By Rev. Dr. Mark A. Wood
The first article in this series identified three things that make up effective outreach.
It starts with creating connections with nonchurched people, which was detailed in the second article of this series.
Once we’ve created those connections, effective outreach focuses on building authentic relationships. The definition puts it this way:
Effective outreach is the “planting and watering” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-9) through which a congregation intentionally engages nonchurched people in ways that … foster relationship-building between nonchurched people and the congregation’s members.
From what I’ve seen and experienced, this is the most challenging part of effective outreach for most congregations.
I think relationship-building is challenging for congregations for several reasons.
First of all, we’re not very experienced at building relationships in today’s world. When it comes to relationship-building, we’re stuck in a context that no longer exists.
There was a time when relationships were a natural part of being a community. We didn’t have to be purposeful in building relationships between church members and nonchurched people because our members already had relationships with the nonchurched people in our community.
That time has passed.
Today’s context lacks relationships — all kinds of relationships. People tend to live very isolated lives. They suffer from the radical individualism of our culture.
People are disconnected from one another. The virtual relationships of social media and other technologies have taken the place of genuine relationships – but they aren’t real relationships!
This lack of relationships creates great opportunities for us. People need relationships. Many people are longing for relationships.
If we can learn to intentionally build relationships with nonchurched people, we will be meeting a tremendous need.
And we’ll be opening doors to the Gospel for them.
We need to be careful. There is a temptation to undertake building relationships as a means to an end rather than as something valuable in and of itself.
If our relationships are going to be authentic — if we’re going to treat people as people and not as objects of conquest — we must see the value of relationship-building even when it doesn’t lead to people becoming members of our congregation.
This highlights the second relationship-building challenge that we face:
We underestimate the importance of building relationships. We especially underestimate the importance of building relationships with nonchurched people before inviting them into the life of our congregation.
That’s understandable because we expect people to see our congregation the way that we do. From our perspective, our church is a warm and inviting place filled with loving people who care about us.
But nonchurched people don’t see us this way.
At best, they see the church is something foreign and unknown. In many cases, they see it as frightening and threatening.
Yet, we’re perplexed when the nonchurched people who come to our events or activities don’t show up at the worship services and Bible studies that we invite them to.
We need to realize that, without a relationship with people in the congregation, most nonchurched people are unwilling to take the risk of becoming involved in a church.
Yes, many nonchurched people see getting involved in the church as a risk.
Which brings us to the third challenge we have in building relationships with nonchurched people:
We try to build relationships between the congregation and nonchurched people rather than between members of the congregation and nonchurched people.
This may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s a huge difference. When we try to build relationships with nonchurched people through programs, events, or activities we will always fall short of meaningful and authentic relationships. Why?
Because churches don’t build relationships, people do.
Genuine relationship-building is always person-to-person. If we don’t equip and encourage our members to actively and purposefully build relationships with the nonchurched people who connect with our congregation, most of them will fade away.
It takes a person-to-person relationship for trust and respect between churched people and nonchurched people to blossom and grow.
When that trust and respect matures, nonchurched people are far more open to our invitations for them to come to know the person of Jesus Christ.
Relationships are the bridge between making a connection with nonchurched people and inviting them into the Word and Sacrament ministry of the congregation.
Building those relationships is the long, slow work of effective outreach — and is often joyful and rewarding.
Next in series — Effective Outreach, Part 4: Effective outreach provides appropriate and appealing entry points into Word and Sacrament ministry
Questions to consider:
- How does our congregation view the importance of building relationships with nonchurched people?
- What would it take to train members of the congregation to purposefully build relationships with the nonchurched people who become connections to our church?
- “Churches don’t build relationships, people do.” In what ways does our current approach to relationship-building reflect this? In what ways does it go against it?
Effective outreach is the focus of the re:Vitality module “Connect To Disciple.” If you would like more information about how to make use of “Connect To Disciple” to improve the outreach efforts of your congregation, please visit LCMS.org/revitalization, our Facebook page, or email us at WOR@LCMS.org.