This is my third post in the series “Making Evangelism Less Fuzzy”. In the introductory post I suggested 3 broad contexts or “fishing pools” that a church interacts with simultaneously – Friends, Neighbours and Kids. “Friends” are those people with whom we have an existing relationship. We discussed evangelism with them in the previous post. By “Neighbours” I mean the people who live in proximity to your church’s meeting place, but whom you don’t know personally. (So I am not talking about each of our next-door neighbours – those I include under “Friends”, even if they’re enemies!)
If your church is an average suburban church, then there are about 3,000 people living within easy walking distance of your place of meeting. Chances are, yours is the most near-by Christian church to them. But is it really “near-by”? Are they aware of your existence, or are you invisible to them? Do they feel they could approach you as they might the local library or medical centre? Or do you seem inaccessible? And the reverse question must also be asked: Is your church aware of them? For many suburban churches, the disconnection is so strong that the church and its local neighbourhood are essentially invisible to each other. What might be done about that?
(1) Increasing Awareness
Your church leaders, or entire church, could be encouraged to walk the neighbourhood, or be taken on a tour of it. Walking is good exercise, a simple map could be printed and space given for people to write down what they notice – What schools, businesses and other clubs or institutions are there? What kind of houses? What does this tell us about the people? Interviews with church members or people you know who have lived in the neighbourhood for many years can also bring out insights. Who are these people? What makes them tick?
(2) Focused Prayer
Prayer for the neighbourhood street by street, suburb by suburb, business by business, school by school is a great way to step forward into local mission. Much of this can happen through prayer walking, but the importance of praying for the local neighbourhood during the church’s main weekly meeting shouldn’t be underestimated. It signifies that this is core business for your church. Unfortunately, a great many churches go week by week barely ever mentioning their local community. If you gave me a transcript of all that is said at your worship meeting, would I be able to tell where your church is? Or might it just as well have come from the other side of the world?
(3) Being Present
Much of what I’m about to write is presently very out of favour, and easily labelled “attractional” rather than “missional”. Knock yourself out. But as your church takes a missionary stance towards its local neighbourhood, it will know that being present is important, that first impressions count, and that it does no good to put unnecessary stumbling blocks in front of people. What do the locals see of you? They see your place of worship, they see your signage, and if interested, they see your website. This is your public face, and it’s worth paying attention to. A good-looking website (like this one!) can be put together for free and in just a few hours. Don’t pay thousands. Do keep it up to date and fresh. The web is the natural place for anyone interested to check you out. Once you have it functional, put your web address on your signage. Try to read your signage and look at your buildings with the eyes of an outsider – or even ask someone who’s never been to come and have a look and tell your their first impressions. You’ll be surprised! They will point out things that have become invisible to you.
Another, and perhaps even more important way of being present in the local community is to be personally present. Is there a local sporting club? Are any of the members participants in it? Or could the church sponsor the club? Similarly with local businesses – members could be encouraged to shop local and take time to get to know people in that way. And schools are perhaps the most important of all. They can be a real hub of the local community. Even if the church doesn’t have any kids in those schools, there are lots of other ways for the church to show up and serve and get involved. If the school has a CPSW (chaplain), a conversation with him or her is a great way to start.
(4) Letterboxing and Door-knocking
In Australia door-knocking should be done with extreme care as it is not appreciated by many people. Still, there are circumstances and styles through which it can be effective. Letterboxing, on the other hand, is quite acceptable so long as you respect the people who label their letterboxes with “No Junk Mail”. Much care should be given to what it sent, though. I don’t actually recommend the purchasing of generalized evangelistic material which is then overprinted with your church’s details. Better, I think, is something clearly produced by your church, even if it is of lesser quality, with a warm invitation, and information about what you are on about and what your church offers. Be unashamedly Christian. You’ll find that people respect a church being open, honest, sincere and friendly.
(5) Including the Community
Too often a church can see itself as having it all and the local having nothing. An “us and them” mentality can be pretty strong. So when we think of putting on events, we often immediately think of “us” doing stuff for “them”. A church might have a jumble sale and do an enormous amount of work, and only invite the local community to be customers. What if, instead, the church organized a community jumble sale – where locals are invited to come and sell, and bake, and participate – all raising money for a unquestionably good cause? Look for things you can do with your community, not just for them. It shows respect, when too often Christians come across as “acting superior”.
(6) Visit Your Local TAB
There – I said it! Years ago I wrote a note on the agenda to an upcoming leaders meeting at our church: “In the week leading up to this meeting, please spend at least 20 minutes either at the Adelaide Casino, or at the local TAB [betting agency].” When the church leaders turned up at my house, I asked them about their experiences. Sure enough, fully half of them had not done it, ostensibly because they thought surely I wasn’t serious. Another third of the leaders knew they should, but just couldn’t bring themselves to go and do it. One said “I just couldn’t go through that door.” Another said “I was afraid that someone I know might see me.” And there were just a few who managed to do it. All I said on reflection was this: “That’s exactly how hard it is for people to come into our church for the first time.” Many local people are positively inclined towards your church. Some are outright curious. But there’s a lot of fear. It’s up to us to take the steps to signal “Fear not! For we bring good news that will be of great joy for all the people…”