Chapter Three: Reaching Out
Throughout his ministry, Jesus was occupied with one purpose: reaching people with the good news of salvation. He went to the people with his ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. The Gospels give us glimpses of Jesus ministering in open fields, on the side of a mountain, in crowded marketplaces, even in a boat. He seemed as much at home in the public square as in religious centers such as the synagogue or temple. He seems not to have invited people to meetings or buildings. He instead invited them to follow him as a person. Even when people begged him to stay in one place, he moved on (Mark 1:38).
To accomplish his purpose, Jesus sometimes associated with people of questionable character. He even invited himself to their homes. For example, he told a tax collector named Zacchaeus he was coming to his house (Luke 19:1-6).
On another occasion, Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house. Enjoying the meal with him were many tax collectors and sinners. Shocked by this unorthodox behavior, the Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples about their teacher’s conduct. Overhearing the question, Jesus replied, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matt. 9:12). Jesus made house calls!
But there is another important dimension here. In biblical times, a festive occasion at a prominent person’s house was like a sideshow. Many uninvited guests peered in through windows and watched the action. It was inexpensive and sometimes exciting entertainment. So when Jesus mixed with tax collectors and sinners, he had a wide audience.(note:1)
Even today, the homes of other people are a good place to share the good news. Some of the people we can meet there might not readily come to a Christian’s home.
Jesus not only modeled a life of ministry, he prepared his disciples to carry on his ministry of redemption and reconciliation. He said to them, “You are the salt of the earth,” and again, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14). Both these word pictures portray penetration. Disciples of Christ who remain in their own little group are like salt in a saltcellar, or a candle with a bowl over it—unable to fulfill their true function.
The preoccupation of contemporary Christians with buildings and meetings isn’t based on scriptural examples of reaching lost people. The concept of going to church isn’t normative in the New Testament. Instead, the focus is on being the church in the midst of the world. Although buildings can be an asset to a fellowship of believers, they seldom assist in the task of penetrating the surrounding community with the gospel. Unchurched persons are best reached by the strategy taught, lived, and commanded by Jesus—penetrating their world.
But how can this be done? Let’s consider several examples.
Will You Come to a Party at My House?
Evangelist Juan Carlos Ortiz often asks the question, “Why do we invite people to the one place we know they won’t come?” He means the church meeting or building. He suggests that we invite people to our homes instead. This is a place to build relationships and introduce unchurched people to our friends from church.
Ortiz and others have been trying new ways to reach the unchurched—especially the well-to-do, whom the evangelical church of Latin America has not typically reached. A prominent member of the church will host a party and invite unchurched work associates and friends to attend.
One feature of the party is to meet Ortiz, international traveler and churchman. Ortiz then shares about his travels and presents a clear message of salvation through Jesus Christ. Using this approach, Ortiz has led many people to confess Christ as Lord and Savior and to join home fellowship groups.
From Pub to Place of Worship
Russell Chiswell, a minister in South Wales, has successfully led his church to meet the needs of industrial workers in his town. He insists, “You must build into your church program things that will build common ground with non-Christians.” His church does this through special groups and events—usually held somewhere other than at the church facility. Since men and women in the South Wales valleys tend to socialize separately, the church plans separate events for women and men as well as combined activities.
The church began by offering a nursery, freeing women to go out. This met a real need. Now a “mothers and toddlers” group has emerged. It hosted a onetime event called “hatches, matches, and dispatches,” dealing with birth and parenting, challenges of marriage, and facing death. The church has also offered special Bible studies and videos for women.
Events for men include a cricket team in the town league. The annual banquet is “an absolutely brilliant” event, according to Chiswell. It helps the church build an image that men can be a part of the church. In their solidly working-class culture, the church is sometimes thought to be for women only. Many of their church events are held in a local public house, where non-Christians feel welcome and comfortable.
There are also many events to which both men and women are invited. They conduct pub quizzes and “poems and pints” on occasions. They have also planned “60s and 70s” nights so that people could reminisce about the “good ole days” and dress up in costumes of years gone by. Barbecues are popular in the summertime.
The object is to invite non-Christians to experience the hospitality of church folks in a morally clean atmosphere, without being “too preachy.” Chiswell cautions that at these events the volume of the music must be kept low enough that people can easily converse with one another. Otherwise the purpose of the evening will be lost.
It pleases Chiswell to see people waiting outside the building on Sunday morning for their invited friends to arrive. This suggests people are taking an active interest in bringing others to the church. The real process of welcoming new people generally happens before people ever visit a church service. If people simply come into the church “cold,” without having been part of a Bible study group or special event, assimilating takes much longer.
In 1983, Chiswell was the only person in his church interested in evangelism. There were only four regular attenders (out of 20) under fifty-five years of age. For the next year, he set aside two and one-half hours a day for prayer and intercession. Then for six months in a row, he preached on the theme, “You must be born again.”
At first, Chiswell led others to Christ. These early converts came from within the church. Then they began to bring their friends to Chiswell, so he could lead them to salvation. Gradually, as they gained confidence, they led people to Christ themselves. But they brought them to Chiswell afterward, “just to make sure.” Now, he hears about conversions through the grapevine. The church is at work!
Will You Join an Inquiry Group?
Joe Baker, a Baptist pastor in Fort Wayne, Indiana, initiated an interesting way of reaching the unchurched. He began by going from door to door in his neighborhood, seeking persons who didn’t regularly attend church. When he found some, he invited them to an inquiry group—a series of four meetings to introduce people to his church. He also asked for the names of other unchurched people they might know and invited them as well. Then he asked a newcomer to host the group meeting.
In the inquiry group, the people first got to know one another and their past church experiences (if any). Baker then shared the gospel and explained the practices of his church. In the last of the four sessions, he handed out a church constitution and other church documents, including the yearly budget. There was no pressure to join the church.
In the first few inquiry groups, the group included mostly unbelievers or nonchurch-attenders. Then the groups began to include a number of members from the church. The church has used this method for over 15 years. Beginning with only a pastoral couple, the church has grown to more than 500 people.
Why has this approach worked well? Perhaps for several reasons. First, Baker has an engaging personality and a real love for people.
Second, he enjoys leading people to Christ.
Third, the small-group setting gives an opportunity for church members to build friendships with people in their neighborhood who don’t attend church.
Fourth, people can have their questions about the church answered in a nonthreatening environment. They can learn about the church without ever having to attend. Amazingly, more than half of those who come to the inquiry group end up coming to church!
Mothers and Others
In southeastern Pennsylvania, dozens of churches are providing a time out for mothers, especially those with young children. Meeting once weekly, these groups provide (in a nonthreatening environment) some of the best regular contacts between churched and unchurched women. Using such activities as Bible studies, crafts, and tips for practical living, these groups meet a vital need in the community.
Jim Petersen tells of the conversion of a Brazilian friend, Mario. They studied the Scriptures for four years. When Mario finally committed his life to Christ, he cited Jim’s family life as a primary reason for making the decision. He remembered having a bowl of soup the first time he was at the Petersen home. The family had been somewhat unsettled, and Jim had corrected the children in Mario’s presence. But in this incident, Mario saw Christ in a winsome way. He never forgot that incident, which pointed him to Jesus.(note:2)
Networking can be a form of upward mobility, enabling people to expand their contacts and business opportunities. But it’s also one of the best ways to spread the good news of Christ and share your church welcome.
Arn and Arn, in a biblical and practical study, show how networks of relationship can enhance the potential of your church outreach.(note:3) They explain the concept of oikos, the Greek word for household. In the New Testament, there are references to people coming to Christ in households, which include relatives, friends and work associates (see Mark 5:19 and Acts 10:24; 16:15, 33-34)
Working with existing relationships to find persons with whom to share the gospel offers several advantages. First, these networks of relationships proceed alone natural lines. Since the relationships exist before the gospel is shared, the special gifts necessary for sharing effectively with total strangers or large crowds aren’t required. Because the hearer already trusts the one sharing, there is often less resistance to the message.
It is important, of course, not to violate this trust. This means the friendship isn’t formed with the hidden motive of eventually sharing the gospel. The friendship, instead, begins for its own sake. Then as it becomes appropriate for the friends to share their respective ultimate commitments, the Christian can share her or his commitment to Christ.
This leads to the second advantage. Witnesses can share with friends in an unhurried manner, waiting and praying for an opportune time. Again, when a person comes to Christ through the witness of a friend or relative, there is a natural means of spiritual support. Encouragement and sharing in Christ can continue where witness began.
A third advantage is the influence of relationships on the new Christian’s choice of a local church. Statistics indicate that 75-90 percent of church members choose a church because a friend or relative attends there.
Fourth, emphasizing webs of relationship can result in the winning of entire families or households. Whenever a new Christian comes into the church, a new web of potential disciples comes into focus.
Expanding the Friendship Network
When new people come to your church, it’s important to encourage them to invite their friends to attend as well. In this way, the number of prospects for your church will grow. If newcomers associate only with the people at your church, and drop their old friends, their potential to bring new people to church will soon diminish. Generally, after people have been a part of your church for three years, they are unlikely to invite new people to church except in special circumstances.
The church can arrange special circumstances, of course. Many churches have successfully used a program called Friend Day—a special day to bring a friend to church. Many congregations have doubled regular Sunday morning attendance on Friend Day. This is a helpful way to introduce many new people to the church.
Appointments Made in Heaven
Bob and Deb met at a bus stop in a large city. He was a young medical student; she was a teacher. Their eyes met briefly as they waited for the bus. He struck up a friendly conversation. They’ve been conversing ever since. In fact, they’re happily married with two teenage children. Perhaps theirs is one of those “marriages made in heaven.”
So far in this chapter, we have looked at ways to win friends and associates to Christ. But we’re also called to witness to people quite different from ourselves—people with whom we wouldn’t normally associate.
The New Testament offers examples of winning such strangers to Christ. Only God could have brought these people together. A textile entrepreneur and a jailer in Philippi, a treasurer from Ethiopia, and a military commander—all found Christ across cultural barriers (see Acts 16:6-34; 8:26-40; 10:1-48). All were matches “made in heaven.” In each case. God arranged a special appointment which brought together two persons and resulted in an addition to the church.
Does God still set up “matches” today? While we have to acknowledge that God’s ways are wrapped in mystery beyond our full understanding, it seems likely God is present in those many apparently chance encounters that lead to wonderful new relationships.
Getting Serious About the Unchurched
Pastor Al Wollen of Portland, Oregon, has seen hundreds of people come to Christ through his local church. He says:
The degree of seriousness with which people pray for unbelievers is the seriousness with which we draw them into the church. The degree to which we get close to God in anxiety for the lost determines how we pray for them. Christ came into the world to save sinners. You teach people how to pray for the unchurched by linking them to Christ and his concern for them. Pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth reapers into the harvest. You cannot say you are like Christ if you do not have a concern for the lost.
You can help to expand the prayer ministry of your church by identifying people who need Christ and putting their names on a prayer list. The congregation or a small group within the church can begin to pray for the people on the list.
Some churches have doubled their attendance by using this strategy along with the use of “prayer trip-lets.” Prayer triplets are groups of three people who each pray regularly for three others who need Christ. In this way, nine people are prayed for specifically each day. In addition, each person prays daily for the other two members of the group. The triplet meets weekly to pray together and encourage one another.
A Place for Seekers
The Willow Creek Community Church emerged from a desire to win new people to Christ. Pastor Bill Hybels discovered that many church members were embarrassed to invite friends to a traditional service. They feared their worship practices were irrelevant and archaic.
Consequently, Hybels structured the new church around the special needs of the unchurched. Services during the week stir growth and discipleship in church members. But the Sunday morning service is designed to help seekers find the way of salvation. It aims to show (in language anyone can understand) how Jesus answers life’s basic questions.
Congregational members invite their unchurched friends to these services. There is no altar call or other explicit request for commitment at that service. Rather, the members are taught to share the gospel with their friends, out of their own experience and interaction. The church also provides counselors when needed. Since Willow Creek was founded, this method has helped thousands come to Christ and join the church.
The idea of a seeker’s service is new to many Christians. Not every church will feel comfortable using this metnod. But to appeal to the unchurched, congregations must provide someplace where seekers’ spiritual questions can be addressed. If members of your church feel uncomfortable inviting unchurched friends to your service, perhaps you will want to change the present service or consider a seeker’s service.
For Review, Study, and Action
- In what ways does your church penetrate the world of the unchurched?
- In what ways does your church facility help or hinder your outreach efforts?
- How often do you have unchurched guests in your home?
- What events does your church offer the unchurched?
- How is your church praying for the unchurched? In what ways might you expand this practice?
- What do you think of a seeker’s service? How might your church implement the idea?
For Further Help
The Master’s Plan for Making Disciples, by Win Arn and Charles Arn (Pasadena: Church Growth Press, 1982). This book explains the biblical background of the concept of households coming to Christ. It shows how modern Christians can use this principle to reach people for Christ and the church.
The Unchurched: Who They Are and Why They Stay Away, by J. Russell Hale (New York: Harper and Row, 1980). This volume grows out of research among unchurched people in America. The author shows that there are different categories of unchurched people, which must be reached by different means.
Witness: Empowering the Church, by A. Grace Wenger and Dave and Neta Jackson (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1989). This is a practical help to individuals and churches who desire to touch their community with a witness to Jesus Christ.
Won by One, by Ron Rand (Ventura: Regal Books, 1988). This is a book to help people minister to their closest friends and family. The author has helped equip hundreds of people for more effective personal witness.