Prescriptions for a growing church

In every church, the pastors and leaders say they desire their congregations to grow. Yet we struggle mightily with what appear to be some strong obstacles. We want our churches to grow, and yet 80 percent of our congregations are plateaued, slowly declining, or rapidly declining. Many factors contribute to this decline, and in any congregation we find a variety of facets that could be improved. But in many churches, perhaps the majority, we are not connecting with people outside our congregations. If we don’t figure out how to connect with new people and do ministry in the mission field around our buildings, the rest of the congregation’s ministry is all for naught. We will continue to lose ground and decline. It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day operation of running the church. We lose sight of our purpose, our priorities, and the very mission of the church — to build relationships with God, each other, and people we don’t know.

The first step in reaching people we do not know is to create and extend radical hospitality beyond the church walls. Hospitality is a part of extending ourselves in relationship. Hospitality creates an opportunity for a new relationship to be built with the community of faith. Hospitality is crafted as an outward-focused culture in the community of faith. Evangelism is often defined as an invitation to church. But we would like to banish this definition! We define evangelism as an invitation to experience God through Jesus Christ. Evangelism is very much a one-on-one process. The first step of evangelism is not a church but a relationship. The only way the nonbelieving world is going to give us (disciples) a chance is to build trust through authentic relationship. We are no longer living in a church-centric world. The church is no longer a valued institution. Therefore, we have to rebuild trust and value with people we do not know. That begins through one-on-one trusting relationships.

Through that trusting relationship, you might have the opportunity to share your faith and bring people back to the gathered community of faith in hopes that the Holy Spirit will move them in a life-changing experience. It’s still true that most people find their faith with the help of another person. The sequence of events in relationship-based evangelism is as follows: get their name (without being weird), have a conversation, and build an authentic relationship over time, which leads to a moment where you can share your faith and have a chance to bring that person back to the gathered community of faith. We will let the Holy Spirit take it from there!

In our consulting work with churches through the Healthy Church Initiative (HCI) process and other workshops across the country, we continually encounter some common myths about evangelism in the twenty-first century. We could probably name twenty, but here are the top five:

  • Evangelism means inviting people to church.
  • If people will just come into the building, they will see how nice we are and will want to return.
  • If we do good deeds in our community, people will see it and want to come to our church.
  • Everybody I know already goes to church.
  • If we just had the right program, everyone would want to come to church.

Here are some best practices of effective evangelism to counter the myths above:

  • Invitation flows from authentic relationship. It’s about experiential faith sharing — not church selling.
  • If you are going to use the building for community activities, follow up and build relationships with the people coming into your building.
  • If you are going to do good deeds in the community, follow the good deeds to the house. In other words, get to know the people you are helping. Invest in them — the people — not just the service.
  • It may be true that everybody you know already goes to church. Where are you willing to hang out to meet people who do not go to church? At least half of the population in every state in America do not have an active faith. Surely you can find a new person or two to build a relationship with.
  • People don’t come to church because of a program. People come to church for a genuine experience that gives their life hope and grace.

We ran into a pivotal moment of truth for ourselves as transformational leaders. We consistently challenge churches to build relationships with the people in their own communities so those people might come to know Christ. On one particular occasion, an older congregant confronted us. He told us we had asked him to reach people in a new way. He had never been equipped to do so. Most importantly, he could not fathom a way to do this without feeling weird or being seen as weird by the other person. That very conversation set in motion our desire to help congregations once again become familiar with a faith-sharing process that’s not so scary. This is exactly how one of our books, Get Their Name, came to be.

Over the past eight years, we have been working with churches throughout the country in the Healthy Church Initiative transformation process. We discovered in hundreds of consultations that most churches have blind spots. We have seen the same blind spots cropping up over and over again, and we have seen how a particular set of changes can correct each of these deficiencies. Most of the changes require us to rethink the ways we “do church” and compel us to do ministry in a different way than perhaps we have done before. We must go beyond our walls and learn to be contextually relevant to our neighbors. We must get outside our comfort zones and lay aside our expectation that “they” will come to us; instead, we must go to be a part of them. (We have compiled these recommendations in a new book, Ten Prescriptions for a Healthy Church, available now.)

We encourage you to sit down with other leaders in your church and evaluate how your church is doing when it comes to building relationships — with one another, Christ, and new folks. Where are the gaps? What do you need to start doing differently?

comments powered by Disqus