The church throughout north America is plateaued and even declining as the latest LCMS periodical The Lutheran Witness 2017 The State of the Church - points out. The trends are not good. No wonder that there is another trend throughout North American Christianity: community based servant evangelism. Sometimes characterized as simply “missional outreach.” Churches are finding themselves involved in tutoring students even in public schools, English as second language classes, food pantry and thrift store ministries to the needy, sports ministries for the young families, and many other activities.
This is great! It gets church and its members outside of its property and buildings to connect with people and make a difference in their lives. It faces head on the criticism of churches from our modern society that we are unfeeling and judgmental and only want people’s money. It helps us to be like our Savior Jesus in loving others. So this trend for churches is wonderful.
Underneath it all though is the real temptation to simply do the activity and conclude that the church has checked the box and tried missional programs. Then if the church isn’t growing or things don’t change we wonder why we even bothered or worse. In these cases it is highly likely that the church has fallen into one or more of the three missional blind spots:
1. The first blind spot is when the church doesn’t leverage the missional activity to engage more members in ministry.
Our world is busy. School, sports, travel, and a world of other actives keep people from engaging in the church’s programs and ministries. Many people don’t feel welcome or feel that they don’t fit into any of the normal places of service in the church: council, board and committee work, serving as an elder or usher or Sunday school teacher. And so they “try” to attend worship as “often as I can.” But what often happens is that they may drift away. But what about these community based servant evangelism activities? What about serving people in the name of Jesus outside the church walls and property? It can be a practical expression of people’s faith in Christ. Yet church leaders are often blind to ways in which other members can be involved! A desire to control, an assumption that people are busy, a we “don’t need” their help attitude all get in the way. So we fail to use this service to others as an opportunity to invite and involve more members to use their gifts and support this good work done in the name of Jesus.
2. The second blind spot is that the church doesn’t leverage the missional activity to invite the non-member or even the non-believer to participate.
In what ways does the local church really engage regular people (or those from our socio economic demographic) with the Word of God? Almost none. Personal evangelism is almost unheard of. True, members show love to others. No question. Yet our church members rarely if ever talk about their faith or share the gospel with those outside the church with the very rare exception of maybe inviting them to church. But let’s admit that is indeed very rare. What then? How can we engage others in a way in which they will hear the word of God and the message of Christ? The answer? Engage those “more members” from number 1 to invite and involve their friends and neighbors and co-workers (and delinquent family members) to participate in the missional activities! There is always a place for another pair of hands to prepare meals, tutor kids, help beautify or repair a needy person’s home and so on.
The truth is that our unchurched neighbors and friends may not come to church but they may do something that is good for their community or the needy. People are looking for ways to “give back” and “make a difference.” We can provide that outlet for them with our church’s missional activity. Then along the way they meet good Christian people, they make friends, they hear the devotion, they hear the prayer, they may want to see those people again in worship by saying “yes” to an invitation to church. Then by God’s grace they may come to faith and perhaps even join the congregation.
3. The third blind spot is forgetting to design in “Christian faith on-ramps” into the missional activities.
These are those intentional aspects of the community based servant evangelism where the truth of the gospel is shared and the Christian faith is demonstrated in word and not just in deed. As said above, we mistakenly think or imply to the church members that if we just do the good work, then people will “join” the church. Oops. Not so fast. It is not about activities. It is about relationships. People who come to your servant activity probably won’t wander into your church on Sunday morning. But how can that serving turn into a relationship which will turn into significant gospel conversation and perhaps Sunday worship and by God’s grace, the gift of faith in Jesus? It has to be designed in. It has to be intentional.
Think devotions, training in conversations and praying with and for people based upon what was heard and listened to. Think invitations to spend time together, to deeper relationships and asking spiritual questions. When people are open to receiving services and care from someone they know, like and trust over time, they will also tend to be open to talk about their lives. They may also be open to other significant things such as faith in Christ, ongoing nurture in Christ, which faith community they are connected to, invitations to relationships and even to church. Here we are talking not only about the recipients of our service but also those who come along with us from blind spot #2 above.
Be on the lookout for these three missional blind spots and you will see significant transformation in your members, your church and perhaps especially…yourself!
Scott Gress is called by Lutheran Counseling Services and partners with the FL-GA District of the Lutheran Church as an independent contractor. He specializes in Leadership Training, Consulting, Coaching and Coach Training. Contact Scott to continue the conversation or experience a free sample coaching session. 561-542-4472, firstname.lastname@example.org or scottgress.com
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