In 2018 the Barna Research Group released a study that found "sharing faith is increasingly optional to Christians." While we'd all agree that it's important for individual Christians and churches to intentionally reach out into the community to people who don't know Christ, the data shows that it's something we don't necessarily do.
The natural bend of a church isn't outward, it's inward. It takes intentionality to keep focusing on the outside. It's not bad to look inward. We all enjoy fellowship and part of the church community develops into close relationships. We can and should rejoice at that. But without intentional outreach on the part of a church or individuals, we quickly become an inwardly focused and inwardly serving existence. As Thom Rainer says, the Holy Trinity of the inward facing church is "Me, Myself, and I."
Five common barriers to outreach, and a way to work through them, are:
1. The Church doesn't know its community - Communities aren't made of demographics, they're made of people. But demographics give us a glimpse at who is in our community. Do we know the trends of who lives near us, or do we assume that the community is the same as we moved in? Data is important, but not nearly as important as relationships. Here's an exercise: write down the names of the people you're connected to in your church. Now, write down the same number of names of people you know who aren't connected to a church or a relationship with Christ. Then write down the names of people you are connected to in your own neighborhood. If we don't know our community, we'll never know its needs.
Response: Drive the streets slowly. Prayerfully drive through your neighborhood today. Don't just breeze through until you get home. Pay attention to who you see when you go to the grocery, restaurants, and ball games.
2. Fear of rejection - Nobody likes being rejected. It's normal. We especially don't like to be rejected when it comes to sharing our faith. So we keep quiet instead of opening the risk of being told no. Recently I came across a figure that said the average adult hears a clear presentation of the Gospel on average of 7 times before trusting Christ. That means six rejections on average. Rejection is a reality of outreach. You'll invite neighbors to church only to be (sometimes) politely told no. Or you'll talk about the hope of the Gospel with a co-worker only to be brushed off. But chances are any time we reach out, we're doing the long work of God.
Response: Embrace every opportunity to share as a part of God's long work. Pray before sharing. Trust God with the results.
3. Not Knowing How - I get it that some people may not know what to do with an outreach event or conversation with someone who doesn't know Christ. Sometimes we can get clunky or nervous and we sound like Chris Farley nervously interviewing people. Or we don't know how to turn a conversation about football or weather or politics into a conversation about Jesus. It becomes a barrier because we buy into the myth that if we don't know how to do it as good as _______, or with the precision of an evangelist, or with the skill of our heroes, that we shouldn't do it.
Response: Tell your story of what God has done. Not someone else's. Not some parable. Your story.
4. Lack of Resources - We serve the God who is the owner of the cattle on 1,000 hills. Nothing is too much for Him. He owns it all, and He is Lord of all. But your Outreach budget might not be very much. Your church may have a lot of willing bodies but not a lot of able bodies. Or you may not have very many bodies at all! It can be discouraging, especially if you're pastoring or part of a "smaller" church when you see the cool graphics and campaigns the "bigger" churches do. Seriously, I went to one for a community event that had a slide in their kids area. Our ability and opportunity to reach out to our community isn't dependent on our budget or bodies. It's dependent on our willingness to be faithfully obedient.
Response: Figure out what you can do. Every church, no matter what size, can do something to reach out into the community. If you have retired teachers, you can do a tutoring outreach. If you have handymen, you can do some basic home repairs. If you have an established church with a field, you can let a soccer club use it for practices/games.
5. Apathy - This one is the saddest. And honestly, the response is pretty brief. But sadly, I think one of the barriers to outreach for churches and individual Christians is that they just don't care enough to do anything about it. Maybe they know it's important, but not more important than what's on their calendar, or more important than the final round of the golf tournament, or more important than who the Masked Singer is, or more important than our own comfort. It's not that we don't care, it's that we don't care enough for it to change us. Apathy is the enemy of outreach because it shows that we don't see our neighbors and community as important enough for our time and effort.
Response: See the people around you as image bearers of God who, apart from Christ, will spend eternity separated from Him in Hell. If that doesn't break your heart, check your pulse.
One thing you can do as a church is an initiative published by Church Answers called Pray and Go. It's a low-impact, non-intrusive way of getting into your community by praying for your community and seeing what God does. I'm excited. Our church is launching it this weekend, and we're looking forward to how God uses this as a way for us to love our neighbors.
I was in Jacksonville for little more than 24 hours and I came away with one big observation: that city is all in on Trevor Lawrence. The local news was counting down the seconds until the NFL draft, they were covering every aspect of his workouts and endorsements, they were promoting Jaguars games on TV, and there were already billboards up. Even before the first pick is made, the city of Jacksonville has something that every city with the #1 pick has - hope.
Hope comes from wishing and longing for a better place. For long suffering football fans, it's the dream of being out of quarterback purgatory. Seriously. Ask any Browns fan what the last 20 years have been like. Or Dallas. Or Washington. Or basically everybody but New England until this past year. Everyone wants hope. Hope sells. Hope invigorates. Hope fuels. Hope gives.
Any football fan can tell you though that hope isn't a sure thing. Some cities land those top picks and get Peyton Manning, Baker Mayfield, John Elway, Troy Aikman, or Andrew Luck. Others get those top picks and get Tim Couch, JaMarcus Russell, Akili Smith, Jeff George, or David Carr. NBC Sports can even give you a list of notable NFL busts who were drafted with a banner of hope.
If you're a pastor or a ministry leader, you're a hope purveyor. You're not selling hope like an agent trying to get his client a high draft pick. You're not selling hope like a team telling the city they're saving space for the championship trophy. You're not walking into a press conference with big plans and big dreams. You're telling people about Hope personified.
Unfortunately far too many ministry leaders aren't purveying hope, they're pushing fear. Don't sell fear. Give hope. Hope has to start from within. Are you living by fear or hope? When you watch the news, do you want to retreat into a bunker (fear) or missionally engage (hope) a broken world? What motivates you? Pundits on TV using recycled talking points or new faces who don't look like you but need Jesus as much as you? What drives you? Are you worried about gaining or losing "market share" like churches are a business, or are you worried about seeing people die without Christ?
Live out hope. Live out the joy that comes from knowing Jesus and resting in His providence and care. And lead others to do the same. Because unlike a quarterback with knee problems, Jesus won't ever disappoint. Unlike a head coach who bolts for a new job or a pitcher with the yips, Jesus won't ever frustrate you. Why? Because He is our Hope.
Scott M. Douglas
A blog about leadership and the lasting legacy of family ministry.