This article originally appeared in the November-December 2013 9Marks Journal.
Once upon a time, churches were intensely local affairs. Christians attended the church nearest them, often walking or taking public transportation to the place where the congregation met. But North American communities and lifestyles have changed in the last 50 years, such that many people live, work, shop, play, and worship in different, and sometimes distant, places. Today, it’s rare to find a church where most of the members live in the neighborhood around the church building.
Yet churches still have a tremendous evangelistic opportunity in the people who live near the church building. After all, these neighbors walk and drive past the church building every day. They may wonder about what goes on when the church gathers. For non-Christians who don’t know any believers personally, the church down the street may be the biggest reminder of Christianity they see on a regular basis.
So how can a church be faithful in evangelizing the neighborhood when the members don’t live there? Some evangelical traditions have made a practice of “visitation,” knocking on doors and trying to engage people in spiritual conversations. Sometimes this effort bears good gospel fruit, though cultural changes in recent decades have made this more difficult as many North Americans have become suspicious of strangers at the front door.
I serve my local church as deacon of community outreach, and our strategy for reaching the neighborhood around us is mainly one of long-term, patient faithfulness. Our goal is to build relationships with our neighbors that, over time, will make it easier for us to have spiritual conversations with them. These relationships also make our neighbors more willing to attend services and other events aimed specifically at engaging unbelievers with the gospel.
The basic principle behind this strategy is simple, and it’s one any church can follow: engage your neighbors by taking an interest in what they care about. Building common ground is easy when you participate side-by-side in community organizations, service projects, family events, block parties, yard sales, and the like. Common interests are one of the most powerful tools for building friendships that can enable spiritual conversations to take place.
My church is located in a historic urban neighborhood that has a well-defined identity, and many of our neighbors have common interests. Neighborhood associations are popular and prominent in the life of the community, and events like street fairs, art shows, music festivals, park cleanups, and community yard sales are common. We engage our neighbors by having church members volunteer for these events, host booths, and attend neighborhood association meetings. We also invite the community to a couple of evangelistic events at Christmas: a service of lessons and carols with a brief evangelistic sermon, and a sing-along production of Handel’s Messiah.
But even if your church doesn’t have the advantages that my church’s neighborhood affords, you can still engage your neighbors by showing you care about what’s important to them. Just devote some time to thinking about what your neighbors value, what they spend their time and resources on, and ways you can build relationships with them through those things.
If your church is in a lower-income area, your neighbors’ biggest concerns are likely to be some of their most basic needs: food, shelter, jobs, transportation, education. Your members might help meet some of these needs, and thereby gain neighbors’ trust and attention, through soup kitchens, clothes closets, literacy programs, and such. (Check out the July-August 2012 9Marks Journal for articles by Mike McKinley and others on using mercy ministries as vehicles for evangelism.)
My father pastors a church in Ohio in a middle-class suburb with a lot of families, and many of these neighbors’ lives revolve around their kids. So the church hosts some events throughout the year that provide activities for the kids and expose neighbors to the gospel. The church puts on a vacation Bible school every summer. They host a big Easter egg hunt for the kids of the neighborhood, and someone tells the resurrection story with a clear gospel presentation for the whole crowd.
Evangelizing the neighborhood where your church meets takes a degree of strategy and effort, especially when your church’s members don’t live there. But it doesn’t have to be difficult, and you don’t necessarily need a huge budget. Just find ways to build relationships with your neighbors by showing your members care about some of the same things they care about.
Finally, make sure your members understand that, while it’s always good to love our neighbors and build relationships with them for a number of reasons, we love them best by sharing the good news with them. And when gospel conversations do happen, engage the whole church in praying that they would bear fruit and that the Lord would use them to save your neighbors.