What Kind of Church Outreach Works?

Since I started in ministry back in 2011, I have been a student of church outreach methods and practices. What is outreach? Outreach is simply the activity of extending one’s attention beyond one’s church community in order to bring the Gospel to outsiders, and to bring outsiders to faith in Christ and into the church.

Outreach is important, because as followers of Jesus, we ought not to keep the good news to ourselves. We want to share it and see others–as many as the Lord will give us–come to saving faith, reconciliation to God and others, and the transformed life that only Jesus can give.

Over the years, I have worked with ministries and staffs to develop strategies ranging from pub theology groups, to backyard barbecues, to evangelistic retreats and lock-ins, to well-known programs like the Alpha Course. I have attended conferences and researched curriculum. I have preached it from the stage, and I have obnoxiously wedged it into conversations. I would by no means call myself an expert in outreach, but I am a student of it. I don’t know everything (far from it), but I have learned a few things. And after years of studying and practicing outreach, I am convinced that there are two methods of outreach that is more effective than everything else.

The two most effective methods for evangelism I have found are these:

  1. Studying the Bible in a small group.
  2. A personal invitation to church.

Studying the Bible in a small group

There is something about opening up God’s word with a group of two-to-12 people, reading it, discussing it, and asking and answering questions about it that is just powerful. In Isaiah 55:11, the Lord says, “My word that comes from my mouth will not return to me empty, but it will accomplish what I please and will prosper in what I send it to do” (CSB). I have written about the benefit of small group Bible study to spiritual growth, so I won’t belabor this point.

If you are looking for something you can do to reach unbelievers with the Gospel, I would just encourage you to pray first, and then recruit one or two other believers to do this with you. Together, pick up a book on one-to-one or small-group Bible study (like this one) and start inviting your non-Christian friends and acquaintances to study the Bible with you. You can say something like, “Would you have any interest in reading the Bible with me and a couple other guys (/gals) for a few weeks?”

An evangelistic, small-group Bible study on a book like Romans or one of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) can be a powerful environment for outreach.

A personal invitation to church

Ideally, there is one place you can count on the Gospel being announced at least once a week. That place, of course, is your local church (if your pastor is not preaching the Good News about Jesus every week, then you need to have a sit-down with him. Come on, Preacher! We’ve got souls to save here! Get on your horse!). Because of this, a church invite can be a great way to get your non-Christian friends, neighbors and family members in front of Jesus. The fact is, most of us are not inviting people to church. Before churches plan to spend money, time and volunteer hours on large-scale outreach initiatives, we should take advantage of the “outreach event” happening every weekend!

The invitation can be something as simple as saying, “Hey, if you don’t have any plans this Sunday morning, I’d love to have you join me at my church this Sunday. We can even grab lunch afterward. Want to come?”

These two outreach methods are simple, but let’s be honest, they are still intimidating. You still have to make the invitation. Sometimes, we may prefer large-scale events, because it allows us to hid behind everyone else in the church. These two methods require personal, face-to-face interaction and taking a risk. But this is exactly what the Lord did for us. Jesus came down and met us face-to-face. And last time I checked, He still invites us, through His word, to come to Him (see here and here).  It’s our privilege, as His followers, to pass that invitation along.

Further reading: 

  • Why Church Members Don’t Invite Others to Church: http://thomrainer.com/2014/07/church-members-dont-invite-others-church/
  • Five Surprising Insights about the Unchurched: http://thomrainer.com/2016/12/five-surprising-insights-unchurched/

What About Those Who Don’t Believe in God?

As I prepare for tomorrow’s message on the book of Jonah–the man who was plunged into the abyss, into the belly of a giant fish, and returned after three days–one concept has really shocked me. In this incredible (though not un-credible) story, there are two groups of people who become worshipers of the Lord, namely the polytheist sailors and the wicked citizens of Nineveh, who had previously been the furthest thing from believers. And yet, it is clear from the story that God actually expected their worship. He deserved it. They owed Him worship.

There is no sense, from Scripture, that worship of the Lord is something optional, or that God only certain people to worship Him, or that He only wants to be known, glorified and enjoyed by people who currently adhere to a particular religion.

God is the God of everyone He has created. And He has created everyone. He is even the God of those who don’t believe in Him. (Or at least, they claim to believe in Him. Whether anyone can truly be an atheist is an issue for another time. Spoiler alert: they can’t.)

These theme of the universality of God’s worship-worthiness continues on into the New Testament, in which Jesus is said to be the Savior, not only of certain people, but of the whole world (see 1 John 2:2 and 4:14). That is to say, there is only one God, and One who goes between God and man, to make peace between us.

Like the pagan sailors and the Ninevites in the book of Jonah, you, me, and everyone we know owe our allegiance to the one true God.

This is difficult, because there are many religious systems out there claiming to be true, and insofar as they deny the Gospel, they are therefore all wrong (see the recent controversy with Senator Bernie Sanders and presidential appointee).

However, it is also wonderful news (the word Gospel means “good news”), because there is a sure way to God. There aren’t multiple ways, but that’s okay, because there aren’t multiple gods. There is only one. And He has given us a way. That way is through faith in Jesus (John 1:12).

This Gospel is the message that Christians must take to our family, friends and neighbors: there is one true God. He made us, and we owe Him everything. We’ve been refusing Him the worship He deserves, and we’ve earned His punishment (that’s why God sent Jonah to Nineveh in the first place!). Rescue from that punishment comes through faith in the one who was plunged into the abyss of death and returned to the land of the living after three days. Not Jonah, but Jesus. Do you know Him? Whom will you tell?

Spread the News! New Resources Posted!

FYI, I’ve just posted two new resources that I hope will be useful. The first is for Spanish-speaking parents: a Spanish translation of the New Covenant Catechism for Little Ones (thanks to Antonio Salgado).

And the second is for churches to use in equipping their people to share their faith. You can find them both at the top of this page in the Resources & Media tab.

My Recent MeetUp Teaching Plan On The Subject, “Meaning: What Makes Life Worth Living?”

For those who might be interested, here’s the teaching plan I wrote up, to facilitate a recent “Ask A Pastor” MeetUp (if you use this or any part of it, please properly attribute it–and let me know!)

Ask a Pastor MeetUp #3: Meaning Talk

“Absolutely futility. Everything is futile.” –King Solomon

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” –Jesus

  • Ice Breaker: (state your name, then) name something you have no interest in.
  • What makes life worth living?

People I asked said:

  • “Family. God and family” (Tony, age 50, baby on the way).
  • “Family and my girlfriend” (Zladko, Starbucks patron).
  • “People I love, pursuing my passions, and standing up for worthy causes (Max, aspiring actor).”
  • “Worship. This life is temporary. But working to be perfect is easier said than done” (Omar, barista, Muslim).
  • “Family” (Andrea, fiancée).
  • “Experiences and how they shape me” (Josh, barista, depression-overcomer).
  • “The pursuit of happiness” (Nathan, musician, manufacturer, friend).

THE OPTIONS

  1. Love (Sex/Romance/Family/Friends)
    • Why it’s good
      • Man & woman created for relationship, marriage, sex (Genesis 2:18)
      • Family is God’s plan for godly children (Mal. 2:15)
      • Friendship is a gift from God (Prov. 17:17)
    • Why it’s not enough
      • Makes life meaningless apart from romance
      • Puts too much pressure on other, imperfect humans (Jerry Maguire effect)
      • Leads to fear of loss and control, manipulaion
  1. Wealth (Money, possessions, retirement)
    • Why its good
      • We are created with needs for food, shelter, etc. (fruit in garden of Eden, clothes after the Fall)
      • Gives ability to share (Hebrews 13:16)
    • Why it’s not enough
      • Practically it doesn’t work—false promise of security
      • Love of money is a root of evil
      • Makes meaning contingent on possessions—inaccessible for the poor. Who’s going to say that poor people have less meaningful lives!
  1. Success (Legacy; Personal sense of fulfillment; American Dream; Approval from others)
    • Why it’s good
      • We’re created for work, mission, quest.
      • “Do all to the glory of God”—we should seek to do our best at all times.
    • Why it’s not enough
      • Become a slave to work, when it is ultimate.
      • Work is not meant to be an end in itself.
      • Self-promotion, leads to fear, frustration, manipulation—self-focused striving.
  1. Power (Political power, promotion, personal influence)
    • Why it’s good
      • Government instituted by God (Romans 13) to protect innocent and punish evil.
      • Positive influence is a gift from God (“discipleship”—teaching others to live for God)
    • Why it’s not enough
      • Some may never have access to it.
      • When sought for its own sake, it leads to corruption, etc.
      • In its worst forms, inevitably leads to tyranny.
  1. Religion
    • Why it’s good
      • We’re created for worship and obedience (Ecclesiastes 12)
      • Has a positive effect on the individual and society (12 houses of worship in Philadelphia added $50M to their area).
    • Why it’s not enough
      • Impossible to know if you’ve done enough
      • Leads to pride, self-focus, because based on performance
      • Leads to oppression, fear, control, coercion.


These options come down to rejecting our Creator and taking the reins ourselves. A (temporary) life lived that way, in this world, inevitably leads to a (forever) death in the next world
(Revelation 21:8; Matthew 25:46; 2 Thessalonians 1:9; Matthew 13:50; Mark 9:43….).

THE BIBLE’S ANSWER:

A restored and right relationship with God, through His Son Jesus Christ, gives meaning to all of life.

  • Glorify God: 1 Corinthians 10:31
  • Know God: John 10:10
  • Obey God: Ecclesiastes 12
  • Bring others to God (Matthew 28:18-20)

Knowing Jesus ties everything else together:

  • Love:
    1. “We love because He first loved us.”
    2. Love based on Jesus’ sacrificial death for His people
  • Wealth:
    1. Treasure in heaven that can’t be lost, destroyed, or stolen
    2. Greatest treasure is knowing God
    3. Needs met in community (Church)
    1. “Glory, honor and immortality.”
    2. Running the race, fighting the good fight. Winning the prize.
  • Power
    1. Think clearly about human government (don’t put all your eggs in that basket!)
    2. Trust in God’s designed outcome, whoever is president.
    3. Freed from personal striving for more and more influence/fame.
  • Religion
    1. Flows from gratitude and future hope, rather than oppressive and uncertain obligation.
    2. Based on personal relationship rather than impersonal law.
    3. Actually effective, and it pleases God—“The righteous shall live by faith.”

How to be reconciled to God:

  • John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
  • Matthew 11:28 – “Come to me all who are weary and heavy-burdened, and I will give you rest.”
  • In short, “repent” and believe” in Jesus.
    • Acknowledge that Jesus is Lord (and you’re not!) and Savior (again, not you).
    • Believe that God raised Him from the dead (in other words… the Gospel is true).
    • “Lose your life” for His sake, and you will find real life. Matthew 16:25.

“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” –Jim Eliot.

*****

For further reading:

 

Overcoming Objections: Christianity Is False Because It Has No Priestly System

The Egyptians did it.

The Jews definitely did it.

Babylonians? Yep. They did it too.

Same goes for the Greeks and Romans.

Even the Aztecs, Incas and Mayans did it.

What do all these ancient civilizations have in common? They all had their own religious systems. And those religious systems all involved sacrifices. And those sacrifices were offered by priests. This fact led to one of the early objections to Christianity as a fledgling religious system.

Every religious system in history, from the dawn of civilization until the dawn of Christianity, has always had some kind of priestly sacrificial system. While these cultures’ religions differed on who the divine was and how to best appease it, they all agreed that the Divine did need to be appeased. And the way to appease the divine was universally understood to be by blood sacrifice, performed by a priestly class, carried out in temples. The priest acted as the mediator between God and man.

Enter Christianity: no priests,  no temples, no blood sacrifices. To ancient minds, this made no sense. It was well known that the Divine wrath over human wickedness needed to be propitiated (satisfied). Without priests offering blood sacrifice, it would have been argued, there was no way to propitiate divine wrath. Therefore, any religious worshipers lacking in the priest department must also have been lacking in the brains department. Christianity didn’t satisfy the universal human need for sacrifice. Christianity wasn’t true, because it had no mediator between God and humanity. Every religion worth its salt has a priestly system. Hey Christians, where are all your priests?

To overcome this ancient objection, let’s turn to the Bible, to the book of Hebrews. This book is a sort of sermon-letter hybrid, written to second-generation Christians of ethnic Jewish descent. At this time, Christianity was in the process of breaking away from Judaism, but it was still seen as a Jewish sect.

The above argument seems to have been lodged against the Hebrew Christians in an attempt to discredit their fledgling faith and convince them to return to the more “sensible” Jewish religion. After all, they were ethnically Jewish, and the religion their parents left had sacrifices ordained by God Himself. Come on, Christians, get your acts together. Get back to the true religion–the one with the priests!

In fact, one commentator points out that Jews and Gentiles alike found it difficult to believe the Christian message, because of the lack of a visible priestly system.

So the author of Hebrews writes to address this objection and reassure his Christian audience. 

He writes in Hebrews 4:14, “Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (ESV, emphasis added).

Their confession was their public declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, send by God as the prophet, priest and king over heaven and earth. The author says that the Hebrew Christians should hold fast to this belief, because not only do they have a high priest, but they have a better high priest than the Jewish religion they left.

Christians have a great high priest, but you won’t see Him ascending the steps of a stone temple to offer daily sacrifices.

Christians do have a priest, but you don’t have to go to Jerusalem to meet with Him. In fact, you don’t even have to go to your local cathedral.

Christians do have a priest, but you don’t have to bring him sacrifices to offer, because He provided the sacrifice. And His Sacrifice was so sufficient, that one was all He needed.

What was the sacrifice offered by this high priest? He offered Himself.

Then, after Jesus died for sinners, He resurrected. Over the next forty days he appeared to over five hundred eyewitnesses, and then He ascended (the author says he “passed through the heavens” to God’s own throne room. Jesus did not go to a manmade temple, but to the place that all those temples were symbols of. There he sits at the Father’s right hand, where He always lives to mediate between God’s people and God Himself.

Jesus Christ is the perfect priest. Who better to mediate between humanity and divinity than the One who embodies both?

So the objection that Christianity has no mediator falls flat. We have a priest who satisfies God’s wrath over sin, because He paid it Himself. Now He is the “great high priest” whose work is finished.

Beware any religious teacher who tells you that you need a merely human priest to make you right with God. Think about that: if (merely) human priests could fully satisfy our debt, then why did they have to keep making all those sacrifices, year after year, for millennia?

All those priests who came before could not make an eternal effect; they were shadows of the real thing. Jesus is the real thing. He is the priest we need. You and I can trust Him to pay our debt of sin and reconcile us to God. His shed blood (grace alone) can wash away your sin, if you will turn your heart away from your sin (repent) and come to Him (by faith alone) as your priest.

How about you? Who are you trusting to make you right with God? Who is your priest? Don’t let it be anyone other than the one who “passed through the Heavens” for you.

Dear World

Dear World,

What is it about Jesus that makes his followers love Him so much? Followers of Christ today have so much joy and peace, even in the middle of life’s most intensely painful moments. Why is that? How is it possible that Christians are able to stand firm, even when the entire climate of the culture around them is quickly turning against them? There is more to Jesus than an ideology. There is more to Jesus than a legendary example.

What if what’s wrong with all of us really is sin? Not lack of education. Not economic disparity. Not our upbringings, but sin? And what if unending torment in hell is the very real consequence which our sin has earned for us?

Think about that. What if hell is real?

What if Jesus really has saved His followers from all of that? What if he can save you too?

What if Jesus really does make people “born again?” What if He really does give His followers the Holy Spirit–God Himself–as a gift to live inside them?

We Christians can’t change our beliefs to accommodate your changing beliefs, World. But we can still love you. And we can plead with you to be reconciled to God through Jesus.

When the “marriage equality” hangover sets in, and you realize that even that didn’t satisfy you like you thought it would, then we will still be here, still offering you the same Good News that brought us satisfaction and forgiveness–yes, even hypocritical sinners like us. We can’t change with you, but we can love you through this, and we can offer you what we have. And what we have is the truth. What we have is Jesus Christ.

And that is what you need, too.

Just like us.

With love,

Church

The Upside Down-ness of the Christian Life

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes,

“Therefore, my beloved brothers, be STEADFAST, IMMOVABLE, always EXCELLING in the work of the Lord, knowing that your TOIL is not empty in the Lord”  (AT).

The Christian lifestyle, fully realized, looks like this:

  • We are steadfast in our faith.
  • We are immovable in our hope.
  • We are always finding new ways to go above and beyond in loving God and other people (we do this at work, with our families, at church, with our friends, at school, in our personal lives–yes, even on social media).

No Christian that I’ve ever known (myself fully included) has ever perfectly lived this way. However, followers of Jesus who are growing in their faith make this their aim. They understand the upward call in Christ Jesus, and their eyes are fixed on the things that are above. It is the Christian’s heavenly perspective that colors his view of the world.

The Christian’s house is therefore upside down (by the world’s standards). The foundation of our building is above–in heaven. The rest of our house is built upon that foundation–our doctrines, our practices, with the rooms, where we live our lives, down here on earth. But the whole structure is firmly built not upon the shifting sands of culture, but upon the bedrock truth of God’s word, with Christ Himself as the cornerstone.

Sometimes, this “upside down-ness” of the Christian lifestyle puts us at odds with the society at large, whose house is very much built upon the changing values and norms of the reigning zeitgeist of the day. But we don’t hate unbelievers. Far from it! We love them–just as our King loved us while we were rebelling against Him; while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Why do we live this way? Why toil and strive to further God’s kingdom–which is invisible–knowing that it may pit us against the very people we so urgently want to love and see reconciled to God?

We do this because we know that every bead of sweat spent serving King Jesus is never wasted. The Lord sees it all. He empowers us with the Holy Spirit. And He gives meaning and success to us when we labor for Him. God the Father is gathering a people for His Son, from every people group on earth. That includes our own people group. And so we labor and strive. We move forwardimmovable in our trust that God is real, God is good, and God is saving sinners like us.

Whom is God moving you toward today? Whom does He want you to serve? Who needs to hear the Gospel–the same Gospel that saved you? Move forward in God’s will today, and may our Lord make you immovable as you move.

Risky Evangelism

“Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name” (Psalm 91:14).

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). 

Face it: sharing the Gospel with others can be a daunting task. On the one hand, Christians are commanded by no less than Christ Himself to go out and “make disciples of all nations”–this implies evangelism (sharing your faith with the intention to persuade). But sharing your faith can be risky. In doing so in today’s world we increasingly risk ostracization, social rejection, corporate ruin and in some locales, physical violence.

This week is Holy Week, the week leading up to Good Friday and Easter, and the whole world is susceptible to have its attention grabbed by Jesus Christ’s passion, crucifixion and resurrection. In other words, this week is a prime chance to share the Good News with that person in your life you’ve been wanting to reach.

But you need more motivation. You need some encouragement. What if you fail? What if you say the wrong thing? What if you say the right thing, but you lose too much as a result?

Happily, the Lord gives us just the encouragement we need in Psalm 91. Look at all that the Lord promises to protect us from in this beautiful passage:

  1. The snare of the fowler (verse 3)
  2. Deadly pestilence (3)
  3. The terror of the night (5)
  4. The arrow that flies by day (5)
  5. The pestilence that stalks in darkness (6)
  6. The destruction that wastes at noonday (6)
  7. A deadly force that destroys thousands around you (7)
  8. The recompense of the wicked (8)
  9. Any evil (10)
  10. Any plague (10)
  11. Your foot so much as striking against a stone (13)
  12. Lions (13)
  13. Adders (13)
  14. Young lions (13)
  15. Serpents (13)
  16. Trouble (15)

Well, that list about covers everything, doesn’t it? God promises that no danger, no harm (no evangelistic failure!) can possibly separate you from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

Evangelism is risky, but we really have nothing to fear.

We do not have to fear rejection, because we’ve been accepted by Christ. We do not have to fear failure, because Christ has succeeded for us. We do not have to fear pain, because in Christ God redeems our pain and even our death. We have hope and confidence that transcends any fears we might have.

Church, let’s go out into the spheres of life into which God has placed us and confidently stand on the truth we know: that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners like us, and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. We know His name, and He’s saved us. Now let’s go take some risks and see who else He wants to save.