than standing in a pulpit.

Very few see it, but there’s idolatry underlying the folly Inserra critiques.  “Relevance” has been a major idol in the American church for decades, and on the whole it has gone largely unchallenged.  When relevance is our idol, we look away from Jesus and the gospel and fix our eyes on what the world around us wants to see, hear, and feel.  Instead of giving God the glory he deserves, we dedicate ourselves to giving the world the affirmation it wants.  We define “relevance” as being relevant to the world on its own terms, and so we let the world dictate what we do and how we do it.

Do you see the problem here?  When we frame the work of the church in this way, we have defined our job as telling the world nothing it doesn’t already know and giving it nothing it doesn’t already have.  That makes Christianity redundant and unnecessary.  That’s why Os Guinness pointedly said,

Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant.

We only find our actual relevance to this world as we show and tell the world those things with which it is not comfortable, because it has forgotten them.  Rather than being a public echo of the world’s familiar business, our proper role in society is to be “the public forum of the world’s radical business,” where the world is called back to the root of every matter to confront the God who made it.

This is a profoundly different vision of church and culture and the nature of outreach than that which Inserra critiques.  It cannot be done by programs, because programs are impersonal.  If you want people to let you challenge them with truths they would rather not face, you’re asking them to trust you with their lives, and you can’t earn that trust through programs.  You have to earn it one person at a time, one relationship at a time.  Which, as it happens, is the only way truly effective outreach happens anyway.

We have never planned anything at City Church that we thought would get a non-Christian to come to church.  I plan and organize everything around reaching our own people to be missionaries.  Why?  People only come to church on the arm of a trusted friend.

If that last statement is true—and it is, as every study has shown—then trying to make our worship do the work of outreach is not only bad theology (since worship is supposed to be all to God, all for God, and all about God, rather than to, for, and about other people), it’s bad practice, because it cannot work.  The role of our worship in our outreach should be, as a product of inflaming our love for God and for the world and people he has made, to inspire and support each of us as members to do the work of outreach.  Whether or not outreach happens and the church grows is ultimately on the shoulders of each member.  As Inserra says,

There are two reasons why unbelievers aren’t coming to your church on their own, even though you had 1,000 people who you’ve never seen before show up for Trunk or Treat:

1. Your Church members aren’t invested in the lives of unbelievers.
2. Your Church members don’t love their church.

If only it was as simple as theology. Yes they really believe the Bible, believe evangelism is important, and Hell is a real place. If an unbeliever almost exclusively comes to church on the arm of a trusted friend, he must have a trusted friend to come on the arm of, from your church, or it will never happen. However, even if church members are fantastic at loving their un-churched neighbor and are very missionally intentional (shout out to two Christian buzzwords back to back), they aren’t going to invite a friend to a church service they secretly wish they didn’t have to go to themselves. We take our environments, music, preaching, and overall approach to Sunday mornings seriously, because we want our own church members to love their church enough to bring the friend they’ve been investing in for months.

There is no other way.


Photo © 2009 Wikimedia user Wattewyl.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.

Posted in Church and ministry, Culture and society, Quotes.

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