Outreach, from the inside out

How can churches recognize seasons of change or need in people only tangentially connected to the congregation?

By Will Baker

My church sits on an old highway in the small county seat town of Accomac, Va. It’s a great place and the church has amazing facilities that attract a lot of attention from anyone who passes by.

Unfortunately the highway bypass now sits about a half mile from the church and very few people pass by. So we have to think seriously about how our church is going to reach out to the surrounding communities. We have to ask some pretty basic questions, like: How should our church do outreach in the first place? Do we advertise events in the newspaper and on the radio? Do we mail flyers to our local community or neighborhood?

The answers to these questions are a resounding yes. But they don’t go deep enough. Ultimately outreach needs to be an extension into the larger community of the things we’re doing right in our church family. It’s important to recognize what your church does well and to run with that. One thing we do well is to be there for each other when we find ourselves in a season of change or need.

There are times in our lives when we become open emotionally to new ways of doing things. These seasons of change range from buying a new home to having a new child. They can be positive experiences, like graduating from college, or they can be extremely painful experiences of disease and pain. Those painful experiences in particular are seasons of need. Whether a season of change or need, these can be difficult times when we find ourselves pushed to our emotional limit. The church needs to be there at these times, appropriately supporting and lifting people up before God.

We are good at being there for the people who are members of our church in these seasons of change or need. We can pray for them like there’s no tomorrow. We can send notes of encouragement and stop by at just the right time with some homemade jam.

I have come to think of people as falling into three distinct groups with regard to our church. The first group I have already mentioned. Those are the church members and regular attenders. They are people who have direct and regular contact with the church. I like to just call them the church.

We’re really good at supporting our church; the other two groups we have a more difficult time with. The second group includes those who come around infrequently but regularly. Usually they come to big events and are friends or relatives of someone in the church. I tend to think of them as orbiters.

The third group is the people you see but don’t know in your community. You drive by them and wave on your way to work, but you don’t know them. They might be friends of friends you’ve never met but hear about all the time. Those people I call the outliers. They are difficult but extremely important to reach out to as well. After all, it’s called outreach, not inreach, easy-reach or any other bad-joke-reach we can think of.

So let’s start with the orbiters, that second group of people. We often think of these folks as once-a-years (on Christmas or Easter) or any of a million other pejorative phrases. Drop those now — right now. These people are giving us the opportunity to pray for them and their families. We need to be grateful to God for that opportunity.

If your church has folks who show up regularly like that, the church needs to be maintaining a certain level of awareness about where they are in life and if they have any prayer needs. Modern technology makes it possible to keep track of a whole lot of people with very little effort. You can buy a professional system like Servant Keeper or spend some extra time to set up a spreadsheet database in Google Docs for free. Both will work well.

To avoid awkwardness all you have to do is ask the person if you can add them to your prayer list. In the modern age transparency is the difference between looking like a data collector and being someone who cares. Then keep up to date on where they are in life. Every couple of months ask their friends how they are doing. Eventually you’ll find that they are in a season of change or need. When that happens your church should at the very least send them a note to let them know you are praying for them. The best response would be for their friend and one or two spiritually mature members of the church to schedule a time to stop by and pray with them in person. Remember the goal is to take what your church does best and move it outward into the larger community.

Now for the outliers. This can be a difficult group to reach during a season of change or need precisely because they are outliers and we don’t know them. One strategy is to help church members — those with a gift for making friends — in turning outliers into orbiters. There are just some people who like that kind of thing more than others. Identify them and support them as much as you can.

This strategy works well with events churches hold directly in a neighborhood or community. These events need to include an opportunity for people to give their name and contact information. Alongside that information there might be events coming up in their lives that will need prayer. Give them the opportunity to decide if your church can add them to your prayer list. If they are coming to a church event they probably have some understanding of the need for prayer.

Another strategy is to be aware when outliers enter into a season of change that allows you to initiate contact in an appropriate way. A great example of this is when someone buys a new home in the community. The purchase of a new house is a trying time when everyone needs emotional support and cookies, freshly baked cookies. Stop by to welcome them to the neighborhood and offer a brief prayer. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or long-winded, just sincere.

Here in our community the local hospital publishes births in the newspaper. While it would be awkward and inappropriate for us to send a personal letter to someone we have never met who just had a child, it is an excellent opportunity to send them several flyers throughout the coming year with the ministry offerings we have for children and parents. Every context is different and the opportunities to engage people in your community will undoubtedly be different but plentiful.

We can’t rely on people to just see our churches and show up on Sundays. We have to find ways to recognize when a person is in a place of spiritual need. Only the church can provide the support that people need when they find themselves in that place. Can you think of ways to recognize the seasons of change or need in the people of your community? How can we lift those people up? Let me know, because the only way for the church to truly be the light of Christ to our communities is if we all participate.

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.