Increasing Engagement : 3 areas for churches to focus on.
A pastor I am coaching was sharing with me recently a vision he had to do a 'thank you festival' on their church property for all the front line workers in their community.
It is a fantastic idea and will bless many.
As we talked, however, we recognized that this would not necessarily be a time to 'share the gospel' but rather an opportunity to connect with and engage the local community. We began to dream and strategize about how these new connections might later be developed into opportunities to invite individuals to a clear gospel presentation.
We moved from thinking about 'the altar call' to the role of 'engagement' in the journey of someone coming to Christ. In secular terms we 'moved back up the funnel'. As we began thinking through 'how people get to a place where they are ready to hear the gospel' we realized that it is rare that we get to share the gospel to someone in a meaningful way before we have engaged that person in a meaningful way.
This lack of engagement with the lost and community is a significant reason, if not the determining reason, why churches see few people committing to following Jesus. We have a very limited pool of candidates who are in a place where they are ready to 'hear' the gospel message. Many pastors faithfully give a call to Christ on Sunday but in the back of their minds they know that there are few, if any at all, who are in the place to receive.
Any church that has a missional vision naturally begins to ask the question 'how are we doing at engaging nonbelievers'. They intrinsically know that without a strong level of engagement with the lost the likely hood of seeing salvations drops dramatically.
Rather than thinking of engagement as a church wide concept I want to focus on three key areas that we should seek to be very engaged. Do well in these three areas and the stage is set for more people being able to hear the gospel.
1. Your Engagement Level with Young Families
Okay, everyone loves kids around church....even when they are running down the seats and the administrator is tearing their hair out! But besides the joy and life they bring, and the community that young families naturally form, the missional reason for wanting to engage young families is because they are, without a doubt, your biggest and most readily available mission field.
A survey by the International Bible Society indicated that 83% of all Christians make their first commitment to Jesus between the ages of 4 and 14
We need to make strong, engaging, family ministry a focus and priority in our churches because the children of young families are the first and largest mission field we have. Consider these comments by Steve Chang of the Gospel Coalition.
"One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen among those who have a heart for the lost is that they don’t see the children in their own church as lost. Every child, even the cute ones in our Sunday schools, needs the gospel. Our goal is not just to get the children into church, but into Christ. So if the church is to be missional, let’s be missional with those closest to us—the ones already within the church walls."
The pandemic has wracked havoc on our Family Ministries and parents are still coy about returning. Yet as we rebuild, rebuilding our family ministry must be a priority for the purpose of mission.
Firstly, we do need to work hard at getting the parents engaged in community again.
A survey by 'ministry-to-children.com' found that 50% of those who came to Christ as children were lead to Christ by their parents.
Parents are key to reaching children.
It's tough being a parent and even tougher if you are a single parent. There is lots of opportunities for distractions from the faith, discouragement, or worse, indifference towards their own families spiritual condition. We need to keep the flame alive and bright in the young parents. By providing effective programming (particularly forming community) for parents you are enabling and inspiring your best evangelists for your biggest mission field!
The same survey by 'Ministry to Children' found that 30% of children came to Christ in the context of a children's ministry. Investing in a strong children's ministry is a missional investment. As a pastor I was very focused on the programming and the methodology of our children's ministry. I expected the children's director to offer an engaging program AND for it to have solid gospel teaching. In fact, for many years, I was intimately involved in choosing the curriculum because I knew it was core to our mission with children.
I wanted a program kids loved AND one that they would engage with the gospel and Word at a level that would impact them. Not just good stories or moral teachings but life giving gospel truths.
As you rebuild, make Family Ministry a missional priority.
2. Your Engagement Level With Youth
While 83% of christians may have made their first commitment to Christ as a child most of this same group of believers made the life-long decision (i.e. discipleship) in their teens. Youth are mature enough to make a more carefully considered 'discipleship' decision while still sensitive to the Spirit, parents, and Godly leaders.
Churches often find that it is the youth demographic that has the highest portion of baptisms because this is the ripest age for making a life long commitment to Christ.
Investing in a youth ministry and leadership that effectively engages the youth is one of the most missional things a church can do.
I have been blessed over the years to have had phenomenal youth leaders who have been amazing at engaging youth. Two stand outs were Ben Woodman and Landry Mcallister, They engaged the youth on a whole new level, saw many youth get baptized, and now many of their disciples are now serving and following God.
But it wasn't by accident that we were blessed with these incredible ministers.
A mentor called Lawrence Rae told me early in my leadership "When it comes to youth ministry, whatever you do, make sure your youth pastor is not a Chaplin.' His point was that we need to engage the core youth of the church, and those on the edge, and even those outside the church in this generation. The gift of Chaplin might care for the core but they will miss the huge evangelistic opportunity that is represented by the kids on the edge and outside the church because the leader will struggle to engage.
That statement impacted me to the point that I let my first youth pastor go a few months after I arrived. He was a lovely young man but he was very much a Chaplin. I wanted to reach that cycle of youth (youth generations are literally 4 - 5 years in length) and it was a bad fit for this vision.
After making the change, and bringing in a new leader who engaged and evangelized, we saw the youth go from 10 to 70 in a year. We saw many baptisms and we saw many youth coming from outside the church. It was game changing. All the youth ministers I have subsequently worked with all had different personalities and style. Yet they all had a vision and ability to engage a wide range of the youth rather than just a small core and this was the key metric for my evaluation of their ministry.
Becoming a church that grows by new believers being added doesn't just 'happen'.
We have to look and see if we are engaging in the harvest field that is right in front of us and making the changes if we are not.
3. Your Digital Engagement Level
We all hear how the gospel is spreading like wildfire in developing nations. But have you ever thought about the sociological reason why this is?
One of the underlying factors in the rapid growth of the church in developing nations is that the population is young. For example, the % of the population under 20 in Canada is 20% while in Uganda it is 50%. We already know that youth are more open to the gospel, so it stands that in younger populations where there is an active witness, it is highly likely there will be a greater harvest.
A second reason (and there are more but I'll let you work them out) is due to the social fabric of societies in developing nations. The idea of 'nuclear family' or 'social distancing' does not exist. These societies have very strong relational networks and individuals are very socially engaged. When one person receives Christ they are so woven into the social fabric that automatically a household of 15 people now gets to observe it and hear the gospel.
In the West we have moved to a very isolated society with fewer casual social connections. If a person gets saved in a traditional Canadian family only 2 or 3 other people might even know about it. It is no coincidence that as our society moved towards isolated suburban living that the spread of the gospel slowed.
The gospel needs social interactions to spread and the more networked a society is the better opportunity it has. The rise of the digital 'social media' world opens up a whole new platform for connection and engagement that can counter the trend towards isolation.
The real power of social media, if done well, is that it is a powerful tool for your believers. It is where they are able to share and invite their enlarged social network into their spiritual journey.
Too many churches think about social media as something to promote the church and its programs. We are missing the real missional power of social media, however, with this limited view. The church IS the believers. Our biggest point of contact with the lost IS our believers (Our believers interact 1000's of times more with the lost than any program that we put together at church does). Resourcing them through top-notch social media resources is, in my mind, going nuclear in terms of our missional mandate.
For example, a short impactful clip from the last sermon posted on social media has the potential to used by your members to share with others. This is one approach many churches already do. Often, however, they don't do it well and so the believers don't necessarily pass it on.
We would do podcasts on a podcast channel (the main way it was distributed) but also post them on youtube as a way of making it more shareable. Normally we would get 30 listens on the youtube platform but sometimes a specific topic would jump to 600 in a few hours. That particular topic resonated with people, and because we chose a medium that made it easy to share, suddenly it spread through social networks. We strategically gave our believers a tool to engage others with in faith discussions.
Question : Does your church have a simple media driven gospel presentation that is shareable so your believers can use it as an evangelistic tool?
Sometimes high quality recorded testimonies can be a great way of doing this as people relate to stories more than theology. What about putting together a library of testimonies of your own congregants on your website (+youtube/facebook platform) for your believers to draw from and share quickly? What about investing in recording stories from your church instead of trying to make your sermons look great...it will be a way more missional bang for your buck! Here is an example of an amazing testimony that demonstrates the power of story.
Churches that are seeing genuine growth by conversions almost always have an effective digital strategy for engaging their congregation and making that engagement shareable. They have embraced social media as 'the platform' for engagement in the 21st century and have a strategy and the staff to work it.
I discovered an amazing blog post by Grace Ruiter that gives a break down on most social media platforms and explains how churches can incorporate them into a strategy. It's a 'Social Media for churches - 101' and if you are interested in developing a better social media strategy this is a good starting resource.
Jesus said "Lift up your eyes because the harvest is ready'. I believe Jesus was pointing to literal fields right in front of the disciples when he said this.
So I encourage all of us to 'Lift up our eyes and see the fields right in front of us'. The fields of the children in our church, the youth and young adults connected to us and our community, and the social network connections of our believers.
The harvest is there...we just need to get strategic and get to work.
Paul Mahon has served in the ministry for 36 years as a pastor, college president, and Bible smuggler.Presently Paul consults for churches and businesses.