February 26, 2015

By Bob Farr

In every church, every pastor and leader say they desire their congregation to grow. Yet, we struggle mightily with what appears to be some seemingly strong obstacles. In spite of our desire, eighty percent of our congregations are either plateaued, slowly declining or rapidly declining. Though there are many facets of the life of any given congregation one could improve, it is obvious we are not connecting with people we don’t know outside our congregations. If we don’t figure out how to connect with new people and the mission field around our buildings, the rest of the facets of the life of the congregation are all for not. We will continue to lose ground and decline.     
It is easy to get bogged down into the day-to-day operation of running our church. We lose sight of our purpose, our priorities and of the very mission of the church -build relationships with God, with each other and with other people we don’t know. 
The first step in reaching new people we do not know is to create and extend radical hospitality beyond the church walls. Hospitality is a part of extending ourselves in relationships. Hospitality creates for an opportunity for a new relationship to be built with the community of faith. Hospitality is crafted in an outwardly focused culture of the community of faith. Evangelism is often defined as an invitation to church. Stop it! We would 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 the church, but a relationship. The only way the non-believing world is going to give us (disciples) a chance is to build trust through an 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 someone back to the gathered community of faith in hopes that the Holy Spirit would move their life for a life-changing experience. It is still true that most people find their faith with the help of another person. We think the sequence of evangelism that we need to learn is: get their name (without being weird), have a conversation, build an authentic relationships over time, that leads to a moment where you can share your faith and 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: 

  1. Evangelism means inviting people to church. 
  2. If people will just come into the building, they will see how nice we are and will want to return. 
  3. If we do good deeds in our community, people will see it and want to come to our church.
  4. Everybody I know already goes to church.
  5. If we just had the right program, everyone would want to come to church.
Here are some best practices on effective evangelism to counter the myths above: 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 community so they 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 has 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 was 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 the Healthy Church Initiative transformation process throughout the country. In those hundreds of consultations, we discovered that most churches have some very common blind spots. In fact, we compiled the recommendations to help congregations reach new people in the twenty-first century. Our book, 10 Prescriptions for a Healthy Church, will be published in spring 2015. Most of our recommendations cause us to have to re-think “doing church” in a different way than perhaps we have done before. It causes us to have to get outside our walls and learn to be contextually relevant with our neighbors. It causes us to have to get outside our comfort zones of having “them” come to us and instead us going to be a part of them.
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? 

This column was originally written for an upcoming issue of The Circuit Rider. Find The Circuit Rider online at www.ministrymatters.com/circuit_rider. 10 Prescriptions for a Healthy Church will be available next month from Abingdon Press at www.abingdonpress.com.