Through the years, churches with an eye toward the lost have taken noble strides to reach them.
Often they have mounted special efforts (think revival meetings, youth crusades, a week—or even two!—of VBS).
Sometimes they’ve revamped their approach to make their church more appealing to the secular community around them: They’ve made their worship style more contemporary. They’ve trained hospitality teams so visitors will feel welcome at weekend services. They’ve offered electives on parenting and finances and other topics to meet current needs.
But after speaking about outreach with seven leaders in growing churches, I’ve come to understand that outreach means more—so much more!—than making insiders out of outsiders. Outreach is more—so much more!—than attracting larger crowds to our buildings.
In fact, biblical outreach isn’t primarily about our congregations at all. Outreach is about pointing people to Jesus. And for us to succeed at our task of making disciples, effective outreach today will begin outside our buildings with those who would never consider visiting us there.
“We can’t put all our eggs into the basket of getting people to come to church as a first step,” said Ben Cachiaras, lead minister with Mountain Christian Church, a megachurch multisite congregation based in Joppa, Maryland. “We must focus on being mission driven, not members driven or maintenance driven or me driven. Churches must ask, ‘Are we actually reaching people and making disciples out of people who weren’t disciples? Are we reaching non-Christians or just the “dechurched”?’”
How does this happen? The input from all seven leaders I interviewed informed and energized a handbook for outreach volunteers I put together for Church Leaders Press, book-publishing arm for Outreach (see sidebar) last year. The passion and perspectives of those leaders can energize all of us to seek a biblical model for reaching those outside Christ today.
“Our God is a missionary God,” Cachiaras said, quoting Luke 19:10 (Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost”) and John 20:21 (“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus said, “I am sending you”). “Jesus cared for lost people more than anyone who has walked the planet.” If we want to look more like Jesus, he said, concern for the lost will be our priority.
Outreach happens when the church becomes outward focused. David Dummitt, senior pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois, spoke with me as he was finishing his ministry with 2|42 Community Church, also a multisite congregation, based in Brighton, Michigan. He challenged me to look at how God has called servants to ministry again and again.
“Jesus said, ‘Come follow me so I can make you fishers of men,’ not so you can have a better life, find peace, or have your problems solved,” Dummitt said. “God’s call to Abraham was ‘I will bless you so you can bless the nations.’” God created the church to reach the lost.
This means outreach is not an event, the responsibility of one committee, or the assignment to one staff member. As Dummitt said, “Outreach is our posture, not a program.” The church should think about “sending capacity” more than “seating capacity,” he said. “Get people involved where they live, work, and play.”
In other words, eliminate the mind-set that believes all evangelism must begin or end with professional input, at special times, or in the church building. The Lord added to the first church daily those who were being saved (see Acts 2:47)—all without special meetings, committees, or paid staff.
This happens, Cachiaras believes, when the church learns how to “make missionaries out of everyone who wants to follow Christ.”
This may involve training. Glen Elliott, lead pastor with Pantano Christian Church, Tucson, Arizona, admitted a time came when they realized volunteer leaders needed help taking others farther along in their faith. So, Pantano offered training.
But Brian Jennings, lead minister at Highland Park church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, believes something vital comes before training.
“We can train and equip our people to death,” Jennings said, and “if they don’t care about the Great Commission, it won’t matter.”
Once that passion has been instilled as a result of prayer, preaching, example, and visible congregational priorities, the church does well to set members free to pursue outreach on their own.
Mountain Christian told every small group they needed to have a mission beyond just meeting and studying the Bible. 2|42 Church took its marketing budget one year and disbursed it among the church’s small groups. “Here’s $1,000,” they were told. “Go bless the community and invite them to church.”
“Our job is to equip the saints,” Dummitt said. “They’re supposed to be sent out. They are the ones supposed to do the ministry. Jesus took a risk when he returned to Heaven and entrusted his followers with the ministry. . . . Jesus trusted us with the mission; we need to trust others, too.”
2|42 bought a Free Stuff Van church members can use for outreach—usually at their own expense. One group bought ceramic mugs and imprinted them with “You’ve been mugged by 2|42 Church.” They filled the mugs with hot chocolate and distributed them to shoppers on a chilly Black Friday morning. One fellow who received this gift visited the church, became a Christian, and eventually served as executive minister on the church staff.
Mountain hosts commissioning services where they hand a small card to everyone attending a weekend worship service. Cachiaras preaches about the priesthood of all believers and then challenges members to commit to one area of their lives where they can be a missionary for Jesus. At the end of the service, he asks members to write that commitment on the card they’ve been given.
Maybe their area is their weekly bridge game, maybe it’s a grandparents’ group, maybe it’s their child’s ball team. They put it on the card and line up at one of several prayer stations around the auditorium. One by one, each member is sent out to be an influence for Jesus in the arena they have chosen.
Note that these churches are not sending members two-by-two to knock on doors and leave tracts in local neighborhoods. None of them has invested in bullhorns for street-corner preaching. Instead, they’re discovering and meeting real needs in the communities where they’re located.
“Serving is our best apologetic today,” Cachiaras said. “The younger population is asking, ‘What are you doing for good in the world?’ People not inspired by faith at all will be inspired by that.” He encourages churches to look at the community around them (not at what other churches are doing) to discover a need and then ask, “Why don’t we help meet that need?” Before choosing a project, he suggests, Christians should be able to answer yes to three questions: (1) Is this something God cares about? (2) Does the community need it? (3) Do we have the resources?
Jennifer Reed, outreach and involvement minister with Mount Gilead Christian Church, Mooresville, Indiana, spent the first three months of her service there with questions like those.
“I met with anybody and everybody in our community to discover needs,” she said. Once a church gains a reputation for this kind of concern, opportunities multiply. “Now community members are reaching out to us to tell us what they need.”
Other congregations have had similar experiences. Steve Bond, lead pastor with Summit Christian Church in Sparks, Nevada, said, “We believe the more we can do to winsomely represent Jesus in a beautiful way, the sooner people will come to us when they experience crisis in their lives.”
Elliott echoes that conviction. “One way we reach non-Christians is because we have an excellent reputation,” he said. “People tell us, ‘We came because there’s a buzz about this church in this town.’”
In all of this, relationships are key, according to Arron Chambers, lead pastor with Greeley Christian Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“I’m head track coach at a public high school,” he said. “It keeps me grounded.” Chambers says he concentrates on intentionally building relationships, one by one.
“Some churches do things called outreach,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s really outreach. VBS, for example, isn’t outreach unless workers are building relationships with those kids.”
He encourages volunteers to take time to listen to those they’re serving. “It’s so much easier to paint a wall than to sit down with a teacher or student and hear their story,” he said.
At the beginning of each group service project, Chambers creates expectation by telling volunteers he’ll be asking them to share the stories they heard when they debrief after the event. “We’re living a bigger story here than just raking leaves,” he said.
It’s important to remember that this “bigger story” plays out on God’s timetable, not ours. Outreach should be more than “a once-a-year event that makes us feel good about ourselves,” Chambers said.
Acts of service lead to conversion growth, but not necessarily when or how we expect. Jennings tells his service volunteers, “Your main goal is to love these people where they are. Maybe they need someone to talk to. Meet their felt need, but be open to what the Spirit may do while you’re there.”
Most people asking for help will accept the offer of prayer, he said. “If the moment seems right, take a minute to share the hope of Jesus.” Then be patient with how God will use that interaction in days to come.
And in all of this, also watch for what God will do in the lives of those serving. Reed thinks of volunteers when she says, “People are desperate for interaction with other people.” She says service gives them the opportunity to deepen relationships with Christians, and this helps their spiritual growth to continue.
Bond is passionate about his congregation’s outreach projects because they “help people to love beyond themselves.” The natural human tendency, he’s observed, is to satisfy self, but “whoever wants to save their life will lose it” (Matthew 16:25). “Our service opportunities give people the chance to counter the flesh in order to give and serve and do,” he said. “It’s almost never convenient. Flesh tugs to the very end.”
But the rewards of simple service are great. He said the church’s most meaningful groups are those serving together. And his own service at a Teen Challenge boys’ home “has become one of the most significant personal joys for me in years.”
As the Outreach Ministry Volunteer Handbook says, the “ultimate goal” of effective outreach “is to help Christians sacrifice self for the sake of Christ every day,” while remembering these words from the apostle Peter: “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
Pressing Need, Practical Help
Never has there been a more pressing need for outreach, but changing times require fresh approaches for reaching spiritual seekers who aren’t interested in the church. I believe this resource, for which I served as editor, will help. Nowhere else will you find a more compact, practical guide for outreach volunteers.
The Outreach Ministry Volunteer Handbook begins with sound philosophies and strategies for outreach (many of them from those quoted in the accompanying article). Then it moves on to provide a wealth of helps to instruct and encourage the outreach volunteers at your church:
- outreach Scriptures
- sample prayers
- discussion questions for team meetings
- how to organize an outreach team
- recommended resources for further needs or particular situations
The core of the book is an encyclopedia of outreach projects, 121 ideas to help you take the love of Christ to those all around you:
- community events
- seasonal events
- helping in a crisis
- ideas for serving teachers, local businesses, first responders, the oppressed, and under-resourced
- individual sections with ideas for reaching families, children, youth, millennials, seniors, and those with special needs
The book’s introduction says it well: “All these possibilities are based on the real-life experience of Christian workers serving a weary and wary world with the hope only Jesus offers. You can join them, emboldened by the fresh strategies and equipped with the remarkable collection of resources you’ll find in these pages.”
Outreach Ministry Volunteer Handbook: Equipping You to Serve (Outreach Ministry Guides), Mark A. Taylor, Editor
Find the book at outreachministryguides.com. There you’ll also see a whole library of similar practical guides: Hospitality Ministry, Children’s Ministry, Care and Visitation Ministry, and Prayer Ministry.