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/

A Christian Perspective on Morality

Last Wednesday I had a fun time moderating a lively discussion on the subject of morality as part of my monthly MeetUp series, “Ask A Pastor (Far Northwest Side Spiritual Discussions).”

Before we opened up the floor to questions and discussion, I gave a brief talk on the topic. Here are the notes I taught from, unedited (which means my sources aren’t cited, and it’s really formatted better for speaking than reading. Please don’t tell Larry Mroczek, my junior year Honors English teacher).

Morality Talk – Let’s discuss right and wrong!

Biblically, morality comes from God.

God’s moral proclamation is not an arbitrary decree, nor is it a higher standard. Rather, the Bible teaches, “Be Holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).

At creation, God gave Adam one command: “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”

Notice that God did not have to command the man not to murder, not to steal, or even how to practice religion correctly. There was one command, and it was a simple one. Really, the command amounted to this: “Respect God and obey what God says.” This is what is summarized as the “whole duty of man” in Ecclesiastes 12:13, “Fear God and keep his commandments.”

If you know the story, you know Adam did not keep God’s commandment. He was tempted by his wife, Eve, who had been tempted by the devil. Adam sinned, and his sin we now refer to as “The Fall.” Immediately after Adam sinned, God brought the earth under a curse, but the worst curse was for the devil. In Genesis 3:15, God promised that one of Eve’s offspring would destroy the devil, even though in the process the offspring would himself be fatally wounded. So God promised a self-sacrificing Savior at the dawn of human history. It is significant that this promise comes even before any of the moral codes God would soon give humanity.

The next moral code the Lord gave was to Noah, in Genesis 9, allowed the eating of meat, forbade eating meat with blood, prohibited murder, and gave a mandate for human reproduction.

After this, God began to establish a special relationship with a certain genealogical line of people, who were descended from Noah, through the biblical patriarch Abraham. It was with Abraham’s descendants, through his son Isaac and grandson Israel, that God established what we now refer to as the “Old Covenant.”

The Old Covenant was a legal-theological system based on conditional promises God gave to the nation of Israel, through the prophet Moses. If Israel kept their end of the bargain, they would receive life and blessings (Deuteronomy 30:19), but if they disobeyed God’s law, they would receive curse and exile from the Promised Land (Leviticus 26:33).

At the heart of the Old Covenant were the Ten Commandments.

During the period in which the Old Covenant was still in effect, God began to make more promises to humanity, building on the original promise of salvation, that he had given to Adam and Eve back in the beginning. He promised that an era would come in which every member of the people of God would know God and live morally—because from a biblical perspective, morality and relationship with God are bound up together. So in Jeremiah 31:33-34, the Lord describes the coming “New Covenant” era, saying, “’I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.’”

Now in the meantime, developments in moral philosophy were being made outside of Israel. Every society has always had some kind of moral code of laws—many of which paralleled the kind of morality God gave to Israel. This is explained in that God gave all human beings a conscience; in Romans 2:14-15 the Bible says that “…when Gentiles, who do not have the Law [of Moses], do by nature what the Law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the Law, since they show that the work of the Law is written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts either accusing or defending them.”

What is also interesting is that two things take place: first, Israel does disobey God and break the Old Covenant, and they are exiled and dispersed. Yet, during that period, in which the Babylon Empire reigned supreme, we find that many non-Jewish societies made radical advancements in their moral philosophy.

According to Christian Scripture, the Hebrew Scriptures (“the Law and the Prophets”) hang on the two commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That second principle, loving one’s neighbor as one loves one’s self, spread to non-Jewish societies during the time of the Jewish exile.

A form of it reached Egypt between 2040 – 1650 B.C.—roughly corresponding the time when Israel were slaves in Egypt. But it was really primitive “Do to the doer to make him do.” It was just what we call the “law of reciprocity.”

Moses received it in around 1500 B.C.

But around the time of the Jewish Exile in Babylon, between ~597 B.C. and 538 B.C., we see nations under Babylonian rule adopting this Jewish morality. China, India, Greece, Persia and Rome all picked it up.

It was during that period that the Medo-Persian Empire conquered Babylon, and Darius (b. 550 B.C.) issued the decree that, “…all the peoples, nations and men of every language who were living in all the land…in all the dominion of my kingdom men are to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel.

The western end of the empire was Greece. The eastern end was India.

Buddhism was founded in India in the low 500s, B.C.

Confucius wrote around 500 B.C.

Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics was written in 350 B.C.

So it has been proposed that these moral advancements owe their development in part to the influence of Jewish morality on the Babylonian/Medo-Persian empire (which later became the Greek, and eventually the Roman Empire.*

So in the non-Jewish world, you have approximations of biblical morality—though never, or rarely, the heartfelt conviction over sin that is seen in the Psalms, for example—but the revealed morality from God is limited to the Hebrew Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament.

After a period of four centuries of silence, Jesus is born in the town of Bethlehem to a virgin girl, fulfilling further prophecies (Micah 5:2; Isaiah 7:14) about the coming Savior, that God had previously promised back in Genesis.

Jesus completely transcends and transforms morality in a way that is analogous to the great moral shift that took place around the Sixth Century B.C., but far greater than that shift.

The highest moral principle of Jesus is not, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” but rather He says, “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

Well, if you follow the rest of the story of Jesus’ life, you discover exactly what “as I have loved you” really means. Jesus lay down his life for his people. That model of self-sacrificing love becomes the new norm for the morality of the people of God. So when the Apostle John summarizes how to live in a loving way, He says, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16). Indeed, there can be no higher moral principle than this one—a fact that Jesus points out in John 15:13, when he teaches, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

Of course, Christian morality does not limit itself to love only for fellow Christians. Rather, believers are commanded to, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

Along with the command to love, Jesus gives many other moral imperatives—which echo some of the same morality of the Ten Commandments—recall, they had been at the heart of the Old Covenant—but which reflect the higher love to which Jesus’ followers (in the New Covenant era) are called. Rather than simply prohibiting adultery, Jesus prohibits lust. Rather than just murder, Jesus prohibits hatred and insult. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus lays out a moral code for his followers that is far beyond anything developed prior to that time, whether Jewish or Gentile.

So Christian morality is inseparable from Jesus—and it is only through unity with him that a person can actually live a truly moral life, according to God’s standard.

If you continue to follow the development of moral progress in the world after the time of Christ, what do you see? You see followers of Jesus fighting disease and plague while Roman pagans flee the cities. You see women gaining previously-unheard-of rights. You see Christians fighting against and ending slavery, which had been enshrined in human civilizations for all of history. You see the Church inventing the concept of hospitals and colleges, making huge advancements in art and music and education. Even the concept of childhood owes its existence to Christianity. That’s right, an article came out last year called, “How Christianity invented Children,”[1] explaining how Jesus’ attitude toward children revolutionized the ancient world, leading up to the modern time.

Christian morality is bound up with the person of Jesus. He is the best revelation of God’s moral character (Hebrews 1:1-2). He is the Creator of our world, and has the best understanding of how moral agents are to interact within it (John 1:1-3). He is also the ultimate human representative (Romans 5).

The moral bar he raises is actually an impossible standard to keep. But the Bible provides a solution for this. When Jesus died on the cross, he took all the moral failure of his people on Himself (2 Corinthians 5:21). In place of our moral failure (Romans 3:23), God attributes to followers of Jesus the moral perfection of Jesus Himself, and God gives the Holy Spirit to those same people, to empower them to live according to Jesus’ standard. Perfectly? No. But joyfully. Is it a struggle sometimes? Yes! But it is a struggle the follower of Jesus will ultimately win, by God’s grace.

So what about people who do not follow Jesus?

Can an atheist or non-Christian act in a moral way? Yes and no.

True morality, according to the Bible, is grounded in knowing God and loving him. Non-believers can approximate morality by doing moral things, yet if, in doing so, they are rejecting God, that cannot truly be moral.

Moreover, when a non-believer acts morally, he is actually being inconsistent. This is because, without God and the Bible, there is no way to ground morality in any kind of objective way.

So you have to ask yourself: Has God spoken about morality?

If not, then someone has to decide what is right and what is wrong. Who’s going to do that? It would have to be someone with comprehensive knowledge of the moral universe, in order to lay down any kind of absolutes. None of us possess that quality!

But then, maybe morality is subjective—varying from person to person or from culture to culture? This boils down to there being no morality at all. At least, it becomes impossible to differentiate between moral systems that are correct and ones that are incorrect.

John Frame, a theologian, asks this question, “How do you adjudicate between two different moral frameworks that sit before you, that each believe its morality is superior to the other person’s?”

James White, a Christian apologist, has pointed out, that the reality of the world is such that not every worldview actually desires peace and getting along. Ravi Zacharias, a Christian philosopher, has said this too: some people believe that they would “get along” much better without you in the picture!

How do we differentiate between these various worldviews? The Bible is the morally-infallible norm by which we do this.

So let’s say you answer, “Yes, God has spoken.” And there are moral standards that apply across the board.

Well then, are those moral standards found in the God of the Bible, as revealed in the Bible? If not, then how do we decide?

It boils down to something we have talked about a lot: presuppositions. When you presuppose the Bible to be true—that is, when you start with that assumption—you can make sense of the moral universe in which we live. When you start with anything else, you run into contradictions and self-referential incoherence.

To conclude: there are many moral systems out there in the world, but they ultimately boil down to two options: morality based on the perfect nature of God, or morality based finally on my ever-changing self and my own best judgments. With the radical, self-sacrificial love that Jesus calls us to live out, it ought to be plain to us which one is based on God’s character. Christian morality is not something any mere human could come up with, but it is something God calls each of us to.

The Bible says that, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the Man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).

In other words, one day God will judge each of us by his perfect standard, which is his Son Jesus. Those who are his followers will have our sins forgiven and His moral perfection credited to us. Those who reject God’s offer will be judged according to the Standard. Will your life demonstrate that you loved God or hated Him? Your eternal destiny will reflect that!

So that is my best attempt to (somewhat) briefly explain Christian morality to you. Now, what questions do you have for me?

[1] http://theweek.com/articles/551027/how-christianity-invented-children

*I first heard of this theory from Derek Webster, lead pastor of Grace Pointe Church in Naperville, Illinois, while I worked there between 2013 and 2016.

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: