Reaching Your Community: Short-Term Mission Trip or Sold-Out Missionaries?

Vector horizontal illustration of big city and skyscrapers with clouds sky.

In the last generation or two, the primary way that churches and ministry leaders in our (Western) culture have attempted to reach people who don’t yet know Jesus has been to build strategies around an “If you build it, they will come” approach. The church building was the hub, and we only had to wait for people who wanted to know about Jesus to come and find us.

I’m not saying that such an approach was never effective. However, the approach reveals something about how Christians have tended to think about our place in American culture, and still do to some extent: to do ministry well, we have to get people to come to us.

Here’s the question: Is that paradigm the way we’re supposed to reach people?
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What Does It Mean to Preach the “Gospel”?

TheGospelImagine for me a preacher who is about to step onto a platform with a microphone over his ear and a Bible in his hand. A couple of friends approach the preacher, asking if they could pray for him. The preacher, grateful, nods solemnly and says, “I need it; I’m going to give them the gospel.”

Pause that scene for a moment. What do you assume the preacher is going to be preaching about? For most of us, what comes to mind is likely a message that centers around our sin, our need for redemption, and Jesus’ crucifixion. And such a message is absolutely the gospel, a message that we all need to hear, understand, and agree with in our own lives.

But is that all the gospel is? Or is there more that we sometimes leave out? The “gospel” is multi-faceted, able to be viewed from a variety of angles, each with its own beauty and magnificence. Each angle is important, though none gives us a clear picture of the gospel on its own. When we boil the gospel down to one simple message, we miss out on a large part of it.

It’s not that one can’t have a saving relationship with Jesus without a full understanding of each angle. In fact, no one this side of heaven could possibly have a full picture of the “good news.” Just as we grow in our understanding of who God is, we can grow in our understanding of the gospel. And doing so should give us a fuller appreciation of the beauty of a God who rescues us. Here are a few angles we can view the gospel from:

God planned

Ephesians 1:4 says, “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Before we ever were born — indeed, before the creation of the world — God planned to rescue and redeem us.

In fact, throughout the Old Testament God points to Jesus and the redemption that would come through him. Abraham was counted as righteous not because of his actions, but because of his trust in God (Genesis 15).Continue Reading

If Anything Else, Leadership is THIS

Path in the green forest in summer

“What is leadership?”

This question is asked in just about any course taught on leadership. I remember a seminary class on leadership where we were asked that same question at the beginning of the semester. To be honest, I don’t really remember any of the definitions that were suggested. I’m sure most of our answers included words and phrases like influence, followers, and common vision.

Those are certainly relevant words to use when talking about vision. I’ve probably used all of them when talking about leadership, perhaps even when writing about it in this blog. But as I’ve learned as a leader, made lots of mistakes as a leader, and experienced what people respond to in a leader, there’s one thing that I’ve noticed separates the good leaders from the great ones. And we actually find it very early on in Jesus’ ministry:

Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” (Mark 1:16-17, ESV)

This passage usually is noted for the immediacy of Simon and Andrew’s decision to follow Jesus. Or it is highlighted in a sermon on evangelism, pointing out the Jesus’ primary call to discipleship was that of telling others about Jesus. Both applications hit the mark, but there is something else there that we usually don’t notice.

You see, Jesus was calling Simon and Andrew to make an immediate decision. And he was calling them into a life in which — unbeknownst to them at the time — they would help change the entire world for millennia and on continents they didn’t know exists by spreading Jesus’ Gospel after his death and resurrection.

But the heart of what Jesus was calling them to was this: something bigger than themselves.
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Insider Communication vs. Guest-Friendly Communication

WelcomeBlueClouds636363-1How you speak to guests can make a huge difference in how they experience your church during their first visit. Chances are, they’re unsure of what they’ll find when they walk through the doors of your church. How you communicate with them can either lower their defenses and help them enjoy their time at your church, or it can raise some walls and keep them from being remotely open to what God might have in store for them. Does your language and culture make them feel like an honored guest or like an awkward third wheel left out of an hourlong set of inside jokes?

Use everyday language to describe everyday things

When you go to a baseball game and get a little booklet that includes information about the home team and that particular day’s game, it’s called a program, not a bulletin. Use language that your guests will be familiar with. It’s not that you can’t use creative branding that enhances your church’s atmosphere; just don’t use cute names that can only be deciphered by long-time members.Continue Reading

“Attractional” Church and Loving People Who Don’t Yet Know Jesus

Bar Magnet
Photo by Aney / CC BY

Here’s a word I’d like to strike from our Christianese dictionary: “Attractional.” The main reason is that for some, attractional is a dirty word. The more I hear arguments against what some call an “attractional” approach to ministry, the more puzzled I become.

Let me fair: when many people use the word “attractional” in a negative sense, they are often criticizing an approach to ministry that downplays conviction of sin and the exclusivity of the Gospel (i.e. the fact that Jesus is the only way to be reconciled to God) so as to make new people more comfortable. I agree; that is not a biblical approach to ministry. At best, such an approach merely succeeds in filling seats, but not in changing lives. At worst, it convinces people who have yet to enter a relationship with Jesus that there is no need to humble ourselves to the God of the Universe and give their lives to Jesus.

However, I’ve noticed that there are some who are concerned about any attempt to attract people–especially first-time guests who don’t yet know Jesus–to a church environment. I know I’m over-generalizing here, but it seems to me the primary concern of people worried about attractionalism in churches is this: If we try to get people to actually like church, it will eventually (and necessarily) result in proclaiming a message that is watered down, contrary to Scripture, and ultimately false. In short, if someone who doesn’t know Jesus likes to go to church, it must be because the message isn’t true.

I may be crazy, but my take is this: If we–as churches and as individual followers of Jesus–are doing what we’re supposed to be doing, people who are far from God will enjoy attending church with us. They’ll feel welcome, they’ll like the music, and they might even laugh a little during the sermon, even if they disagree with much of it. So instead of using the word “attractional,” let’s just start saying, “Church that unchurched people might actually enjoy, find helpful, and even find themselves beginning a relationship with Jesus in.”

If that’s the kind of church you’d like to lead or be a part of, here are four values that need to be a part of your church culture:

People who are far from God matter to God
Whether or not you believe that statement dictates what you do on Sunday mornings and whether your church is a comfortable place for first-time guests to visit. If you do believe that statement, then you’ll do everything possible to roll out the red carpet for guests each and every weekend.

The only thing that should offend unchurched first-time guests is the Gospel
Confession: I stole this one right from Andy Stanley (see his book Deep and Wide). It’s all to easy to assume that a first-time guest didn’t make a return visit to your church because they weren’t interested in Jesus. Maybe it was because you weren’t interested in the first-guest! You may think you’re the friendliest church around, but if guests aren’t welcomed, you don’t have signs to help a mom of a four-year-old quickly find the children’s are (or a bathroom), or you confuse guests with unnecessarily confusing language, you’re probably offending many of your first-time guests. When that’s the case, they may not be engaged or even stick around long enough to actually hear about Jesus.

Worship services should be enjoyable
If that sentence makes you cringe because you assume that an enjoyable church service means a watered-down message, consider this: Jesus told jokes, shared captivating stories, and even loved a good party. Creating an experience on Sunday mornings (or whenever you gather for worship) that people who don’t yet know Jesus can actually engage with doesn’t mean you’re selling out. It just means that you actually care enough about people who are far from God to create an environment where they’re more likely to hear the unadulterated Gospel.

Outsiders should be made to feel like Insiders
In all too many churches, it’s very difficult for new people to crack the circle and be accepted as an Insider. The biggest issue with this is that it’s far easier for a Christian to figure out how to crack the circle than it is for someone who doesn’t yet know Jesus. Churches where Outsiders are made to feel like Insiders on their first visit will likely do a better job of helping people stick around long enough to be transformed by an encounter with Jesus.

What Kind of Guests Are You Expecting?

ChairThis month, our church is completing an overhaul of our assimilation system. We are evaluating and improving everything that first-time guests experience from the moment they drive their car onto our parking lot to the point when they call our church “home.” To be honest, I didn’t think it would be this hard–although the hardest part isn’t what you’d expect. The hardest part hasn’t been the large numbers of volunteers we need to recruit and train, asking for a substantial budget increase, or moving where the offering is in our service (gasp!) in order to give people a better chance to fill out their connection card.

The hardest part has been learning to view a first-time visit to our church through the eyes of someone who doesn’t yet know Jesus and isn’t familiar with church.

As we thought about how we’ve welcomed and tried to connect with first-time guests, it became clear that we’ve looked at our assimilation process only through our own eyes: the eyes of Christ-followers who have been around church awhile. The result was a process that was confusing and even intimidating to people who perhaps haven’t ever been a part of a church. We were expecting guests at our church, but our assimilation system communicated that the guests we were expecting were those who were familiar with church, rather than unchurched folks who might not have a relationship with Jesus.

When our churches are confusing or hard-to-figure-out, we aren’t being good stewards of the first-time guests that God sends us. It doesn’t matter how friendly your church is (or how friendly you think you are); without a simple system for helping unchurched first-time guests get connected, most of the unchurched individuals and families who walk into your church probably won’t come back for a return visit. So, how can our churches be prepared for first-time guests who aren’t familiar with church?

Lose the insider lingo. Church signs that have ministry names only church veterans could figure out communicate to unchurched guests that they are definitely not part of the in-crowd. In addition, anyone speaking from up-front in the auditorium–whether during the welcome, announcements, or the sermon–need to assume they are talking to people who aren’t familiar with their church, the service, or even the Bible.
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How To Successfully Brand Your Church

Branding and marketing is a difficult practice for many local churches, Christian non-profits, and even individual ministries to really grasp. Some churches have a logo that shows they haven’t thought about their brand for about 45 years. On the other side of the coin, some youth pastors are so concerned about their youth ministry’s logo and corresponding t-shirts that they really need to close their free trial of Adobe Creative Suite and step away from the MacBook Pro.

But branding and marketing aren’t really about logos, websites, signage, or even advertising. Branding is communicating who you really are (or perhaps more accurately, who you’re striving to be). Due to the dishonest nature of much of the marketing in our culture, some leaders bristle at the thought of deliberately branding and marketing their church or ministry. In reality, every church markets in that they communicate to people (both those who are part of there church and those who are not) something about themselves. The trick is to do this in a way that communicates what your church is “about” (or again, what you are striving to be “about”).

Since I’m no expert on branding and marketing, I’m grateful that Jesus actually addressed the issue of how leaders can successfully brand their local church (or youth ministry).

Surprised? I figured you might be. But he did.

Jesus actually let us know 2,000 years ago what brand his followers was to use that would let people know that his disciples were serious about following him. He may not have provided it to us in the form of a logo, but he was abundantly clear about it nonetheless:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

That’s our brand. That’s how we are supposed to proclaim to our communities why we are here and what we are about. It’s how people are supposed to know that your church is a church.

I’m not suggesting that you ditch your logo, your t-shirts, or your billboards and advertisements. That’s a part of our culture’s language, and so we’re wise to use that language well. But maybe we need to take more seriously the brand that Jesus gave us to use rather than trying to come up with something new that likely won’t wow people as much as we hope it will. After all, if we don’t love one another–and our communities–in a way that people will see at least a small glimpse of Jesus, then all the marketing in the world won’t help our local churches one bit.

Video of the Week: John Piper, Matt Chandler, and David Platt on Social Justice and Young Evangelicals

Really, really interesting conversation among John Piper, Matt Chandler, and David Platt on social justice and younger evangelical Christians. Definitely worth ten minutes of your time, especially since teenagers (to me, at least) seem geared towards projects and movements that involve social justice.

Some questions to think about as you watch the video:

  • Do you agree that social justice needs to be tied to personal evangelism?
  • How can we help teenagers “be where they are” and serve, love, and share about Jesus where God has planted them?
  • What role do you think social justice issues ought to play in youth ministry teaching and programming?

Social Justice and Young Evangelicals: Encouragements and Concerns from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

What’s in Your Youth Ministry? Part 1: Jesus

It’s just about September, which means that your fall youth ministry calendar is about to kick into high gear. For youth ministries, September is a new year of sorts, and it’s a great time to evaluate your youth ministry. Over the next week, I’ll be asking an important question: What’s in your youth ministry? Each post will cover something that really needs to be a big part of your youth ministry. Today, we’ll talk about…Jesus.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t that a given? Well, you’d hope so. But in reality, it’s not a given. In ten years of youth ministry, I’ve discovered that it’s hauntingly easy to have all the trappings of what “looks” to be a thriving youth ministry, but forget to make much of Jesus. Occasionally, I’ll pull up a message I delivered to teenagers years ago, and be totally embarrassed at the fact that Jesus doesn’t seem to make an appearance. I may have done the word studies well, had a captivating introduction, and even engaged a variety of learning styles, but there have been too many times when I forgot to point to Jesus. I wasn’t intentionally leaving him out; I guess I just assumed every teenager knew they needed to know Jesus, so I didn’t bring him up.

Keeping Jesus front and center in your youth ministry takes constant attention and effort. If you just assume that he’s always there because you’re a church, and you teach out of the Bible, and there’s really cool cross art in your youth room, then he’s really not front and center every week. Below are a few ways to make sure that Jesus isn’t marginalized in your youth ministry. But first, I need to make a caveat:

In this three-part series, you won’t find a post specifically dedicated to the Bible. Why? The main reason is this: you cannot separate Jesus and the Bible. The whole of the Bible speaks of and points to Jesus and his redemptive work. And what we know of Jesus comes from the Bible. I love the Bible, and I work to foster a love of God’s Word in my children and in the teenagers I work with. I write Bible study curriculum for youth workers on the side. So yes, I know it’s important. But I think there’s a very real danger in Evangelicalism of teaching from the Bible without really saying much of Jesus–as I’ve said above, I’ve done it myself too many times. When we do that, we are simply teaching information rather than proclaiming the redemptive work of Jesus. But that’s another post for another time.

Now that we’ve got that down, here’s how to make much of Jesus in your youth ministry.

Make much of Jesus in your life. I’m not talking about just having devotional times or personal retreats to refresh yourself. If you have not let Jesus completely take over your life, then there’s a good chance you haven’t let him completely take over your youth ministry. This isn’t a call to be perfect; it’s a call to be Christ’s, and to be his alone. One thing I did not count on when I became a pastor was the temptation to leave Jesus at the office. But I have learned that if I compartmentalize my life, there’s a chance that I will lead a youth ministry that’s compartmentalized as well.

Make much of Jesus in your preaching and teaching. Charles Spurgeon famously commented about his preaching, “I take my text and make a beeline for the cross.” Here’s a question you need to ask yourself when you teach, preach, or lead a small group Bible study: “Am I pointing to Jesus?” It is all to easy to get so caught up in the text your teaching out of that you forget to draw a connection to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that you have to teach out of the gospels or even the New Testament the whole time. It’s just that you make sure Jesus doesn’t take a back seat to anything, even the Bible.

Share about how Jesus has transformed you (and ask your leaders to do it, too). The reason you need to make much of Jesus in your youth ministry isn’t just because you have teenagers who don’t yet know him. We need Jesus each and every day to continually grow us, mold us, and transform us. Sharing about how Jesus has done that in your life isn’t just about sharing your conversion story. You need to continually share how Jesus is growing you and working in your life. This can be a very vulnerable experience, but if you’re willing to talk about your weaknesses and how you need Jesus every day, the teenagers you lead are more likely to see that they need him every day, too.

Celebrate Jesus changing lives. One of the most powerful moments as a youth pastor came this past summer when a number of students accepted Jesus for the first time or recommitted their lives to him. What made it so powerful wasn’t just that it happened; it was seeing their friends cheer them on and pray for them as they began their new journey with Jesus. When a lost teenager comes home to Jesus, there’s a party in heaven, so why shouldn’t there be a party in our youth ministries as well?

Worship Jesus and provide a variety of ways for teenagers to respond to him. Corporate singing–whether you’ve got 300 teenagers in the room or just a handful–can be a powerful way for teenagers to respond to Jesus. But it doesn’t have to be limited to music. Provide different ways for teenagers in your group to respond to what Jesus is doing in their lives. Create a prayer station with an interactive prayer activity. Or you might ask teenagers to answer a challenge from Jesus with a physical activity, such as writing on a card how they can answer Jesus’ call to love an enemy in their life and taping it to the wall of the youth room. It’s one thing to teach about Jesus; it’s quite another to actually help teenagers take practical steps in their journey to follow him.

How else can we make much of Jesus in our youth ministries?

UPDATE: You can read Part 2 (Grace) here and Part 3 (Love) here.