In college, I heard a sermon about evangelism that stuck with me. Knowing how it feels uncomfortable unleashing a gospel presentation on a stranger, the preacher offered this advice: just start by asking if the other person goes to church somewhere nearby.
While that strategy helped me start a few conversations, it was a poor substitute for true evangelism, because it outsourced evangelism to a church’s leaders. The assumption was that I’d invite you to church—the epicenter of all religious activity—where someone with formal training could tell you how to find hope in Christ.
I wasn’t alone. The “just bring them to church” strategy was the norm for many Christians trying to participate in church outreach . . . until the COVID-19 pandemic began.
The church outreach gap, exposed
When churches cancelled programs and moved services online, pastors and leaders asked questions like, “Who is caring for our community when we can’t? Will our people reach out to their neighbors on their own?”
Many churches discovered that they had unknowingly centralized their ministry around pastors and church leaders by keeping the majority of outreach and discipleship endeavors in house.
There were benefits, of course—professionalism, theological depth, and structure, to name a few—but the costs were great, as some church members no longer knew how to take an active role in community outreach, much less their own spiritual growth.
The pandemic exposed the gap between expectation and reality when it came to spiritual development and community care. Some seemingly strong Christians and potential leaders disappeared, while others who had flown under the radar began quietly evangelizing, discipling, and providing for people in their circle.
In the waning days of the pandemic, the greatest temptation for churches is to wait for things to return to normal, effectively recentralizing the church’s ministry around pastors and programs. However, the past year has shown us how delicate outreach and discipleship can be. While Christians should spiritually flourish when the church gathers in person, outreach and discipleship shouldn’t stop because the sanctuary doors are locked.
As churches regather, refocus, and rebuild, our ministry models must keep decentralizing—shifting the primary message from “come and see” to “go and tell.” Pastors and church leaders aren’t meant to bear the burden of outreach and discipleship alone. Instead, they can invite the congregation into God’s mission by preparing everyone for the work of the harvest (Matt 9:37–38) and sending them out to proclaim the gospel (Luke 9:2).
Churches, like individuals, tend to have natural gifts and shortcomings, but they shouldn’t aim only to supplement their weaknesses. Instead, church attendees need a holistic approach to discipleship, one that:
- Leads them into deeper relationship with God
- Roots them in the Word
- Equips them to consider tough theological questions
- Empowers them to care for people in spiritual and physical need
Training around these four objectives prepares people to see a church’s outreach as everyone’s job—and teaches them to focus on discipleship, starting in their own lives. For many Christians, growing as a disciple of Jesus naturally leads them to notice outreach opportunities.
In Luke 9:1–2, Jesus calls his apostles, gives them power, and sends them into the villages to proclaim the gospel. But it’s important to note that everything he instructs them to do is something he had already done—right in front of them. The disciples witnessed as he cast out a demon (Luke 8:26–39) and then healed a woman with a decades-long bleed (8:43–48).
Before Jesus sent his disciples on mission, he showed them what was possible. The disciples knew they could heal the sick and cast out demons because they were proclaiming the saving power of the man who just did the same miracles.
This is a crucial point for pastors and church leaders today. If discipleship and outreach efforts seem to be floundering, it’s possible that people don’t yet have a vision of what’s possible and what they’re capable of. Pastors aren’t Jesus (what a relief!), but church leaders can create outreach and discipleship opportunities that help each person imagine what’s possible when they go all in on God’s mission in the world (Matt 28:18–20). They can share stories of how ordinary people are making a gospel impact. And then they can send growing Christians into the world who are ready to reach the needy.
This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Ministry Team magazine.