We have to start letting go of some of our long-held ideas about church and ministry. Especially when it comes to evangelism and outreach.
But it’s not always easy.
Here’s a true story that illustrates that reality. (I’ve kept some details vague, and adjusted others slightly to protect the identity of the pastor and church in question.)
The Backyard BBQ
Recently, I was talking with a small church pastor who was upset at his deacons.
"I have five deacons," he told me. "And they help out everywhere but at the church. One of them builds houses for Habitat for Humanity, the others volunteer at the senior center, the homeless shelter, the food bank, and as an assistant coach for the high school football team. That last one makes me especially angry."
"Why is that?” I asked.
“Well, we have no youth group. On youth nights my wife and I set everything up, then we hope someone shows up. Usually it’s only two or three kids. Sometimes none. But this deacon spends a lot of time with teenagers outside the church. In fact, he has a huge backyard, so two or three times a year he has all the football players over for a BBQ. Since all the players go, all the cheerleaders go, and soon half the high school is at his house, but our church doesn’t have a youth group.”
“It sounds to me like your church does have a youth group,” I told him. “It’s in his backyard."
"You don't get what I'm saying," the pastor responded. "Those kids don't come to our church, just to his backyard BBQs."
“No, I heard you," I responded, as gently as I could. "But you're not getting what I'm saying. You need to call him and volunteer to help out at the next BBQ. Then, when you show up, don’t bring a big ol’ Bible or wear your clerical collar. It’s a small town. They all know who you are. Help flip burgers and toss a ball around with the kids.
“After a couple parties, you can earn their trust. If you do, some day one of the kids will pull you aside to tell you his parents are about to get a divorce, or that she's been cutting her arms with a razor blade, and you’re the only pastor they know that they can tell these things to.
“Your deacon’s BBQs are giving you a chance to meet and minister to kids who would never come to a church. Don’t get upset about it, be there for it!
“And while you’re at it, call the other deacons and ask them how your church can help them build houses, feed the poor and minister to seniors. Don't force people to do ministry your way. Help them with the ministry they're already passionate about.”
Go Where They Are
Unfortunately, this pastor never got what I was trying to say. For him, the only ministry that counted was what happened inside the walls of the church.
I wish this was an isolated incident. But we all know it’s not. There are far too many pastors and churches that don’t consider ministry valid unless it happens within the walls of their church building.
But Jesus never called us to bring people into a church building. He told us to go to them. On the streets, in the marketplaces and at backyard BBQs.
If we’re going to reach the next generation, we’ll need to get much better at doing ministry from the church, not just in the church.
Keep your eyes and ears open to what’s already happening in your community through the members of your church. Then step up to help.
For generations, local churches were the center of many communities. They were places of hope and welcome. They aren’t seen that way anymore.
We’ve lost people’s trust. Through scandal after scandal and one political fight after another, we’ve so diluted the pure, simple gospel message that more and more people no longer have the church on their list of possible places to find help, healing, or answers to their questions.
In addition to keeping our doors open, we need to look for places where their doors are open so we can meet them on their turf. Start new relationships and nurture friendships where they are, instead of insisting they do it our way.
We need to earn their trust again. But it’s not about getting them to trust an institution. Quite frankly, I don’t care if people who have been burned by the institutional church ever trust it again. They need to know they can trust Jesus. And his followers.
For a lot of people, that will only happen outside the church’s physical and institutional walls, not inside them.
That’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It may force us to rediscover our true mission and purpose again.
After all, outside the walls is where Jesus did his best work. Why should his followers be any different?
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