October 2010


Why are some churches so effective at reaching people and making disciples, while others remain stagnant year in and year out?  The answer to this question is not geographical, denominational, philosophical, or generational.  Today in the U.S. there are all varieties of churches in size, shape and color that are effectively reaching people in their community.  Most are applying one or more of these five proven outreach principles.  I would encourage you to do the same…

1. Outreach Principle #1: Outreach is THE Priority

Here is one reason why older churches are generally less effective at outreach than newer churches: The longer a church exists, the more concerned members become with self-preservation… and the less concerned with the church’s original reason for being. 

Over time, churches become increasingly self-centered and self-serving.  The result, not surprisingly, is that such churches stop growing.  This most important principle says that leaders must turn the focus of their congregation away from themselves, and back to their original mission—and Christ’s mission—of making disciples.  This outward re-orientation occurs through programming, praying, budgeting, staffing, and honestly evaluating the church’s success at birthing new Christian disciples.  While there are many good things a church can do… and there are some important things a church should do… there is only one essential thing a church must do: “…go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life…” (Mt. 28:19, The Message). 

2. Outreach Principle #2: Social Networks are the Vehicle

There is a 2,000 year-old insight that any congregation can apply to reach more people.  Here it is:  Non-Christians come to Christ and the church primarily through relationships with Christians.

Christian friends and relatives bring twice as many new believers into local churches as all the other reasons…combined!  To apply this principle, encourage each person in your church to list their unchurched friends and relatives in the community.  (The average person can list 4-5.)  Next, encourage members to pray specifically for these people.  A church in my home town distributed a 2″ x 3″ card reminding members to pray for one person on their list, at one o’clock, for one minute, during one month.  Third, encourage members to invite one of the people they’re praying for to an appropriate church-related event in the next six months.  And remind members that they may be God’s only connection to these unreached people.  (For a detailed discussion on reaching friends and family, see The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples.)

3. Outreach Principle #3: Felt Needs are the Connecting Point

Most unchurched people are not walking down the streets of your community thinking about the eternal destiny of their soul.  But they are thinking about something; usually something of immediate concern or interest: their job… a relationship… their health… kids… finances… hobby. 

If the Gospel of Christ is really relevant to all aspects of life (which, of course, it is), we need to show unreached people how it is relevant to their lives, as well.  Research I conducted for the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps found that the most common response of 18-21 year-olds, as to why they don’t attend church, was: “it’s irrelevant.”

Jesus began his conversation with the Samaritan woman on a topic of her interest—water.  Then, in a microcosm of the disciple-making process, he talked about water where she would never thirst again!  The implication?  Don’t start with your agenda, start with theirs.  Here’s are some key felt needs of people in your community:

  • People feel disconnected and isolated, they are looking for a place to belong and feel part of a family or community.
  • People are feeling the pressure of a busy and stressful world.  They are looking for a greater sense of balance and ways to manage priorities.
  • People sense the shallowness of superficial encounters with others.  They are looking for authentic relationships.
  • People are feeling empty and drained from striving to meet their desires through work, material possessions, or entertainment.  They are looking for spiritual answers to their unfulfilled “hunger.”
  • People are feeling overwhelmed by the pace of change in every aspect of their world.  They are looking for help through transitions.

When your church speaks to unreached people’s felt needs, you will get a hearing.  Because now your message is, from their point of view, relevant.

4. Outreach Principle #4: Relationships are the Glue

Seeing people come in the “front door” is one thing; keeping them from leaving out the back door is another. 

What is the primary ingredient that keeps people active in church?  The research is conclusive: Relationships.  According to one study, new members who stay beyond their first year make an average of seven new friends in the church…versus two for drop-outs.  Put simply, if people have friends in the church they will stay, if they don’t they won’t.  Friendships develop when people share things in common, such as :

  • Common age
  • Common marital status
  • Common family status
  • Common interest
  • Common problem
  • Common need
  • Common culture

Be a “relational matchmaker” when (and even before) people join your church, and you’ll see them around for a long time.

5. Outreach Principle #5: Transitions Provide the Window of Opportunity

 All unchurched people in your community are not similarly inclined to become Christians and members of your church.  Some are quite responsive, others not at all.  It’s a simple, but powerful, insight:

Openness to following Christ

Receptive                                                                                                 Resistant

Jesus spoke of this principle in telling us to turn our eyes to the fields that are “white unto harvest” (John 4:35)…to plant the seed of the Gospel in good [receptive] soil (Mt. 13:1-9)…to preach in the towns that are receptive (Luke 9:1-6).  So, how do you identify the receptive people in your community?  One way is through life-transition events.  Significant changes in people’s lifestyles move them toward spiritual receptivity.  These may be controlled events (i.e., marriage, divorce, relocation, retirement) or uncontrolled events (i.e., death of a spouse, medical crisis, fired from work, etc.).  People experiencing change in other aspects of their life are more open to change their spiritual life. 

Several application ideas for this principle:  Encourage your members to be aware of transition events of those in their social network (Principle #2), and respond with genuine Christian love.  Develop specialized ministries that focus on transition events, and then develop a plan to share God’s unconditional love with these people whom the Holy Spirit may have prepared.

These outreach principles work.  They should be applied not in order to grow a big church, but in order to reach God’s dearly loved children, and bring them into the caring fellowship of the body of Christ.

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We’ve been talking about integration a lot at Wesley Seminary @ IWU.  The local pastor is by nature a generalist and not a specialist, and so it seems that a seminary ought to not merely stack specialized studies on top of each other. Hence the rallying cry for integration.

But I will readily admit that integration is not easy, precisely because academic institutions and cultures invariably press towards greater and greater specialization.  Although not a sufficient reason to avoid trying, the difficulty is real.  For it is not that academic folk are merely recalcitrant, paranoid and self-serving.  We have genuine concerns that something of the depth and insight of specialized teaching and research will be lost in the integrative process.

However, there are good reasons to think that integration does not necessarily undermine depth.  A number of events this weekend brought home this point to me.  Let me just mention one.  Wesley Seminary co-sponsored an event commemorating the publication of Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.  Many special guests were there, including pastors from multi-ethnic churches, academics from various fields, and one of the original authors.  There was significant interaction between and among academics in various fields and practitioners in various contexts, which is exactly the sort of dialogue that leads to integration.

What struck me was that this integrative dialogue was made possible by a deep investigation of a singular issue.  In addition to its challenging substance, I took away from this conference the lesson than integration doesn’t have to come by way of simplification and generalization.  We can come together across disciplinary divides and across the academic-practitioner divide by bringing our deepest insights to bear on specific, concrete issues.

Wesley’s Dean calls this the “deep calls unto deep” approach of integration.  Although I always liked the sound of that, I think I know a little more about what that means.  I think I caught a glimpse of it Friday.  I sincerely hope our students will catch a glimpse of it in our courses.  Speaking of courses, it’s time for me to stop talking about the possibility of integration, and get back to actually doing it!

-John L. Drury

We have 25 new MA students on campus yesterday and today… welcome to the seminary!

What a great day we had! 

I spent a day hanging out with one of our Seminary students (who also happens to be our Director of Admissions!), one of my favorite people in the world:  Nathan Lamb.  We spent time together in Indianapolis as well as on our way to and from there.

There, through the gracious invitation of Rev. Deborah Lightfoot, we participated in the Indiana Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.  While serving as a pastor in Grand Rapids my life was greatly enriched through African American ministry colleagues as we spent time together in fellowship and worship, and so I had been looking forward to this possibility with brothers and sisters in the AME.

With our Seminary being connected to The Wesleyan Church we have something in common with the AME.  We are very similar doctrinally, both having our roots in Methodism.  We also have some similarities historically, in that both denominations were born out of issues related more to social justice than to theological issues (though good theology informs social concerns).  The AME was born in 1816 when its founders were denied the opportunity to worship in predominantly white congregations, and the Wesleyan Methodist Connection came to be in 1843 as Wesleyan abolitionists took a stance against slavery.  So the AME has a special place in our hearts.

We arrived for roll call.  As each name was called, the delegate would stand and enthusiastically quote a Scripture verse.  We’d heard dozens of verses from Old and New Testament shared by the time attendance was taken.  We loved how they integrated Scripture into the most procedural of matters!

Then we sang…hymns and songs familiar to us, yet with a passion that made it clear that it was the heart, not the vocal cords, that were the origin.  There is something powerful about the familiar being experienced with a whole new expression of emotion.

We heard a message from God’s Word by the Reverend Pamela Horn…wow!  An appropriate text from Nehemiah was chosen, and her content-rich, carefully crafted message was delivered with every ounce of her being.  The rhythmic structure of the message and the responsiveness of the audience combined to cause the truth to settle deep into my soul.

At lunch we were invited to sit at the “Bishop’s Table.”  There is something almost majestic about the sense of propriety and respect given to leadership in the AME.  Bishop John Richard Bryant was a gracious host, and was intensely interested in our approach to Seminary education.  Most AME pastors are bi-vocational, and the idea of “going away to Seminary” is a virtual impossibility.  When he heard that our Seminary education was delivered in one-week intensives and online format he saw how the value the AME places on ministerial education (they now require a M.Div. degree for ordination as an Itinerant Elder) could connect to the realities of the ministry contexts in which most of their leaders labor so energetically.

I love it when there is a collision and congruence of values!  Their value on ministerial preparation while staying engaged in their local churches as a ministry laboratory beautifully merges with our value to serve a wider diversity of students (in gender, ethnicity and denominations) nationally and internationally as we seek to be a premier practice-oriented Seminary.

Nathan and I talked on the drive home about the effectiveness of the Bishop’s leadership.  He was so affirming of pastors and lay leaders while stretching their vision of how they can prepare and who they can become in ministry.  The Bishop exhibited strong administrative governance while fully infusing it with a spiritual fervor that challenged even those of us not part of their business deliberations to be more fully devoted to Christ.

And the fellowship was rich.  Being the only Anglos in the room reminded us of what it means to be part of a gathering that is overwhelmingly another ethnicity (a very good experience for those in the “dominant culture” to have on a regular basis), and yet we felt at home among believers who went out of their way to make us feel included.

Bishop Bryant must have appreciated our time with them as well.  He publicly affirmed Wesley Seminary and recommended it to those present, and invited us to attend their next gathering in Chicago. 

So we left looking forward to another great day…

In 1995, Joan Osborne asked us to consider, through one of her songs, “what if God was one of us”? Here are some of the lyrics:

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home

These words may make us cringe. Insinuating that God might be a “slob” just like sinful humanity gets our hackles up in a hurry. Osborne, to her credit, is at least willing to explore what the church has too often ignored. She seems willing to wrestle with the implications of the incarnation of God as one of us.

The truth is that God not only was one of us but, I believe, is one of us and one with us because of his incarnation in the flesh.  There is, to this day, an embodied member of the Trinity who looks an awful lot like a first century Jew but with a glorified body. The incarnation not only cost the eternal Son something over 2000 years ago, as detailed in Philippians 2, but perhaps the incarnation of the Son as Jesus Christ has an ongoing cost. Whether or not you agree with my conviction about the ongoing cost of the incarnation, you will no doubt agree that incarnation is costly. God’s willingness to come “from heaven to earth to show the way” by becoming one of us and one with us cost him greatly. And, since we too are called to incarnational ministry, we ministers have a price to pay as well.

What does incarnational ministry entail? For Jesus Christ, it meant laying aside divine privilege to take upon himself all of the pain, angst, sorrow, temptations, and trials of the human condition (See Isaiah 53). He did ministry by getting close enough to the people he sought to serve that he became one of them and one with them. He served primarily through solidarity. Clearly, he gave up much of his privilege and power in order to elevate those without either to a new level of living. He went from heaven to earth, from Son to servant, from eternal King to peasant Jew. That’s incarnational ministry!

Thank God we will never have to travel as far south as the Son did, but we too are called to Jesus-style incarnational ministry. Christian ministers visit those in prison to incarnate good news. We are called to roll up our sleeves not only to serve the poor and homeless but to share life with them. We must be willing to resource under-resourced communities even if it means spending less money on important, but unnecessary, audio-visual worship service enhancements and fellowship hall renovations. We need the courage to be a voice for the voiceless even if it means putting our own reputation on the line. Pastoral leaders use our position and power not to build our ego but to build up the culturally undignified. Incarnational ministry is costly!

There were two internal questions that surfaced in me often during my 15 years as a pastor no matter the context. First, how can my ministry incarnate the realities of Christ and his kingdom? And the second question was, am I willing to pay the price necessitated by incarnational ministry? To be perfectly honest, there were days when I chose to play it safe in the confines of my ivory professional tower. I regret those missed opportunities to incarnate good news. But on my better days, I got it! The more I got it, the more the people I served as pastor began to get it (though some of them “got it” long before I did), and once we got it together there was no turning back. The pendulum had swung and we became a church that existed to make Christ known through incarnational ministry that cost us time, energy, money, personnel, blood, sweat and tears.

Incarnational ministry is costly, but the ultimate price was paid by the God who became one of us.

Lenny Luchetti