Monday, December 20, 2010

The L O S T Trend in Outreach

Who's on an island with a Shepherd, a bunch of Others and wants to be rescued? Wrecked, hard luck passengers from Oceanic flight 815? No.

Apparently much of the church in the US is wrecked on an island.

Outreach appears to be fading along with theological literacy. So in this second of six discussions of Barna's Megatrends in the US Church, I want to show you how the vision and mission of Crosspoint and Encuentro engages this problem and suggest ways to grow a healthy church that fight the trends.   

Outreach isn't a program, its the fruit of a healthy gospel-centered church. As a student and Jr Hi pastor in the 70s, 80s and 90s, it seems to me, the American church emphasized skill development, programs and motivational speeches to get the faithful to reach out to its primarily homogeneous neighborhood. 

Skills are important but its sort of like training with a knife when you're going into a sword fight. The outcome is a church in the 21st century withdrawing rather than advancing.
Barna notes: Despite technological advances that make communications instant and far-reaching, Christians are becoming more spiritually isolated from non-Christians than was true a decade ago. Examples of this tendency include the fact that 
  • less than one-third of born again Christians planned to invite anyone to join them at a church event during the Easter season; 
  • teenagers are less inclined to discuss Christianity with their friends than was true in the past; 
  • most of the people who become Christians these days do so in response to a personal crisis or the fear of death (particularly among older Americans); 
  • and most Americans are unimpressed with the contributions Christians and churches have made to society over the past few years. 
As young adults have children, the prospect of them seeking a Christian church is diminishing--especially given the absence of faith talk in their conversations with the people they most trust. With atheists becoming more strategic in championing their godless worldview, as well as the increased religious plurality driven by education and immigration, the increasing reticence of Christians to engage in faith-oriented conversations assumes heightened significance.
It is challenging to reach out so are church attenders giving up? Changes challenge 70s-90s modern outreach strategies:
  • Our neighborhoods are more diverse socially, racially, economically and spiritually here in the greater Smyrna area. Myriad options get plenty of screen time.
  • The gospel contains Bad News few want to admit. Even fewer want to hear it even from a kind and concerned person. The potential for a social snub is way higher now. 
  • Societal norms demand privatization of religion and tolerance of all viewpoints. No matter how contradictory or down-right stupid. 
  • Attractional mega-churches, Mass, TV preachers and my Grandma's old church color most people's presuppositions about what people think they are being invited to.
  • The internet removes all mystery and makes everyone a psuedo-expert on religious matters. So why actually go to a church? "I can download whatever I need if/when I need it."
  • Professional Christians on the internet inundate theologically weak Christians with piles of resources. The regular guys don't have to learn anything because they can (wrongly) assume their friends will find faith in Jesus via a Google search. 
It appears no one really 'needs' to do awkward personal outreach anymore, right?

People's exposure to church in most cases isn't good news. But can a living faith in God be transferred without personal real-life interaction? A living faith in Christ can not happen outside connection to the real-life body of Christ. Anything other else in my opinion, is manipulation based on legalism, moralism, therapy or a circus atmosphere. 

So do we Christians throw up our hands and all escape to comfy mega-churches? No. 

Crosspoint/Encuentro and other church plants are lean, not-so-mean humility machines. Okay, so machine isn't the right word, but 'family of humbled sinners saved by grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone' doesn't rhyme with lean and mean. 

Seriously, our 'outreach program' is interpersonal humble interaction among sinners, dependently praying (only God saves, remember?) and patiently answering good questions with good answers about the bad news and good news of the gospel. 

Our lives together become outreach. Our words and actions are one of many presentations of the gospel.

The How-To is stay simple and enter into (incarnate) people's livesWe remain lean. We focus on people, not programs. Our facility and budget reflect serving people where they live, work and play.

We are not-so-mean and humble. The single most compelling outreach tactic (if you can call it a tactic) is humility. We admit we are sinners. We ARE no better than anyone else. We aren't trying to impress anyone or prove anything first. We welcome folks no matter what. The worship services are not slick, personality-driven, video light shows - on purpose.

The main goal is not to get 'more butts in seats' but to introduce people to Christ's awesomeness. We want Jesus to be more famous than our worship service, our programs or our church or our pastor.

This means we all, from pastor to most successful businessperson to youngest teenager, approach our friends, neighbors and co-workers humbly. We lead into 'outreach' admitting out loud that they have every reason to be skeptical and unsure about us, our church and the message we purport to believe.

This approach is both an expression of freedom in the gospel and an invitation into the community of the gospel.


MenRising said...

I have a question I hope will not offend: What can I personally do if the pastor at my church is very laid back and is not proactive in outreach?
I am part-time staff and have an opportunity to influence others, but besides being the example and going out alone on visitation every week (usually it is just me and my daughter because no one else shows up), what can I do to infect others?

Pastor Jim said...

MenRising, this is a great question. I've been in a similar situation as a youth pastor. I think there are quite a few things you can do.

1. Pray. Like 'Duh' right? Ask the Lord of the Harvest to send in workers for y'all's harvest field. The more new believers, the more everyone will be enthused by God's work.

2. With your pastoral staff, concentrate on church health. Each church is a body and needs all the parts to do the mission God gives them. As your post demonstrates, be respectful in the discussion.

3. Discover spiritual gifts and celebrate them. Truth is not everyone is gifted to evangelism (10% have the gift of evangelism), but everyone is responsible for witnessing. When folks operate in their giftedness is increases passion and zeal.

Lastly, encourage and affirm your pastor. It may look easy and you may see his weaknesses, but he is God's man called to that church and the calling is HARD. The Lord will shepherd him. You encourage him. He doesn't need anymore sheep that bite.

Thanks for asking. Great question.