Sunday, July 27, 2008

Relational Outreach

This is the second week in this blog, where we're looking at the five strategies we have for being a more effective reconciling community (2 Cor. 5:18). Last week, we discussed Love-Motivated Service; this week, we're looking at Relational Outreach.

We, like most churches, have a few big "outreach events" that are scattered throughout the year: Chili Cook-off Booth (Winter); Easter Egg Hunt (Spring); Soccer Camp (Summer); Trunk Or Treat (Fall). Additionally, in the past, we've done other outreach events, such as a Dinner Theatre, a Car Show, and serving hot chocolate at events downtown.

Another approach we utilize for outreach is periodically printing postcards for series that we believe will resonate with unchurched people. Sometimes we hand these out at our outreach events, inviting people to return for an upcoming series.

I believe outreach events are a good idea, and we will continue to have them. However, the fact that we emphasize these events and call on the church body to be involved, has the unintended consequence, I think, of causing many of us to view our church's outreach strategy as being event-driven (whether the event is Soccer Camp or a worship service), rather than relationship-driven.

We do outreach events, but the truth is that our strategy is not to reach people with events, but to reach people with relationships. The events are simply there to serve as tools for the relationships. Let me explain.

Many unchurched people are uncomfortable with churches and church people. They've had bad experiences in the past, or they've heard plenty of horror stories from others, and they have their guard up. Northwest Nick's guard comes down as a result of someone getting close to him--a neighbor, a co-worker, a friend from the gym, a repeat customer--someone that he can see is 1) a Christ-follower and 2) different than his preconceptions.

Northwest Nick may still be hesitant to walk into a worship service--that can be very intimidating--but if his friend invites him to bring his kids to Soccer Camp, or to come to a Lugnuts baseball game, or some other event, that's often an easier step for him to take. Then, once he comes and interacts with more people, Nick is hopefully saying, "This church could be different. A lot of these people seem really genuine." The event has served to bring him one step closer to Christ.

Then Nick's friend invites him to come to a worship service. The friend gives him a postcard that has all the information on it--what, where, when, a website to check out. The postcard with all the information helps Nick know what to expect--it reduces the unknown and the anxiety that the unknown generates in our minds. He may or may not come this time, but he feels welcome and possibly interested. Eventually, Nick may choose to check it out.

This is relational outreach. The events and the postcards are not there to do the work all by themselves in a vacuum. They are part of a relational outreach strategy that depends on each of us to build our own relationships with unchurched people. Without the relationships undergirding the process, the events and postcards lose most of their effectiveness.

This last week, we had Soccer Camp. Normal registration costs were $15 per child for the week (a bargain for the personal attention, the snacks, the crafts, the T-shirt, and the picture w/ frame that each child received).

But we waived the fee for kids who have been involved in our SPLASH ministry this summer for single parents. First of all, we know that single parents often struggle financially, and we didn't want them to be excluded from Soccer Camp for financial reasons. But, more importantly, those are relationships that we've already established, and now we want to develop them. We want to expand their connection with our church. We want them to meet more people and get drawn into this community of Christ-followers. That's relational outreach.

We can't say we did outreach just because we had an outreach event. Events are great, but they don't often bear much fruit on their own. People who show up for an event, absent a relationship, are usually not interested in anything other than the event.

  • Parents who bring their kids to Soccer Camp just want their kids to have fun playing soccer;
  • Parents who bring their kids to the Easter Egg Hunt or to Trunk or Treat just want their kids to get candy and prizes;
  • People who come to a Dinner Theatre just want good food and a good show.

But people who already have an authentic, positive relationship with someone in our church are often interested in acquiring more authentic, positive relationships.

Now, there are exceptions to the rule, of course. There are people who just walk in off the street and pick our church at random. There are people who just moved into the neighborhood and are looking for a church. There are people who came to an event here 10 years ago, but now they're struggling with a divorce, and they're searching for something. Outreach can happen without a relationship, but it's often accidental.

We can't rely on accidents to reach the 100,000 people in Jackson County with no church family. We have to be strategic. Our strategy is to intentionally focus on Relational Outreach.

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