Early on in my ministry, I knew I desired to reach the community in whatever church I served. This desire has looked different in different settings; nonetheless, the desire is the same. In this article, I want to share a few things I have learned along the way about community outreach. I hope to offer an encouragement, sound a warning, and stir your desire to reach your community with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
First, what is outreach? I think it is helpful to work from a uniform definition since “outreach” can mean different things to different pastors and churches. For our purposes here, we will define outreach as the intentional engagement of the community to accomplish a common goal.
Next, I want to deconstruct that definition. What is the common goal of outreach? The church’s end goal is to show the community the love of Christ and to share the gospel of Jesus. Community outreach is not a church growth model. Instead, it is the people of God being the hands and feet of Jesus as they proclaim the gospel of repentance. Let me be clear: Community outreach may result in church growth but should never be motivated solely by church growth. A church that sets the goal to reach their community should primarily be doing so from a place of evangelistic zeal and obedience (Matthew 28:18-20).
Following our understanding of the goal, let us identify our community. This identification might be tricky, depending on your ministry setting. For example, if you are a rural church, your community may be more widespread than in an urban environment. Your congregational make-up helps define the community boundaries as much as the physical location of your church building. If you are in a rural farming community, your community will be better represented by your church members who live in the countryside than by the building that sits on the side of the farm-to-market road. Likewise, if you are in an urban environment, your community might be best identified as the neighborhood that immediately surrounds the physical church building. Pastor, it is up to you to determine your community and establish a plan to reach that community with the gospel.
That brings me to my next point: What is intentional engagement? Intentional engagement is the plan you set forth to reach your identified community with the gospel. Here it is helpful for you to understand the community’s needs and determine if your church is equipped to meet those needs. Allow me to provide a point of caution, dear pastor. I have seen and experienced the heartache of a plan gone awry. An eager young pastor is ready to knock on doors and begin getting to know his new community. The people are responsive to the gospel and start attending the church, but they are not like the established members. They’re unchurched. They do not know the social protocols that have been arbitrarily established.
In this situation, several possible outcomes can take place, but my experience says two outcomes are most likely. First, and most likely, the new believers get tired of feeling like outsiders, so they simply fade into obscurity. The pastor may make several attempts to re-engage them, but nothing will change the uncomfortable feeling they get from those inside the church, all because they don’t fit the mold.
A second possible outcome is that the new members plug in and begin to see the struggle the pastor is going through, sharing the gospel with unchurched people in the community and inviting them into the church, only to offend some members in the congregation because the new believers don’t act the way people “should” act in church, the way some longtime members think people should behave in church. The new members take offense on the pastor’s behalf and the two sides—the longtime members and the new members—are ready for war, and the pastor is looking for a new job.
I have seen both these scenarios. I have ministered in both types of churches. When you establish a plan to engage your community, intently pray about it. Preach on the need for the church to get outside the comforts of its four walls. Understand the dangers you will engage in along the way. Equip those who will be faithful companions. In many situations, the church needs to be prepared for the community rather than the community needing to prepare for the church. Develop a plan that suits your church’s strengths while preaching on and strengthening the weaknesses. Be sure your plan meets the needs of your community.
Lastly, make sure your plan is saturated in the lifegiving gospel message that Jesus saves. I cannot say this enough: Outreach is not a church growth tool. Instead, it is evangelistic obedience. Pastor, equip and prepare your people to minister to your community with the gospel.