Dear Salvation Army,
are we playing church when we should be engaging our community? Is there a difference? We understand that our ministry and movement is not strictly “Church”, it is really Gap ministry and the front lines of reaching the unchurched. There are plenty of churches that minister to Christians, but how many movements are there that do 90% outreach to a majority of the unchurched in our culture today?
There is the temptation to want to peer over the fence at growing churches and mega churches that boast hundreds or thousands of members and wish we could become them…but is that really what we as The Salvation Army was created to be? Is it all about numbers and/or attendance? Why do we continue to buy into the erroneous notion that we have to look and appear like other churches from other denominations?
The truth of the matter is if we are striving to look like other Churches who predominantly minister to middle to upper class Christian people, we will surely fail – because that was never our vision or mission as an Army.
So WHO are we?
How do we maintain this Movement?
Are there times where we must realign our mission?
5 Practical Ways to Engage The Unchurched:
1) It’s about Relationship and Trust!
You cannot actively engage the unchurched if you only see them as statistics on your attendance sheet. Would be new comers can sense a scheme or disingenuous’friendliness’ a mile away. If you as an Army are to reach unchurched people, you have to be sincere, honest, genuine and make a concerted effort to meet people at where they are at. You cannot expect people to change overnight if they have never been in a church ever in their lives! Love them. Display Christ to them in your actions…but true engagement comes when you first go to them and build a relationship and level of trust.
2) Study your community and fill a need!
Are there a lot of single mothers in your neighborhood? Perhaps build on that need and fill it in some way – offer support and helps! Is there an influx of teenagers in your neighborhood? Cater your ministry to meet these unchurched youth. Become a student of your neighborhood. Learn what that neighborhood or community truly needs. Pray about it. Ask God to show you, and then stay in tune so that when He does show you – you will be prepared to act. Without learning about your community, you will not be able to actively engage it or truly reach the unchurched. This can be dirty work – by that I don’t mean to insinuate that unchurched people are dirty, not at all, what I mean is you have to meet individuals – talk to them, and yes, you will meet a lot of people who come from hard-living lifestyles. So roll up your sleeves and get to work!
3) Break the mold of what Sunday “church” looks like!
We as an Army have even developed what Sunday “Church” should look like.
We have a set format for it.
We have developed habits and sometimes ruts in our services.
It becomes the HOW of our identity… but is this the most effective way of reaching the unchurched? I would dare you as Soldiers and Officers to move beyond what we think “Church” should feel and look like. Get beyond the chapel from time to time. Stop printing a bulletin one Sunday and see who gets bent out of shape by it = this is further evidence that we are stuck in the “church” rut of looking like other churches when we are not them.
Consider doing Messy Church one Sunday a month.
Maybe meet in a different place in your corps (if it’s big enough), or meet at the quarters on Sunday evenings for a fellowship. Reshape how you do “Church”, because if we truly believe that we are NOT a Church, then why are we continually attempting to look like a church? What matters more: we do all the right elements of church or we engage with real-life issues in intensive spiritually focused fellowship, discussion and discovery?
4) Create a buy-in and celebrate the small steps!
When we engage the non-Christian or unchurched – there has to be a buy-in.
Why do you want them to become a part of your Corps? It sounds selfish, but what’s in it for them? Why would you want to go to your corps? What holds it all together? When you can answer those questions you will begin to grasp the true buy-in for a new comer to become actively engaged. Also know that there is no full-proof method and success rate. We will fail at times in engaging people for Christ. This will happen because of free will and choice. You can’t force someone to attend your corps, but you can make attending your corps inviting, friendly and accepting if you create an intentional environment of welcome for all who come to your doors!
The second component to this is setting goals and celebrating successes.
Set goals and steps for your corps to meet.
Challenge each member to make connections.
Be realistic and authentic…and don’t emphasize the Forrest for the trees.
Set smaller steps so that every member can become engaged and celebrate when those steps are accomplished!
5) Talk About Real Issues And Be Honest!
Don’t hide from controversial topics or taboo topics in your corps.
The real issues facing people outside your walls need to be discussed and talked about inside your corps. Don’t create a bubble that pretends everything is peachy-keen when outside people are dying from drug abuse and alcoholism. Speak about these issues. Hold a neighborhood meeting. Be a mover and changer in your community! Don’t shy away from the tough topics, but be available to provide a safe harbor to those who are caught up in lifestyles that troubling and hurting others. When we talk about the problems and issues…when we engage in them- people in your community who are unchurched will see a buy-in and will want to help. When you add them to your forces you are creating a space in which you can actively engage Christ to them through relationship and common purpose.
These are just practical ways to engage in the unchurched.
I would like to note that I do not use the term “unchurched” in any derogatory way. I know it can create a label, and I would caution us not to call anyone “unchurched” but rather identify them as would-be disciples of Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit.