Heroin is literally killing our city. The county where I live is the epicenter of Florida’s heroin epidemic. The area around our church is among the hardest hit.
A few months ago, I sat in a community town hall hosted by the Department of Children and Families. The purpose of the town hall was to address the problem of heroin addiction and the effects on children. The removal rates of children in our community are three to four times higher than the state average. The town hall was packed with people even though a large storm moved through at the same time as the meeting.
People were angry. People were hurt. Several there had firsthand accounts of how heroin has ruined the lives of people close to them. People were frustrated. There is no place to put children, and many of them end up back in dangerous homes.
The small gym overflowed with concerned people from the community. What was the draw? What was it about this particular problem—as opposed to others—that stirred up people and got them out in a torrential Florida storm? Why don’t people show up in droves for church in this way? Recent research helps explain what happened in my community and what the church can do to grab the interest of people.
Concern for the Neighborhood is a High Priority
LifeWay Research asked the unchurched what church activities they are likely to attend. At the top of the list was an event to help make the neighborhood safer. The figure below demonstrates how neighborhood safety and community service projects are top priorities for the unchurched.
A shift has occurred in the culture. Unchurched people have always been open to a personal invitation to church, but that openness is now more for problem-solving in the community than a worship experience at a church building. Almost two-thirds of the unchurched are willing to attend a church event to make the community safer, and over half are willing to attend a church-sponsored community service project. That’s not to say invitations to a worship service no longer work. The best approach is a both/and strategy. Invite them to both a church service project focusing on community issues and also a church worship service.
Seven Steps to Getting the Unchurched Interested in Your Church
In order for you to draw the interest of the unchurched, you will need to have tangible action items. I suggest seven steps, but you may change some or add more given your church’s particular context.
- Connect church leaders with community leaders. What would people in your church say are the greatest needs in the community? What would community leaders say are the greatest needs? If the answers to both questions do not match, then your church is likely missing an opportunity to minister to people. Your church leaders must be connected with community leaders to understand what problems exist. By connecting with community leaders, you might be surprised by the opportunities for your church to help.
- Lead your church to start doing local projects. Once you understand the needs in the community, then you will know where to direct your church. Every church can help with something in the community. Partner with a local school to help underprivileged children. Send church members to help at a homeless shelter. Sponsor and coach local sports teams. Gospel opportunities will emerge if your people are consistently in the community. Our church recently created a large community event and ministry called “Hope Against Heroin.” We had over 500 people attend our first event.
- Invite unchurched friends to help with these projects. After your church starts working in the community, members can start inviting unchurched friends to help. Not only will the people you serve get to hear the gospel, but the unchurched friends serving alongside your church will also hear the gospel. The unchurched person serving with the church is likely to be more receptive to an invitation to a worship service.
- Consistently communicate the importance of inviting others. The lead pastor and other key leaders must use every communication channel to encourage others to invite unchurched friends to church events and worship services: Newsletters, small groups, worship services, and social media, among all others. Part of what makes a culture is what is communicated. If the church consistently communicates “invite your friends,” then that culture is more likely to grow. If you never communicate it, then it’s not likely to become part of the church culture.
- Challenge your congregation with specific Sundays and events. Consistent communication is important. However, you must do more than a general call to everyone. You must also create specific opportunities for people to act on your challenge. Have an invite Sunday, a special day in which the entire church brings unchurched friends. Design local service projects with the intention of inviting unchurched friends to participate. Challenge your people to specific days and specific goals.
- Celebrate people who catch the vision. You become what you celebrate. If you celebrate stories of evangelism, then you are more likely to have an evangelistic culture. Champion the people who catch the vision and others will follow their lead. By pointing out people who do good work, others learn who is a model.
- Tell stories of unchurched people who assimilate into your church. You should not only tell stories of faithful messengers of the gospel but also the stories of those who accept the gospel and assimilate into the church.
Unchurched people are still open to an invitation to church, but how you make the invitation may need to change. People are now more receptive to attending a church event in which a community problem is solved. Use these efforts to connect with the unchurched, which will bring another opportunity to share the gospel and invite them to a worship service. The unchurched are still receptive. You can still get them interested in your church.
This post is an excerpt from a research article I wrote for Church Answers. It’s part of a premier coaching ministry with Thom Rainer.