What Makes Outreach Effective?
October 24, 2022, 4:00 PM

What makes outreach effective? That is a loaded question. Some of the readers of this article might reject it out of hand. After all, did not Paul plant, Apollos water, but it was God who gave the growth (1 Cor. 3:6)? Everybody likes to see the results of their work. Numerical growth is what naturally comes to mind in trying to determine if outreach is effective or not. It should not be. In fact, that type thinking is dangerous, it makes the growth of the church fully dependent on our actions. Effective outreach is measured by what we can control, not by results solely based on numerical growth.

Now the million-dollar question becomes “what does effective planting and watering look like?” The Rev. Mark Wood puts forward the following idea:

It is like and unlike the farmer in the parable Jesus told in Matthew 13:1-9. In that parable, the farmer sowed seed without concerning himself with what kind of soil the seed was entering. He sowed generously and somewhat recklessly with the confidence that enough seed would fall into good soil for there to be a plentiful harvest. We share that confidence when we engage nonchurched people in our community. Like the parable’s sower, we want to be generous in our sowing. But the field in which we are sowing is very different than the field of the parable. Contextually, we can surmise that the field in the parable would have been prepared for sowing it. For the most part, we are in communities that are fallow fields of hard soil that need to be plowed and tended before we can sow generously.[1]

This means that effective outreach is contextual. Some plants thrive in one environment but wither in another. In the same way, what works in one place, or one community is not necessarily effective in another. We must understand our community before we can effectively minister to it. “Because outreach is contextual, there is not a single way to do outreach effectively. However, there are some characteristics of effective outreach that apply in every context.”[2]

Effective outreach is balanced with inreach. We cannot do effective outreach by abandoning the people already in the church. Nor can we do any outreach if we ignore all those not in the church already. The balance between these two extremes must be dealt with intentionally. In other words, a (strategic) plan needs to be in place by the congregation.[3]

It also means to be willing to try something new. There is some truth to the old joke, how many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb? CHANGE?! What do you mean, “change”? I was helping the church secretary clean out some old filing cabinets on my vicarage when we came across a flyer. It was for a joint fundraiser and “come get to know us” type event in the 1960’s. Along with some simple graphics it read: “Some Lutheran churches have bingo nights. Some Lutheran churches have games nights. But REAL Lutherans have lutefisk dinners!”

Lutefisk dinners might have gone over well in some places in the 1960’s (maybe even in some places today). But, based on the fact that there was only ever one recorded event at the church it seems like it did not go over so well in Northern California. Putting aside the fact that it was a one-time event and non-recurring there are a couple of instructive things we can learn from this example.

First, the congregation was willing to try something new. Other churches were doing bingo nights and game nights, etc. We can infer that from the flyer. This congregation looked to the history of its Norwegian founders and decided to try something different than what they had done before and what others were doing around them. They were trying to reach what they felt was an unmet need of local cultural history.

Second, they badly misjudged how much the area had changed since those Norwegian ancestors came to work in the lumber camps and fisheries. The few people that had any living memory of the event said it went over like a lead balloon. It turns out that there was no clamoring desire for a survival food known for not tasting good.

Often times, trying something new for outreach means identifying an unmet need in the community. But we can only identify said needs if we are aware of the make-up of our community and its strengths and weaknesses. Once identified we can build strategic plans to meet one or more while sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Rather than plan a new activity or event based on what the churched people would like plan the activity or event based on the needs and interests of the nonchurched people around you.”[4]

Next month we will talk about how effective outreach provides ongoing activities and how members can start to get involved.

In Christ,

Rev. Daniel Ross


[1] Mark A. Wood, Meaningful Outreach: An Essential Guide for Churches (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2022), 23-24.

[2] Ibid, 24.

[3] For a guide on strategic planning at the congregational level see the LCMS provided resource “Serving in God’s Mission” under the re:Vitality program. For a brief overview follow this link: https://files.lcms.org/file/preview/4WlgD8NKdSa8vDpR4ieA9NlAdTBm4U6X

[4] Ibid, 28.