Outreach and Evangelism: What Works Today?
Today's church faces profound challenges within the broader culture: political correctness, postmodern relativism, religious pluralism. We live in a society full of unchurched people who don't know the basic tenets of Christianity or the redemptive story the Scriptures tell. The church at large has a poor reputation among non-Christians. Many hold distorted views of Jesus, the gospel, and traditional Christian faith, so they are biased against us before we’ve had a chance to start a conversation.
Our ability to engage the world is also hampered by internal issues. Some Christians question the motives behind traditional outreach efforts, viewing them as a bait-and-switch. Many in our congregations seem reluctant to share the gospel, either claiming that evangelism isn’t their gift or hiding in fear of potential rejection.
In light of these challenges, how can our churches share the Good News of Jesus Christ in a dark world that desperately needs it?
Show: Reaching Out Through Love and Service
In recent years, a strategic shift has begun to take place from the programs and events of traditional outreach to more organic forms of cultural engagement. At the heart of this movement is a desire to heed Jesus' command to go into the world.
Support members on mission.
Pastor Eugene Cho says, "Our congregations are our greatest assets. Disciples, ambassadors, missionaries … God is doing amazing things in and through them already. The question is, 'How can we come alongside them?'"
One way Cho's Quest Church in Seattle does that is through their "Joining God's Mission" initiative, which highlights one person or organization every Sunday. By supporting them with a $1,000 donation and communal prayer, they sow seeds into the rich soil of local outreach efforts and cast a vison of God's mission to the congregation.
Imago Dei Community, led by pastor Rick McKinley, is doing something similar in Portland. They give missional grants to people in their congregation engaged in local initiatives. "We're giving authority and responsibility to people in the public square," says McKinley. "But more so, we're empowering and unleashing them as we shepherd them in that process." Not only does Imago Dei's leadership surround them with relevant expertise, but it also calls their people to join in the work, tackling issues such as sex trafficking and foster care.
With "Change for a Dollar," Imago Dei makes the change collected in their offering available to members who want to meet needs outside of their church community. A member recently used $1,000 to keep a neighbor from being evicted.
Missio Dei Chicago, a multi-congregational church seeking to bring the gospel to bear upon each of its unique neighborhoods, encourages its pastors to build relationships with local city leaders, serve on community boards, or join the PTA. The church's Gospel Communities—missional small groups gathered by neighborhood—take part in their communities by caring for refugee families, joining in city farming, and getting active in local events.
Lead pastor Josh Taylor says, "We're not trying to build a mega-church across ZIP codes. We're going for the presence of Christ in a specific neighborhood. With no strings attached, we're seeking to live out of the question, 'How can we be a blessing to this community?'"
Their "You Are Loved" events are designed to demonstrate God's love to Missio Dei's neighbors. Congregants offer coffee to commuters, provide free portraits in less affluent areas, and share water with festival-goers at Chicago's Pride Parade. Another church seeking to be present in the lives of their neighbors is Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois. David Fitch and his co-pastors teach the importance of presence, encouraging people to engage their communities, from neighborhoods and workplaces to moms' groups and recreational activities. As Fitch says, "Pray for that space and become sensitive to what God is doing." One way they pursue this is by gathering around the dinner table. They've found openness inviting others into their homes, in a culture where people are hungry for relationships.
Tell: Inviting People Into the Gospel Story
Just as leaders are exploring fresh ways of reaching our neighbors, they're also rethinking our approach to evangelism. While the message hasn't changed, they've found ways to tell that story in accessible, inviting, and relevant ways.
As Matt Brown, evangelist and founder of Think Eternity, points out, "We need to learn to address the gospel differently than we have, in ways our displaced culture can understand." Brown sees this gaining traction through authenticity. People are increasingly turned off by canned presentations, so he advocates allowing ourselves to be known. In Brown's view, a perfect place to do this is on social media. Since most Americans are on it, Brown sees social media as a vast mission field.
Geoff Holsclaw, co-pastor at Life on the Vine in Long Grove, Illinois, encourages his people to shift "from evangelism that declares what God can do for you to sharing out of their own lives—bearing witness to what God has done for them." This makes our evangelism more personal and requires us to know and experience God in authentic discipleship.
Tell the story.
Josh Taylor explains, "When we think of the scope of the gospel—the renewal of all things—that is the story to tell, the one worth telling." This vision has moved Missio Dei toward a more thematic approach to preaching, illuminated by art, poetry, and song.
No matter how our outreach methods develop, one thing stays the same. Kevin Palau reminds us that "We cannot declare the gospel without using words. In fact, at some point, we must use words." As president of the Luis Palau Association, he's no stranger to evangelism, having planned some of the largest Christian outreach events ever held.
Beyond intentionally initiating conversations, asking questions, and being unashamed to share the gospel, he suggests that we need to boldly give people opportunity to respond. "At some point, we must call people to commitment. Of course, we ask the question humbly. But what we’re doing is helping them confirm a commitment to follow Jesus."
Palau recalls one young pastor who had never shared his faith. After seeking out Kevin’s father, evangelist Luis Palau, he decided for the first time to include an opportunity for listeners to respond to the gospel during his Easter service. Following Luis' advice, he let people know early in his message to expect it, gave them space to pray afterward, and then asked them to stand and punch their fist in the air, declaring, "I believe!" That Easter morning, this pastor learned the importance of being bold in word and deed. Nearly 100 people responded. Many were baptized on the spot.
Kevin Palau's pastor friend discovered that, even in our jaded culture, people are still receptive to the gospel—if they’re given the right introduction. If you're reluctant about leading your congregation in outreach and evangelism, try out these church leaders' strategies. Be bold in word and deed. Who knows what God may do?
Rob Toal is a pastor, writer, and editor living in Wheaton, Illinois with his wife and three young children. When he's not wrestling with the question of how to faithfully be the church in our shifting culture, he's working in the yard, running through town, or cheering on his beloved Chicago Cubs. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.