Asking the right questions
Churches can often feel stuck when they ask the wrong questions.
Naturally prone to replicate, copy, or model church programs or ideas that are deemed “successful,” churches are prompted to focus on asking the “How?” questions because they are easy to ask.
One of my favorite podcasts is called “How I Built This” from NPR. It’s an appropriate title. A host sits down for an hour and talks with people about how they started their multi-million-dollar businesses. Their stories are fascinating and varied.
Most successful start-ups emerge by meeting unmet needs that are not being filled rather than assuming that they exist. Copying other ideas often don’t lead to success. Even though starting a profitable business requires hard work and persistence, building a sustainable business is often a reflection of who you are rather than what you do. At the end of each podcast, the successful founder will usually say that their business success was a surprise. It was not so much “How I built this”, but why they built it in the first place.
I think it is the same with churches launching new evangelism and outreach programs.
They tend to focus solely on other “successful” programs to borrow their ideas, follow their steps, and construct their blueprints.
Yet, in this ever-changing world with its complex dynamics, copying what already has been done can prove to be limiting and fruitless.
A more appropriate question to ask is “Why?”
It’s a philosophical question that ultimately fuels inspiration and persistence. It helps to avoid the debilitating effect of looking for easy, quick fixes to achieve numerical success. More importantly, it’s a question that values innovation.
You can ask, “What do you do?” but it needs to be quickly followed up with a better question. “Why did you do that?”
For example, “Why did you attempt this idea to reach people with the gospel in your community?”
When you ask this question to “successful” congregations – a large majority of them will provide surprising answers in the following ways:
- Their answers will tend to focus on bringing as many people as possible to heaven through the power of God’s Word rather than scour the neighborhoods looking for new members.
- Their answers will tend to focus on who they are rather than what they do.
- Their answers will tend to be within the context of how they see their mission rather than launching activities to enter a mission field.
- Their answers will tend to be based on a mission strategy that seeks to meet specific needs rather than assume they exist.
- Their answers will tend to develop approaches that fully exercises the gifts and talents of their members rather than pigeon-hole them into acts of service.
When congregations see another congregation that God is blessing with successful outreach programs and numerical growth it’s important to try and understand the context of their vision versus what they are doing.
Praise and Proclaim has been blessed with launching outreach initiatives and providing personal evangelism training across the country. With every initiative, Jesus is proven to be right. The harvest is plentiful and the workers are few. The challenge is that people are no longer coming to church on their own. They need personal contact. They need to see faces. They are more willing to hear the reasons for the hope believers have in Christ rather than listen to a sermon. They need to hear answers to the “Why?” questions in life. “Why do you go to church?” “Why do you believe in Christ?” “Why do you have peace in your life that goes beyond understanding?”
When congregations start asking and answering the “Why?” questions they are positioning themselves to uniquely gain an audience to proclaim the Good News.
Stranger evangelism versus Friendship evangelism
The Bible seems to suggest that personal evangelism is more about making yourselves available than it is about manufacturing moments. Believers are encouraged to be prepared to provide an answer for the hope we have in Christ to “anybody who asks”. (1 Peter 3:15) The emphasis in this verse is on being prepared and God will orchestrate opportunities by providing people to ask a question.
Philip and the Ethiopian provides a compelling example. (Acts 8:26-40)
While travelling Phillip made himself available to be used by God. The Lord provided an opportunity by prompting him to meet a man on the road. God’s Word was already working in the man’s heart with the Truth and God provided him with a willing servant who was prepared to answer.
The essence of evangelism is to be prepared to provide a short answer and be available to be used by God. The Lord then orchestrates opportunities to comfortably and confidently provide a gospel message.
People say that friendship evangelism is the most effective form of proclaiming the gospel because a bridge of trust has already been built with that person. They are more willing to receive an invitation to come to church or hear a reason for the hope we have in Christ.
Yet, one of the greatest fears about evangelism is the fear of rejection. Relationship evangelism is perceived as too risky and prompts many to remain quiet. Is relationship evangelism easier than stranger evangelism?
People say that stranger evangelism is effective because a person doesn’t know them. Yet, it is is perceived as too risky for the fear of messing up or saying something wrong. Is stranger evangelism easier than friendship evangelism?
There is not a good answer because evangelism is never easy.
A better question may be, “Which is more comfortable?”
When a believer has prepared themselves to give an answer for the hope they have in Christ, it really doesn’t matter if it is stranger evangelism or relationship evangelism. It’s not about concentrating on what is perceived to be the most effective – or easier – but what is the most comfortable.
Witnessing to strangers
When Praise and Proclaim leads a door-to-door proclaiming experience it’s always impressive to see how surprised church members are when they see the amount of awareness about their congregation. People typically drive by their church every day. They read the signs and message boards. They notice when there are cars in the parking lot. They gauge the amount of activity.
They also discover that most strangers are polite and friendly when they quickly find out that the person knocking on their door is from the church down the street. They usually will come across a person who has been waiting for an invitation to come to church. Sometimes, they are going through a personal or family crisis and the Lord sends the right person at the right time. The Lord provides a window of opportunity to hear some Good News.
God orchestrates opportunities by sending the right person at the right time to deliver Good News to a stranger.
Witnessing to friends
Friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members carefully observe and notice how a friend who confesses their faith in Christ deals with a personal or family crisis. A calm assurance during life’s storms is a powerful testimony to a life in Christ that remains steadfast in Christ’s promises.
Witnessing rarely feels like its manufactured but a natural overflow of a faithful heart that cares about their friend.
Prompted by love, a spiritual conversation can start. Being a light for Christ has set the table to introduce Christ through the power of his Word. A calm conviction opens our lips and eases our nerves to give a reason for the hope we have in Christ to listening ears.
Being prepared to witness to friends or strangers is a powerful form of evangelism. Yet, Jesus is right. The harvest is “plentiful” and the workers are few. Well-intentioned, faithful believers in Christ tend to stand in the shadows and remain silent because they are uncomfortable.
Witnessing to friends and strangers
The most comfortable and effective personal evangelism strategy is proclaiming the gospel to strangers who are friends.
In my experience of partnering with congregations and providing personal evangelism training, the most comfortable witnessing opportunity is with friends of your church. It is low risk because it is stranger evangelism. It is powerful because its friendship evangelism.
Friends of the church are people who have expressed interest in learning more about your church. They are young families who send their children to preschool or a youth outreach event. They may have recently attended a worship service or attended a family event. They are friends of the church who have already expressed a willingness to hear a reason for the hope that you have in Christ.
Witnessing to strangers who are friends of the church is commonly referred to as a follow-up visit. Most of the time, a connection has been formed with the pastor or teacher. And that is good. But the best way to further a relationship is when members become involved. We need not be bashful because they have already given the church permission to build a relationship with them by providing their contact information. And like any relationship, sometimes that takes time.
We don’t manufacture as much as God orchestrates a person’s interest in your church. Comforted by this truth, believers can discover how meaningful these evangelism visits can be.
- Be prepared to give a short succinct answer for the hope we have in Christ.
- Be available to be used by God to provide that answer by being gospel intentional in our daily lives.
- Be willing through Word and sacrament to be used by to God to advance his kingdom – and you will be used.
Gaining an Audience to Hear the Word
I wonder if Peter thought Jesus was crazy.
An experienced fisherman, he knew where and when fish were most likely to be caught. When Jesus told him to go back into the deep waters and throw the net out, it was probably the stupidest idea he had ever heard. Worn out and exhausted from a long day of catching nothing, Peter was probably in no mood to try an idea that he thought had little chance of succeeding.
Especially from a carpenter!
“But because you say so, [Peter replied] I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5)
When hearing the call to proclaim the Good News, disheartened, seasoned believers can balk like Peter. Holding an empty net in their hands after another outreach event, they look at paltry results and empty pews and mutter, “What’s the point? Nothing seems to work.”
And then they hear a crazy idea.
“You want me to go out into the deep waters of this world to throw a net? You want me to talk to unchurched people who appear to be disinterested, disengaged, and disrespectful of organized religion?” Worn out and exhausted, they think to themselves, “Nobody cares. They are not going to listen! Trust me, there are no fish to catch!”
“But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5)
In this oversaturated world with information overflow, there are many nets in the water already. Fake news, click bait, and empty promises routinely snag unsuspecting browsers.
Companies and start-ups struggle to capture the attention of potential buyers. The successful ones who are separating themselves from others are painstakingly building credibility – a reputation of quality. They call this “branding”. It’s not about designing an attractive logo but gaining an audience by delivering on promises one customer at a time.
Gaining an audience to hear God’s Word is a mighty struggle.
People are disengaging themselves from the church for a variety of reasons. Many of them have had bad experiences at church or have observed professing Christians behaving badly. The next generation is rejecting their parent’s notion that they must go to church for the sake of going to church. The perceived brand of a church is unwelcoming, judgmental, money-hungry and irrelevant.
It’s not that the Word no longer works, but the Word is struggling to get out.
What are some ways for churches to gain an audience to hear the Word?
We gain an audience by building a platform of trust.
Trust compels people to try you out.
In the business world, it’s about creating a “set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decisions to choose one product or service over another.” (Seth Godin)
Gaining an audience is not about making a church attractive but being real. It’s about presenting yourselves – stains and all – as real people who are daily trusting and immersing themselves on the message of the cross.
People today are willing to invest themselves in people, not ideas.
We gain an audience by welcoming and accepting broken people.
Churches tend to communicate something they are not. They use stock photos of beautiful people who look put together. Christian catchphrases that are meaningful for seasoned believers can come across as “churchy” to the unchurched. People are not looking for phoniness whether its unintentional or not.
A welcoming church takes on the attitude of “being all things to all people so that by all possible means they might save some.” (1 Cor. 9:22) This means preparing to welcome and accept people who are not like themselves.
Broken people are desperately seeking for a place to belong. Many are biblically illiterate. It’s not that they are rejecting the Truth, it’s that they have never heard it clearly communicated before. They don’t know that they don’t know. And many times, people are not willing to admit that they don’t know until life throws them a curveball. Broken and shattered, they desperately are looking for answers that the world is not providing.
Those are the people who are walking through church doors on a Sunday morning.
If Christians think its scary going canvassing, it is even more scary for an unchurched person to come to church on a Sunday morning when they don’t know anybody. They are making a huge personal investment. They are taking an enormous risk. They are giving your church a “free 30-day trial” to test your product and service. They are savvy shoppers who typically look for any excuse to lose their trust.
We gain an audience by being welcoming and transparent. We keep an audience by telling our story.
Life-long Christians baptized as infants have wonderful stories to tell.
The greatest stories are not necessarily how an unbeliever receives faith, but how a seasoned believer remains in the faith.
People watch and observe. They are willing to hear how you weather the storms of life, keep temptations at bay, and exhibit peace, hope, and love when the world seems dark.
Despite what believers perceive on the outside, people are willing to hear reasons for the hope that believers have in Christ.
Rooted in Christ, our stories center on Christ and trusting his promises. Believers don’t have to paint a rosy picture of themselves to make Christ attractive, nor present ourselves as wise and eloquent, but point to the source of our Trust lest we rob the message of its power.
Businesses grow by word-of-mouth. Churches gain an audience by developing a powerful Word-of-mouth network. Reputations are built and stories are told. And people remember stories and faces far more than they remember facts.
Personal evangelism is a crazy idea.
Jesus told the disciples “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” This charge is given to all who believe in him and reiterated in the Great Commission. To be fishers of men means you don’t wait for people to jump into your boat, but you go out into the dark, murky water of sin and put nets into the water.
Word and sacrament gospel ministries that are overflowing with grace and peace can’t help but take Christ at his Word. With pure thankfulness for what Christ has done, we prayerfully consider crazy ideas.
Go into the world and make disciples of all nations seems like a wild notion.
Yet, believers do so, not because they think it will work or not…
“But because you say so…”
Proclaiming the gospel in Nampa ID
Cross of Christ Lutheran Church in Boise, Idaho recently celebrated its twenty-fifty anniversary. The Lord is blessing the gospel ministry and give thanks to him for almost six hundred baptized members.
The WELS Board of Home Missions is providing support to help Cross of Christ begin a second site. With explosive growth in the Treasure Valley, there is now an estimated 700,000 people living in the area. It is expected that the population will exceed one million people in the next twenty years. It is perfect timing to start another WELS congregation in the north side of Nampa. Rev. Kurt Wetzel from Cross of Christ-Boise is spearheading the outreach efforts.
Earlier in the year, a ministry center was leased in an office complex in the targeted area. Several different outreach activities were carried out to introduce Cross of Christ Lutheran Church to the surrounding community and gather a list of people who may be interested to be a part of the new campus site. Bible instruction classes along with Grief Share and Divorce Care meetings were held at the new ministry center.
The first worship service will be held Sunday, November 24th at JaK’s Neighborhood Grill located only a few blocks from the ministry center. Each Sunday morning, the restaurant is allowing a team to set up a worship space and conduct worship services beginning at 9:30 a.m. The space will comfortably hold 50-60 people to help the new campus site get started.
Praise and Proclaim Ministries had the privilege of partnering with Cross of Christ to help enhance their gospel ministry by providing personal evangelism training the weekend of November 15-16.
In working with Cross of Christ, a new postcard was developed that incorporated the theme, “A Place to Belong.” This theme will be utilized and made available for all future outreach initiatives in 2020.
On Friday evening, the training emphasized general evangelism. The following day, participants attempted to incorporate the evangelism methodology by going door-to-door to proclaim the gospel. In the afternoon, participants received an opportunity to make personal visits with new friends of Cross of Christ. These individuals and families had attended outreach activities held during the summer or attended workshops at the ministry center.
The Lord blessed the gospel activity. Many people we met at the door remembered receiving the postcard in the mail. One young mother who received a follow-up visit was thrilled to hear that worship services were going to start only a few blocks from her apartment complex. She volunteered to help get the word out by hand-delivering our half-page invites.
It was powerful to see members from Cross of Christ to experience an opportunity to verbally proclaim the gospel. Many of the participants were already experienced canvassers. However, they now felt comfortable and equipped to give reasons for the hope they have in Christ with people they met at the door. They also discovered that there is power in a face-to-face contact with people from the community. We ask the Lord to bless the new second site in North Nampa. May they continue to aggressively spread the Word in the community and provide Good News about what Christ has already done for us.
Proclaiming the gospel in La Porte IN
Threatening weather forecasts casted doubt on whether faithful members from Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church were going to be able to plant gospel seeds on Saturday. We prayed for a window of opportunity and the Lord granted our request.
Praise and Proclaim had the privilege to travel to La Porte, IN on October 25-26 to launch an outreach initiative. This was our fifty-fourth initiative in twenty-one states since the gospel ministry began in 2016. It was a blessing to come to provide evangelism training that included opportunities for members to put their training into practice through practical experience of witnessing to strangers and friends of the congregation.
Beautiful Savior is a young congregation that started forming in the mid-1990’s. A group starting meeting regularly in Michigan City. In 1999, the WELS Board of Home Missions granted funds to have a full-time minister. Since most of the new members of the group were coming from La Porte, the congregation decided to rent a meeting place in the city to hold worship services. They eventually purchased seven acres of land on the east side of La Porte and a beautiful worship facility was built in 2006.
The city of La Porte is named after the French word for “the door” and has an estimated population of 21,000 people. Our prayer and hope for this outreach initiative is that it could enhance the ongoing work of its gospel ministry and open the doors to proclaim the Good News of what Jesus Christ has already done.
On Friday evening, a dozen guests from several congregations in the Benton Harbor (MI) area drove forty-five minutes to attend the two-and-a-half-hour training session. The weather forecast for the following day called for a 100% chance of heavy rain and high winds. My prayer was that the Lord would provide a window of opportunity on Saturday morning for each two-person team to knock on at least a dozen doors and/or talk to two strangers.
The Lord answered my prayer.
Several faithful members from Beautiful Savior arrived early on Saturday morning and were ready to go. They were not only stepping out in faith to go out and knock on people’s doors, they were stepping out in hope. For a good hour, five teams went out to a nearby neighborhood. Together, we knocked on a hundred doors and talked to twenty-five people. Many people expressed interest about the Neighborhood Safety Night the congregation was hosting. Some families had children who attended the successful soccer camp held at church each summer. More importantly, we received opportunities to provide a short message about what Christ has already done for us.
Shortly after 11:00 a.m., the wind and the rain started to arrive into the area. The afternoon plan to make personal follow-up visits with friends of the congregation had to be postponed for the following weekend. The wind and rain lasted throughout the night causing minor flooding and a brief power outage for most of the city.
Even though the weather postponed the activities of proclaiming the gospel on Saturday, it was just the beginning to have more members actively participate with the pastor to get the Word out in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN is about a forty-five-minute drive from La Porte. Being a college football fan, it made sense to make a quick visit on Thursday afternoon to the historic grounds of the Notre Dame football stadium and take pictures.
A beautiful atrium on campus connects the football stadium to the campus. Overlooking the football stadium, a huge mural on the side of the library includes a picture of Jesus holding up both hands as if blessing the world. Since Jesus is facing the football stadium, the mural has been famously dubbed as “Touchdown Jesus”.
I believe the mural also provides an adequate picture for evangelism activity.
Scripture tells us that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent. Faith and receiving baptism is a “Touchdown Jesus” moment.
Jesus commissions all believers to go out into the world and proclaim the Good News to all nations. Whenever there is gospel activity of delivering the message of the gospel, we trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in the hearts and minds of those who receive it. Opportunities for believers to verbally proclaim the gospel are “Touchdown Jesus” moments.
During Sunday morning worship, a four-month old boy named Stetson was baptized at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church. Surrounded by over a dozen family members – many who were unchurched and probably did’t know Jesus yet – observed a child receive the waters of baptism and heard a wonderful gospel message. It was a “Touchdown Jesus” moment at Beautiful Savior.
May the Lord use the outreach initiative to enhance the gospel ministry at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church led by Rev. Kevin Boushek. It was a privilege for us to partner with them.
Proclaiming the gospel in Richland Center WI
The dual congregations at Trinity Lutheran in Lime Ridge, WI and St. John Lutheran in Hillpoint have shared a pastor. With an aging membership, they were aware that it was going to be challenging to continue their gospel ministry. With less young families living in the area and the future job prospects slim, both congregations were winding down a path towards closure. Instead of accepting this trend as inevitable, the congregations prayerfully considered their options.
They directed their attention to launch a new gospel ministry in Richland Center, WI. This city served as a hub for the area and did not have a WELS presence.
After their pastor retired, the congregations decided to extend a call to a pastor with the intent of having him lead their congregations to plant a new church in Richland Center. By God’s grace, Rev. Dan Lewig accepted the call in Christmas of 2015. With his leadership and the faithfulness from the members who attend Trinity and St. John, the Lord is blessing their efforts.
Proclaiming the gospel in Willoughby OH
I have a discovered a new term for evangelism this weekend. It’s called “ring witnessing”.
Praise and Proclaim had the privilege of partnering with King of Kings Lutheran Church (founded in 1965) the weekend of October 4-6 to launch an outreach initiative in Willoughby, OH – a twenty five-minute drive east of downtown Cleveland.
With a current membership of eighty baptized souls, the congregation completed an evaluation of their community. Many new homes were being constructed less than a mile from the church along with homes that were built fifty years ago. Coupled with the fact that an elementary school was directly across the street from the congregation, it was decided to aggressively move forward in their outreach and evangelism efforts.
Praise and Proclaim arrived to help launch them forward and into their community. The initiative began with the following recommendations:
Proclaiming the gospel in Thiensville WI
There are forty-three members of the incoming junior class at the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. When a person meets and works with them, they can confidently come away with the confidence and impression that the future of the gospel ministry in the WELS continues to be in good hands.
Praise and Proclaim Ministries had the privilege of partnering with Christ Alone Lutheran Church in Thiensville, WI to launch an outreach initiative September 27-28. This was the second of two initiatives conducted in partnership with the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. Two weeks prior, half of the junior class drove up to Fond du Lac, WI to participate with members from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church.
And the Lord blessed our efforts.