If your church is anything like mine, its mission statement probably includes something about being a “soul winning and disciple making” church. It probably says something about putting “practical feet to the gospel” to impact your community. The question is, how do you translate that into effective outreach messaging? Recently, I got to wrestle with that question when my church’s communication specialist asked me to consult on an outreach project our pastoral team had cooked up. To pull this project off and create effective outreach messaging, we realized that we first needed to create an outreach style guide. So, with our gospel mission at the forefront, we started by asking some basic questions.
Who is our audience?
To reach out, it’s essential to identify whom we’re trying to reach. A quick Google search of local demographics helped us get an overview of the people in our community. We also asked questions like: What’s the ethnic makeup and general age demographics of our community? Are we surrounded primarily by young singles, families with kids, or retired couples? Is the community blue collar or white collar, economically vibrant or depressed? We also used anecdotal information to pin down the vibe in our community. One good question we asked people was: How do you feel about local institutions, like major businesses, the police, the municipal or county governments, and the schools? The answers helped us determine if there was a generally positive or skeptical outlook in our community. Next, we considered the major institutions and social groups around our church. These might be students from a nearby college or university, patrons of a vibrant club scene, a large LGBTQ community, or a significant retired citizen group.
In the case of our church, located in a far west suburb of Chicago, the people are remarkably diverse ethnically but with a vibrant Latino accent. Most families are in lower-middle or working class economic situations, with many in service industry settings. People generally appreciate local institutions and the area has enjoyed an extended sense of renaissance. Yet, situated in the immediate downtown area, our church comes in direct contact with homelessness and addiction. All of these factors shape our evangelical message.
What are the “felt needs” of our community?
Just as important as who our audience is, what our audience feels it needs is key to how we reach out. Some of the information we gleaned from our demographic surveys helped us infer basic felt needs like the need for economic security and addiction ministry.
But we also asked ourselves, when people contact our church looking for assistance, what are they asking for? Our answers to this question reflected the already communicated needs of people in the community. By gathering this information, we avoided the well-meaning, but often unhelpful act of assuming we knew best what people in our community needed.
After reflecting, we identified several high level felt needs:
- In a vibrantly diverse community, people needed to feel welcome.
- In an area where finances can be tight (or nonexistent), people needed security.
- In a year with a very high number of fatal shootings in neighboring Chicago, a seeming increase of random violence and terrorism around the nation, and a particularly divisive presidential election, people needed hope.
These three needs were identified front and center in our outreach style guide.
How does our church already meet these needs?
One of my church’s longest running outreaches, the daily homeless breakfast, started when a dear elderly African American woman, named Alice, saw a need in the community: homeless people going hungry. The ministry she inspired has made a huge difference; people have enough to eat, and more importantly, they find hope. Many people first come through our front doors crawling (metaphorically speaking) on hands and knees, overwhelmed by financial crisis, addiction, divorce, or some other affliction of hopelessness. (That was me; but that’s another story.) Our only answer to the overpowering need for hope is the transforming truth of the gospel of Christ.
As we strived to codify our outreach message, we considered the needs of our community and how current ministries, like the daily homeless breakfast, already reflected our church’s missional DNA. From there, we crafted our outreach message: “Be welcomed. Be Loved. Be healed.”
What are we asking the audience to do?
This is the call to action. Whenever we reach out to our community, our call to action must clearly connect the audience and their needs to what our church is doing in our community. It might be as simple as “Join us for worship this Sunday at 10 AM,” but we must communicate this message in a context of who the audience is and what they need. In one outreach, we experimented with one of those coupon value-packs. Our coupon featured photos of real people at our church, illustrating the authentic diversity of our body of believers. It promised recipients hope: “In these uncertain times it’s comforting to know that God loves you,” and a simple call to action, visit us this Sunday morning.
Present an authentic picture of your church
Ultimately, most churches exist to “make disciples” by presenting the gospel in some practical manner. But effective outreach communication is specific to your community, their needs, and the authentic nature of who you are as a church. So, before you launch your next outreach campaign, think about these basic questions:
- Who does your church serve?
- What are their felt needs?
- How do we already serve our community?
- How can your message connect all of these?
Once you ask these questions, it will be easy to uncover and communicate your church’s outreach message in a way that resonates with those you are called to serve.