A couple of years ago I was sitting with a pastor friend in his study in Virginia. As we were talking he said to me, “Dennis, I need you to tell me how we can reach the lost people in this community”.
During our conversation, I had noticed that behind him, on the wall, was a map of the local area. I referred him to the map and said ,“Let’s start by thinking about this map on the wall”.
The map was of the streets around the church building and I had noticed a couple of things about it that I wanted to make him aware of.
I said, “I notice that the map you have on the wall is only of a small part of the community where you are placed. The impression this gives is that the church building is right in the middle! If you photocopied the whole area, the building would be on the edge, not in the middle”.
He looked at me and seemed about to say something but before he did, I continued, “You have also drawn a huge circle around the cross that marks where the building is. This, and the way you have copied the map, creates the visual impression that the church is significant and at the very center of the community. But the truth is, the church building is on the edge and most people pass the building and don’t even notice it is there”.
At this point my pastor friend said aloud, “You are supposed to be helping me here”.
I smiled at him and assured him that I was trying to help but that if he wanted to reach his community then he had to face reality and not pretend things were how he would like them to be. I continued, “The thing is that when you talk about reaching the community what is in your mind is ‘how do we get people into this building’. There was a time when the church was at the centre of the community and you could expect people to come, but those days are fast evaporating. If you want to reach people in the community then you are going to have to begin from a new starting place”.
He looked at me with a face that said ‘well what does that mean?’ So I picked up a pen from his desk and said, “Now let’s look at this positively”. I asked him to tell me where the people lived that attended services and bible studies at the church building. As he told me the various streets that people lived in I marked the space with a small x. After about 5 minutes of this there were several small x’s on streets all over the map and some off of the edge because people lived in streets that were not on the portion of the community that had been photocopied and put on the wall.
When I had finished doing this I asked my friend to stand up and step back a little so that he could see the map on the wall. I said to him, “If you want to reach this community with the gospel then it is important that you do not see the church as a place that people come to but as a scattered community of Christians who are surrounded by people that are far from God but close to them”.
The ministry of a church that wants to reach people in the local community will not seek to get people into the church but focus on equipping Christians to be an effective witness where they live.
I don’t think that my pastor friend is in a unique situation, most church buildings are surrounded by people who are never going to come inside, we have to go to them. But to do this there are some important things that must be the focus of every church large or small.
I have listed some key things that must become the priorities of a local church that wants to reach the community:
- Christians need to be taught that worship is not something that takes place in a building once per week – it is a daily thing lived out in the community where God has placed them.
- Christians need to be REGULARLY equipped, encouraged and supported as they seek to share their faith with people around them. This cannot be fully achieved in a worship service setting.
- Small groups are essential as these provide Christians with the opportunity to be honest and open about how things are going as they are seeking to share their faith.
- Christians must be helped to understand the ‘process’ of reaching people who are ‘never churched’ Evangelism is ‘leaving We must create opportunities for people to discover who Jesus is BEFORE they ever attend church.
- Evangelism must be understood as a process not just a decision.