November 2018
Hospitality and Outreach

The Vital Outreach and Evangelism Connection

When my wife and daughter and I arrived in Kingsland, Georgia, to plant a new church, my driving vision was to create a new congregation so vital to its community that if the church closed its doors in ten years, people who had never attended would miss it and wish it were still open. I had already learned a lot about connecting a church to its community and about how to do personal evangelism and encourage others to do so as well. What I didn’t know, is that I was still missing the vital connection between outreach and evangelism.

Lessons in outreach and personal evangelism

As a seminarian at St. Philip’s in Baden, Maryland, I learned how even a small congregation can be important to its community. The rural, historically black church had an average Sunday attendance of 44 when I arrived. The congregation ran the clothes closet and food pantry for the community. They also had received a grant supporting the transportation ministry that picked people up at their homes and took them to doctor appointments and other essential trips. Beyond this, they had created an eight-bed assisted living facility so that frail elderly could stay close to home when they could no longer care for themselves. The church might have been small in attendance, but if its doors were closed, the community would have a sizeable hole to fill. St. Philip’s would be missed.

I learned about personal evangelism from the Rev. Roger Schellenberg, while assisting him as he planted the Episcopal Church of the Spirit in Alexandria, Virginia. Roger had a winsome way of talking about his faith in Jesus that came up naturally in most every interaction with people he met. He effortlessly modeled apologetics as he talked about questions of faith with people dealing with obstacles that blocked their return to church or showing up for the first time.

Connecting the two

When starting the work of planting a new church, I set out to learn the needs of the area, and that’s how I began in Kingsland – meeting one-on-one with community leaders and knocking on a hundred doors to ask what a new church could do for the community. From this work, I learned of the pressing need for a full-day preschool for families where both parents held jobs. I also saw that the small core group I was gathering had the skills needed to undertake the project. These conversations led to the creation of a full day preschool. In a few years we added thriving scouting programs as God gave us the people with the right gifts and passion. A twice weekly Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting founded by church members followed.

Then came the surprise. I didn’t know that I needed to connect outreach and evangelism. Newcomers didn’t make that connection for me. I thought our coming in contact with other groups, like the families of preschool students, the Boy Scouts and those who took part in Narcotics Anonymous, was enough. I didn’t want to be pushy. What I discovered was that if someone came to a meeting at the church and no one from the congregation actually invited him or her personally to come for church, it was experienced as if we didn’t want them.

“I figured you didn’t want us to come,” was the answer I received when I asked one dad, active in the Scout Troop, why his family hadn’t come to worship with us. I only thought to ask when he mentioned that they didn’t have a church home. As we talked further, he said that it was almost like being disinvited when the church members he talked with didn’t invite him to church. I was knocked off my heels.

We certainly didn’t expect everyone who benefitted from the ministries of the church to come and worship with us. That had never been the goal. But we also didn’t want to be the church that crossed its arms rather than embracing those who crossed our threshold for preschool, NA or our scouting program.

Creating on-ramps into the church

I worked with the vestry on ways to build bridges, like a “Trunk or Treat” (where adults decorate the back of their cars for Halloween, park in a parking lot and distribute candy to children who come “trick or treating”) with the Preschool, and a Low Country Boil and Burning of the Greens with the Scout Troop at Epiphany. At those events, rather than yelling out an invitation to all, we thought it best to talk personally with participants and invite them to join us in church.

Those personal invitations worked surprisingly well. I remember one family that became active in Boy Scouts and then, following an invitation, started attending services and church events. One Sunday, we baptized the whole family of four. Where would they have been without our learning to make the connection between our outreach with the community and inviting people into our faith and church life?

Canon Stephanie Spellers has a helpful adaptation for a saying attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words, they’re necessary.” People may not even know that our work in a soup kitchen or at Laundry Love is connected to our faith in Jesus unless we say so. And as I learned the hard way, many of those who come into your church for other activities, won’t feel welcome in worship without a personal connection and an invitation.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. A member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, Frank blogs on church development here.


This article is part of the November 2018 Vestry Papers issue on Hospitality and Outreach