Summer is winding down. Kids are going back to school. And church attendance is beginning to swell. This is the time of year when the members of our community begin to consider going back to church. It is a great time to evaluate past outreach ideas and to consider new ideas for reaching our neighbors with the gospel. Here is a basic template for thinking through church outreach and developing new ideas.
The basis for pursuing new church outreach ideas is Jesus' command to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). We as believers and church leaders are thrust forward into the mission field. We don't do outreach because we want bigger crowds or bigger bank accounts. We do outreach because people need Jesus.
Jesus not only commanded outreach. He also modeled it through his earthly ministry. The key distinctive of Jesus' ministry was that he was led by the Spirit. "Then Jesus went back full of and under the power of the [Holy] Spirit into Galilee, and the fame of Him spread through the whole region round about" (Luke 4:14). But that did not mean that all of Jesus ministry looked other-worldly. When we read of Jesus' ministry, we read of activities that were very tightly tied in with the normal life of normal people. Jesus appointed normal men to be his disciples and he used every day examples to deliver his message.
This serves as our premise in outreach: led and empowered by God's Spirit to reach normal people who are doing everyday life. Stepping out to obey Jesus' commission shares a similarity with Bible interpretation: understanding the context. In my hermeneutics class we talk about the importance of understanding the context as a part of understanding the meaning of a passage. We recognize that the supernatural Spirit inspired words in Scripture are encased within a cultural/historical context. The language of a specific culture are used to communicate a heavenly message.
The same is the case with our outreach. The Holy Spirit inspires human beings to deliver a heavenly message through culturally appropriate language and actions. The way that Jesus leads us to reach our community is going to be as diverse as there are communities. There is no one set way of reaching a community. Outreach is not mechanical. It is organic.
Very quickly let me outline the process that we will follow to develop new church outreach ideas based on the premise above. First, we will make observations of our community and our church. Second, we will evaluate those observations in prayer, and group planning meetings. Third, we will execute ideas with a trial and error method.
Understand Your Community
Before we ever do any new outreach we need to make sure that we have a healthy understanding of who is in the community where God has called us. The following is an outline to think and pray through as we consider new church outreach ideas.
Understand The Demographics In Your Community
Paul was very aware of his audience. Sometimes he was talking to a Jewish audience. Other times he was preaching to gentiles. Some of his epistles are written to mixed audiences like Romans and 1 Corinthians. But the key thing to recognize in Paul's ministry is that he intentionally made his message specific to his audience. The distinction of different people groups was meaningful to him and it should be to us as well.
The best way to understand what ethnic groups are in your community is through looking for the most recent census data. This typically is found on your towns WikiPedia page or by searching the name of your town + demographics. You will also want to look for the biggest age group in your area. This type of data is gathered by the Federal government every 10 years and can be found online easily.
Understand Your Geography
Understanding the geography around your church would include:
- Understanding where your church facility is located in relationship to your city. What major landmarks are close by the church?
- Understand the drive time of your average church attendee.
- Understand how your community clumps. In other words, how are the neighborhoods divided up? Is there a specific neighborhood where the low-income live. Is there one ethnic group that is concentrated in one geographic area?
- Understand the gathering spots in your community. Where do people gather: the mall, a main street, a park, a lake?
Again, Paul is a good example of a missionary who was geographically strategic. He invested in cities that influenced other cities. The Holy Spirit led him to stay in the geographically strategic city of Corinth. He sought the opportunity to minister in Rome. Once he was in a city he would go to the place where people gathered. Sometimes it was the synagog. Other times it was the river.
(It is important to remember that there is a large segment of your local population that is gathering online through Facebook groups, blogs, and other social sites. These gatherings are just as important as the physical brick and mortar sites in your community. You might want to have one person in your church do research on these types of "online watering holes" for your community. A simple key word search based on your town's name may be a place to start.)
Understand The Economy of Your Community
You want to get a pulse on the income and expenses of your community. This information will tell you how many people are employed and where their income ranks in comparison to the national average. It is also valuable to identify the major employers in your area. This could possibly give you an insight into the type of people that will continue to be drawn into your area as new employees. Some areas are defined by one type of field: manufacturing, tech, or maybe finance.
Knowing the common expenditures of your community will often reveal what is truly important to your community. Like Jesus said "Where you treasure is, there will your heart be also." If you can discover what your community spends its money on, you will have a window into their hearts. You may also be able to identify the idols in your community. Idols are outreach barriers that must be breached by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Understand Your Communities Attention
This really is a matter of free time. What does your community spend their free time on? It probably isn't just one activity, but the primary interests of your community can probably be numbered on one hand. Some of the common activities that communities can spend a majority of their time on would be family, sports, outdoor activities, or shopping. It is important to recognize how people spend their free time. It is another window into the hearts of the people in your community.
Understand the Great Concerns of Your Community
There are a few venues where your community expresses their concerns: PTA meetings, the editorial page of your local newspaper, town council meetings and online through blogs, tweets and YouTube videos. There is great value in surveying thees different venues. It is important to recognize what makes people upset and what people are most concerned with. If the concerns that are expressed run parallel to the moral values of the Bible, this could be an opportunity to provide a solution or partner with community in their desire to solve the problem.
Further Reading on Understanding your Community
Knowing and Engaging Your Community by Ed Stetzer
Identifying Your Community Persona by Tony Morgan
A Video by Miles McPherson about their church outreach efforts
If you want to see an excellent example of an outreach that is tailored to the people in a specific community you can watch this video with Pastor Clay Worrell. Clay is a church planter in Ireland and has seen God doing an amazing work in the city of Waterford.
Understand Your Church
Simultaneous to observing and gathering data on your community, you need to make important observations regarding the make up of your church. Romans 12:4-6 says
For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith.
Also 1 Peter 4:10 says
As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
At least two realities are present in these verses. First, every believer in the church is gifted by God to play an active role in ministry. Second, every believer is expected to use their gift. That being the case, it is the role of church leaders to equip the saints to walk in their gifts and to create opportunities where those gifts can be used. The observation process has to take this into account.
Church leaders have to be engaging their congregation with the question "What is your spiritual gift" and "Do you feel like you have an opportunity to exercise those gifts."
Some churches have gone so far as to offer a spiritual gifts test. If that is something you are interested in trying I would highly recommend the PLACE test from PLACE Ministries. The conversation about spiritual gifts should naturally lead a congregation to be hungry for opportunities to exercise their spiritual gifts.
Pray Through the Observations
If you have gone through the points above you will have pages of notes. All of these observations are meaningless without the wisdom granted by the Holy Spirit. Let me borrow from hermeneutics example above. When practicing good hermeneutics one first gathers the facts on cultural context and the context of the passage. There are also observations made in the syntax and words employed to communicate the message. After all of these observations are made the interpreter has a lot of data that becomes the grounds for interpretation.
The same is the case in the process of developing new church outreach ideas. We first make our observations of the community and our church. Next we want to move from observation into the interpretation process. The underpinnings of this process is the belief that God is at work in our community and invites us to be a part of the unfolding story. But we need particular guidance in to where, how, who and when we should go. We know that we are commissioned to go. Now we need to know how.
It is time to pray together. Designate a special night of prayer. Let people know in advance that this is a first step in being involved in the upcoming outreach efforts of the church. Let people know that if they don't know their gifts and don't know how to be involved in the church, this is the prayer meeting to be at.
It could be helpful to put the observations on paper and provide them to your people in advance. It is also helpful to use the observations as an outline for guided prayer.
But before you pray for direction or the lost people of your community, you might want to read through 2 Corinthians 8:5 "And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God." Notice how Paul reported that the Macedonians gave themselves to the Lord. This should be the heart cry of this prayer meeting. "Lord, we want to give ourselves to you afresh. We want to be used by you in this community. We are at your disposal."
This prayer meeting requires Spirit led leadership. Let the people know that God is the audience for the prayers spoken. This is not a time to get on a soap box for a pet outreach idea. Let the people know that silence before the Lord is not scary or detrimental to their health. It is okay to be quiet before the Lord and wait upon Him.
Lastly, it would be helpful to have a person taking notes throughout the prayer meeting. It is important to remember what the Holy Spirit has laid upon your hearts during this time of prayer. Write down the different scriptures that are mentioned.
Hopefully, God has provided as sense of direction. It is healthy to pray like this and I would guess that the group that gathered the first time would want to gather again. Even if there is a sense of God's guidance it is a good idea to keep praying. It is not enough to know what to do. We need to keep asking God for the power to do it. Good leadership will call its people back to prayer all through the planning end execution process.
Further Reading on Church Outreach Ideas
101 Outreach Ideas for Small Churches by Chuck Warnock
The final step in developing new church outreach ideas is the execution stage. This is where the rubber meets the road. (Actually, the rubber should be meeting the road when we pray.) What I mean is that there comes a time to go and do what has been talked about and been prayed through. This is where the Corinthian church was struggling. In 2 Corinthians 8-9 Paul has to encourage the church to follow through on what they said they were willing to do. He points them to the example of the Macedonian churches and the grace of God. Evidently it is easy to be a church that gives verbal assent to an idea, but when it comes to executing we are talking about a whole new league.
Before you go you ought to have a clear outline on where your going, what you are looking for in terms of fruit, and when you expect to be done. All of that can change as God leads, but it is important as a leader to provide the structure in advance. A debrief should be planned before you even start. If the new outreach idea is going to be ongoing, make sure that you schedule a debrief relatively early in the schedule. You may identify areas that need to be tweaked and so it is good to plan a venue where people can give feedback.
If at all possible, attempt to not be emotionally invested in the idea. If there is a love affair with the idea, but very little fruit, it will be difficult to adjust. You need to be flexible and painfully honest with yourselves. Be prepared to scrap the idea and return to the drawing board with Jesus. Good leadership will create an environment where it is safe to fail and easy to try again.
It is also important to remember that the equipping and disciple-making process can be taking place in the midst of executing the new outreach. You may have a young leader that is being groomed for leadership as the outreach is ongoing. Maybe there is a member of the team that needs some feedback on character because they are hurting the team. All of this to say that God wants to grow the people doing ministry while you are engaged in reaching new people with the gospel.
Based on my experience, this outline for planning new church outreach ideas is solid. This plan gives wide berth for the Holy Spirit to lead. There is nothing better than taking ventures of faith with God. He is the one who has commissioned us to reach our communities and he has promised to supply all of our needs. We have the joy of being a part of the work God is doing.