The church is to be on mission with God. The God of the Bible is a missionary God who graciously pursues people.
That pursuit involves the work of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of His people—and that proclamation often involves emphases from the local church.
The church exists to proclaim the gospel and demonstrate the kingdom of God in a lost and dying world. In being faithful to her calling, the church should be reaching people with the good news of the gospel and welcoming them in to a local community of believers.
Welcoming people into the local church should be the natural overflow of a local church's faithful ministry. However, many churches find themselves unfruitful in seeing new people to connect with their congregation.
Some people think that is a good thing—church is for believers and unbelievers should not be connected to that church. I'm not of the same view—covenant community (what we often call church membership) is for believers, but Christian community (what we often call attendance) is a place where evangelism should take place.
The Lost Are Waiting for an Invitation
Whatever happened to the strategy of simply inviting a friend, co-worker, or neighbor to church? According to our research, an invitation to church is still an effective way to reach the lost.
A few years ago LifeWay Research conducted a survey of 15,000 adults for the North American Mission Board to try to determine which of 13 approaches is the best-received when a church wants to be heard. The research showed us that best-received means of seeing new people walk into one's church is, well, a personal invitation.
- 67% of Americans say a personal invitation from a family member would be very or somewhat effective in getting them to visit a church.
- 63% of Americans say a personal invitation from a friend or neighbor would be very or somewhat effective in getting them to visit a church.
- 63% of Americans are very or somewhat willing to receive information about a local congregation or faith community from a family member.
- 56% of Americans are very or somewhat willing to receive information about a local congregation or faith community from a friend or neighbor.
So, people ARE open to an invite from church, particularly if it is from someone they know. But one simple invitation isn't necessarily going to result in subsequent attendance. Neighbors may come because of an invitation, but they'll stay for the community.
People Are Attracted to Community
Why is it that many of our un-churched friends are ready for an invitation to church? Several missiologists have recently offered a similar observation. In our post-Christian nation, people who are skeptical of the faith are often attracted to the Christian community before they are attracted to the Christian message. Therefore, introducing people into the relational network of a local church community becomes an important aspect of their journey to the faith.
As beings created in the image of God, we need to be in relationship with others. We reflect God, who is Trinitarian, with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in perfect fellowship with one another. This necessitates our innate need for community.
The personal invitation is an effective way to break down any real or perceived barriers one might have to walking into a new church building or being willing to engage in a new circle of people. Knowing whose image each of us bear, we cannot afford to underestimate the power of a personal invitation.
True Fellowship is Countercultural
In our world people are more connected than any previous generation, yet lonelier than ever before. Social media may allow us to keep up with other people, but invitations to join communities or relational circles are the only way for people to truly connect with others.
We cannot mistake information for intimacy. We cannot mistake communication for community. Virtual relationships are not complete. To put it another way, fellowship is not truly experienced apart from actual relationships in physical time and space.
Unfortunately, Western culture is inherently individualistic. We honor the person who goes their own way and values self-reliance. This pattern has resulted in an individualistic spirituality that has fragmented the church and erected barriers for people connecting in churches.
Far too often, individualism not only becomes the silent killer of community within the body of Christ, but also the hindrance to seeing growth in our churches.
Fellowship Begins with an Invitation
This begs the question: how can people be added to the local church (which involves conversation and covenant) unless they experience fellowship and community with that church? And how can they experience fellowship and community in a local church unless someone invites them? If many of our un-churched friends are ready for an invitation to church, what are we waiting on?
In his book Evangelism in the Early Church, historian Michael Green argued that evangelism was the prerogative and duty of every church member. Green argues that "Christianity was supremely a lay movement, spread by informal missionaries … the spontaneous outreach of the total Christian community gave immense impetus to the movement from the very outset."
In our (and similar) cultural contexts, that spontaneous outreach often involves engaging people in community, leading to gospel engagement.
The experience of true gospel community, true fellowship, is a powerful thing. Remember, simply introducing people into the relational network of a local church community can be an important aspect of their journey to the faith.