When churches think about sharing the gospel with visitors, we can easily jump straight to outreach strategies and event planning. But here are seven ways to cultivate a culture for greater gospel growth in the church – foundational pieces that need to be put in place:
1. Gospel Clarity – Make sure your church is clear on the gospel, consistently clear. We can easily fall into using Christian language in a sloppy way. The gospel is good news, not vague news. So do not settle for a gathering of people that are united by church tradition, or who know how to behave a certain way and dress like they belong. Speak about the transforming power of meeting Jesus and following Jesus. Present the good news of who Jesus is and what Jesus did for us on the cross. Feature the importance of the resurrection as a historical fact and the basis of genuine faith. Explain what it means to respond, to repent, to receive, etc. Do not assume a vague gospel agreement in preaching, or in conversation. Too many churches rely on a specific event and a specific speaker to give a gospel message. There is a place for special events and overtly evangelistic speakers, but the church should have the good news of Jesus in its DNA, permeating its culture.
2. Loving Community – The church is not just another social club in a society full of social clubs. The church is a family that does not make sense. Why do these people love each other like this? There should be a level of love, concern, practical support, patience, graciousness, and warmth that is genuine and profoundly different from any social club in society. A healthy church will grow in diversity. Everyone will not be the same. Obviously, if a town is full of very similar people, then that will impact the church. But few towns are! There should be diversity of race, of class background, of education level, etc. Then the unity of believers in a church community will be magnetically attractive to visitors who don’t experience that kind of family warmth anywhere else – in many cases, not even at home. This takes more than labeling to be genuine. It is not enough to say from the front, “we are a church family.” It has to be true. Live it out at the leadership level and encourage mutual care wherever you can. For example, don’t overcrowd the schedule with meetings so that people don’t have space in the week to connect relationally.
3. Obstacle Removal – Will visitors feel awkward? The church is a very different subculture than the world around. It will feel different, but it does not need to feel unnecessarily awkward. In our church, we have often said that we only want visitors stumbling over the gospel and Christians loving one another. We do not want them feeling like they do not know where to go, what is happening, if their children are safe, if they will be embarrassed, if they are welcome, etc. When I was in seminary, in one class, we were required to attend a religious service of a different religion. The benefit was huge. Most of us had always gone to church so it just felt normal. But thrown into a different subculture, we became profoundly self-conscious. It taught us to try and imagine coming to church as an outsider. What could we do to make that experience warm and welcoming, rather than starkly awkward?
4. Whole Experience – What does a visitor experience when they park their car or arrive at the venue? Do they know where to go? Are they welcomed and introduced to children’s workers if they have children, or helped into conversation with someone who will be sensitive to their being first timers? Will the service itself be explained in non-jargon terms? Will they know if they are supposed to stand for singing and when? Will there perhaps be a simple explanation of why Christians sing at all? Will the location of Bible readings be given in Bible code, or will there be a page number given if people are using the church Bibles? Will “normal people” who are not officially welcoming guests be genuinely friendly too?
5. Assume Visitors – When we started our church, we had a period of several months where we were learning how this new church was going to function. We did not actively promote the church at that time. There was no website, no signage, etc. People were welcome, but our focus was on getting used to functioning in a new way. Every week we opened the service as if guests were present. The small number of believers would sometimes look around with a grin, fully aware that there were no guests present. Why would we do that? Because they needed to grow in confidence that when they did bring someone along, it would be a safe environment. We don’t want our people hesitant to invite others to church. It can be risky to a friendship if you invite a colleague and their experience is poor. So, the experience has to be consistently trustworthy. A number of people in our church had past church experiences where some weeks the preaching was guest sensitive, but other weeks when you would hope no guests were present. We had to work to earn trust and cultivate a culture where guests could come any week.
6. Every Service – Every service is a gospel service. Obviously, there are sometimes church business meetings that are restricted to members. But a normal church gathering on a Sunday (presumably) has the potential to attract visitors. They could be there because they are visiting family members. They could have found the church online. They could be looking for a church, or passing a couple of hours in a one-off visit. But the point is, we should not be wishing they would come back in four weeks’ time when there is a special guest-friendly gospel service. It is possible to make every gathering guest friendly, and it is possible to make every sermon relevant to everyone.
7. Driving Values – Is the church driven by tradition, by the preferences of influential people, or by defined values? If the church is driven by denominational tradition, then there will be plenty of opportunity for what is normal to actually be strange to first-time visitors. At least explain it but consider changing it if necessary. If the church is driven by the preferences of influential people, then there will be plenty of ways in which the church is quirky for guests. It is harder to explain an eclectic set of church features when they are present because of someone sitting in row three. Changing this internal power dynamic will be necessary for genuine gospel growth! As much as possible, seek to define the values of the church and aspire to be a church that God will trust with newcomers and new believers. The whole congregation may find it uncomfortable to be consistently and genuinely welcoming to others. By identifying its value, the leadership can then model buy-in and help the whole church take the steps necessary to live out that church value.
God may bless outreach strategies and special events whenever you implement them. But my sense is that deliberately cultivating a church culture ready for gospel growth in these seven ways will prepare the church for greater fruit from outreach and special events. What would you add to the list?
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