I frequently get asked about the future of outreach. Let me be honest, and perhaps you already know this: outreach will not get any easier.
Let me share at least three reasons why I believe this is the case.
First, our culture will continue to experience a decrease in nominal Christianity and an increase in “Nones.” More people will leave the Christian identification and cease to identify as Christian. This will be connected with more skepticism towards Christianity and the institutional Church.
Second, our culture will continue to be dominated by secular people, both in worldview and in numbers. Many who hold a secular worldview in the halls of power—media, entertainment, academia—will attempt to marginalize those who practice a robust Christian faith that disagrees with them on controversial issues.
Third, our culture will continue to experience a rise in religious pluralism, where Christianity will increasingly become one voice among a sea of competing voices (and narratives). The continued rise of pluralism will give credence to individual autonomy and relativism, where truth for one person isn’t seen as truth for another.
Given that all of these elements are present now means that we are in the “present future.” So, the future of outreach is now. But what will be the most effective forms of outreach? I believe churches that make the following three shifts will be more effective at outreach in an increasingly skeptical, secular, and pluralistic culture.
1. Churches that shift from a temple mindset to a network mindset will be more effective at evangelism.
Many have bought into the assumption that evangelism takes place at church, not through the church. As a result, church people are encouraged to constantly invite their neighbors, coworkers, and friends to the corporate gathering. I am a firm believer that we should encourage our people to invite others; however, this is a temple mindset that will need to be offset by a network one. In other words, instead of solely relying on the invite method so that people will come to a place and hear a ‘professional’, we must equip our people to go and share with their network—their neighbors, co-workers, family, and friends.
Making the shift from building-based to home-based outreach will require intentional training. Resources and programs like Alpha, Christianity Explored, and others will prove to be very helpful tools for believers to use as they invite their networks to a safe place for guided video conversations that explore the Christian faith.
2. Churches that shift from an attractional mindset to an incarnational mindset will be more effective at evangelism.
Using attractional elements is not bad or wrong; I believe they are quite useful, and in many contexts, contextual. However, if more and more people are skeptical about coming to a place, then we must teach and train our people to ‘be’ the church—the incarnational presence of Christ in the places they occupy. In essence, teaching and equipping our people about the implications of the gospel lived out in real life is the true attraction.
As the Early Church lived out the implications of the gospel in their networks—how they treated women, slaves, and outsiders; how the family was oriented; and how they were joyful even in the face of persecution and suffering—believers displayed an alternative reality that the other faiths and religions simply couldn’t replicate. Essentially, gospel living in the real world became the attractional means by which God drew people to Himself. The contemporary Church would do well to go back to the future and embrace this same approach to evangelism.
3. Churches that shift from traditional forms and structures to innovative ones will be more effective at evangelism.
As the mission field changes, churches will change. The changes will be methodological, not theological; they will be contextual, not textual. In other words, churches will continue to have the marks of a biblical church, but those marks might be lived out in a restaurant, pub, coffee house, movie theater, community center, or a network of homes.
Not only will gathering places be different, but also the way churches choose to invest some of its resources will change. Instead of looking at how churches can use their resources to bless themselves, churches will look to see how they can spend a significant percentage of resources to bless the community. Either by way of mercy ministries or cultural (business or entertainment) centers such as restaurants, coffee shops, child-centers, community centers, or urban development projects, churches will spend significant amounts of resources to invest into the community with the hopes of not only blessing, but also building bridges that reach the hearts of those in the community.
In any case, churches that are passionate about doing whatever it takes to reach the culture in the name of and for the fame of Jesus will be innovative and fresh in their methods. Why? Because they realize that just as the Father sent Jesus, so Jesus has sent them into the world. In understanding its ‘sentness’, the mission force adapts to each and every context in an effort to share and show the gospel of King Jesus, thereby making disciples of all nations.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.