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Five Reasons Churches Struggle with Outreach

September 14, 2016 | by: Josh McCarnan | 0 Comments

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Church Body Life

by Tim Zulker

How is your church doing with outreach? If it’s like most churches, it’s struggling—struggling to communicate, struggling to make connections and worse of all, struggling to enthuse its congregation in the task of taking the gospel to the nations.

I’d like to suggest five perennial reasons why churches struggle with outreach.

1. Evangelism deflates
The three basic ministries of a church are like three balloons:

  • ministry toward God (worship);
  • ministry toward one another (edification);
  • ministry toward the world (evangelism).

If these three ministries are like three balloons, the first two (worship and edification) are like Mylar balloons: they stay inflated more easily. The third one is like a latex balloon: blow it up with helium one day, and the next, it’s leaking on the floor.

It’s the same with evangelism in a local church. If you go into a church on any Sunday, you’ll find corporate worship in the form of music and many opportunities for edification—Sunday School classes and the sermon, for starters. But ask about active evangelism and the church leaders will probably say, “We could use some help there.” That’s because the third balloon deflates easily. If evangelism doesn’t happen for a few months or even years, the church will seem to function just fine: the pews will be full and the singing may be good, but in reality, the church is only two-thirds of its real self. When a church loses its mission (to make disciples of Jesus), it loses its health. Eventually, if a church loses its vitality as a witness to the resurrected Christ, Christ will snuff out the candle of that church (Rev 2:5) and it will cease to be a true church in God’s eyes.

2. Sin and disunity weakens evangelism
Sin weakens our relationship with Christ: take, for example, the Laodicean Christians in Revelation 3:14-22, who exhibited pride and self-sufficiency. Sin also puts us out of step with the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:16-26). When that happens, our outreach becomes weak. In addition, disunity undermines our outreach. Jesus taught that our love for one another is foundational to gospel witness (John 13:34-35). So if we are living wilfully with unconfessed sin, and if we’re mired in unresolved conflict with other Christians, our evangelism will be weak.

I’m not suggesting that we need to be sinlessly perfect before we can share the good news about Jesus with a friend. But we have to understand that there is a direct link between our heart’s relationship with God and the fruitfulness and power of our outreach. So if we are deliberately feeding sin in our hearts, it will affect our outreach.

3. Churches often lack evangelism leadership
Churches need leaders to do the work of the gospel and equip others to share the gospel. Without a leader who will advocate for sustained gospel outreach, most churches find themselves focused on needs within the church. The needs within the church are just as important as those outside the church, and often evangelism needs to happen inside the church too. But outreach is also just as important as edification, for both are the work of the gospel. The church is called apart from the world for holiness and edification, and the church is called into the world to declare the good news of the gospel and make new disciples.

One of the leadership roles Christ gave to the church is ‘evangelist’ (Acts 21:8; Eph 4:11; 2 Tim 4:5). What the role consists of isn’t entirely clear: given that Philip was working among those who hadn’t heard the gospel and that Timothy was also a pastor-shepherd, the role of the evangelist seems to include declaring the gospel beyond the church and within the church. In addition, given that the role of the evangelist is mentioned in the context of Ephesians 4:11-12, it seems to include the ‘equipping of the saints’—equipping them to be mature in Christ, which includes being “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).

Often a man will plant a church with zeal for reaching the lost. The church plant will start with evangelistic Bible studies, personal outreach and all kinds of fruitful evangelism. Then, by God’s grace, the church grows. In the process, the planting pastor grows with it, maturing into a pastor-shepherd. But while the church gains a maturing pastor-shepherd, it loses the energetic pastor-evangelist. This is normal and healthy. But it also means that the church needs to replace the evangelist as the founding pastor shifts roles.

4. Evangelism is hard
While sometimes it is fun and maybe even easy to talk with others about Jesus, the general trajectory of fruitful outreach is the opposite. It involves sustained prayer, faithful study of the word (because we are ambassadors of a message that we must understand), discipline, rejection and, for many, suffering. When Jesus sent out his disciples two-by-two, he spent a significant part of his instruction on how to deal with the pushback (Matt 10). It will be hard, he told them. But the Holy Spirit will be with them (and us) in the face of difficulties.

We must avoid reductionism in evangelism and fight the tendency to say, “Evangelism is simple: it all comes down to...” Every time we say that, we eliminate many of our gifted brothers and sisters from the mission.

5. Weak theology can’t support robust evangelism
Faithfulness to the word precedes fruitfulness in evangelism. In Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom Rainer lists a church’s theology as one of the most important factors in fruitful outreach:

But it must be said without hesitation that churches that reach the unchurched are theologically conservative. They have a high view of Scripture. And their convictions about their beliefs are obvious.

A church can attempt many good contextual efforts to reach the unchurched, but if it does not have the foundations of a high view of Scripture, the efforts are either futile or transient. I have yet to discover a church that insistently reaches the unchurched over a several-year period that is not conservative in its theology.1

This is a reflection of Paul’s dual exhortation to Timothy to “preach the word” and “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:2, 5).

The answer to all of these is, of course, the gospel: the gospel re-inflates the outreach balloon as we become motivated again to herald the good news of Christ’s redemptive rescue. The gospel can bring conviction to those who are living in wilful and deliberate sin, or who are stubbornly refusing to humble themselves and reconcile with another Christian. The gospel is worth dying and being ridiculed for. It’s worth suffering for—in dangerous and closed countries, on college campuses and around the water cooler. The gospel is what leaders lead out of, and what they lead toward. Churches that have lost motivation should return to the word and preach the river of redemption through Scripture. They should proclaim from the pulpit and in small groups the “master theme of the Bible” (to borrow the title of J Sidlow Baxter’s classic). Seeking to reinvigorate evangelism will be fruitless without the preaching of the word on the depth of sin and extraordinary power of God’s grace.

The gospel: it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16). It is the remedy for our struggles with outreach.

1 Thom Rainer, Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2008, p. 225.

 

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