We now move out one more ring, from the congregation, from the families of the congregation, from the straying members of the congregation, to those who (at first glance) have nothing to do with the congregation. This is chapter eight of this book, and we’re just now getting to the part that most people jump to when they think of outreach. But I hope I’ve made it clear that there’s a great deal that comes before this, and if we’re neglecting those matters, then we shouldn’t be jumping ahead to this.
However, perhaps because it seems so murky and daunting, people fixate on this part of outreach. Certainly, I wouldn’t accuse a faithful Christian of hating sound doctrine, or families, or the straying. There’s a sense in which we understand those things, and so we find it easy to move past them, perhaps too quickly. Yet when we come to reaching those who have no association with the congregation, then we feel like we’re out of our league.
This feeling is unfounded. There are many people who are associated with the congregation, who may not seem to be at first glance. Consider your vocations, your stations in life: are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? With whom do you come into contact in these vocations? A father and mother come into contact with a great many people because of their sons and daughters. A husband and wife have next door neighbors, friends, relatives, and regular acquaintances at the grocery store. Workers have co-workers and a host of other people whom they see regularly because of their jobs. The vocations of congregants associate a great many people with the congregation. And the only thing standing between these vocational associates and the congregation is an invitation.
Before we go on, let me be perfectly clear what I do not mean by invitation. First, when many congregations think “outreach” they think advertising, formal programs, going door to door, making cold calls—in short, reaching out to people who have absolutely no connection to the congregation whatsoever. This is not the invitation I’m talking about. This ignores the obvious, namely the vocations of the congregants.
Second, “invitation” often gets blown up into a full presentation of the Gospel, as if it’s each Christian’s responsibility to convert people and then bring them to a church service. There are as many programs that teach people ways to present the Gospel as there are overly burdensome teachers. By “invitation” I do not mean walking someone down the Romans Road. If an invitation is a full-fledged Gospel presentation, then no wonder we want to do it with total strangers: if it becomes awkward, then at least I haven’t wrecked a relationship with a close friend, and I never have to see the person again. This false view of invitation leaves us with no desire to “invite” our closest friends, because we feel like we’ve only got one shot at it, and if it goes sideways then our friendship will never be the same again.
As an excellent example of what I do mean by “invitation,” I call to your attention the Apostle Andrew in the Gospel according to John, chapter one. Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist. When John pointed at Jesus and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” Andrew was one of two who left John at this time and followed Jesus. Jesus asked them, “What are you seeking?” They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus said to them, “Come, and you will see.” The Evangelist John notes that they stayed with him that day, but that Andrew “first found his brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah.’” And then comes this gloriously simple line: “He brought him to Jesus” (Jn. 1:42).
“He brought him to Jesus.” This does not mean that he convinced Peter to believe. This does not mean that he converted Peter with eloquent words of persuasion. “He brought him to Jesus” simply means that Andrew brought Peter from the place where Peter was, to the place where Jesus was. It was an invitation that led to a change of location. This change of location put Peter in direct contact with Jesus. Andrew didn’t have to do any talking. Jesus can speak for himself.
And what does this look like today? It looks like inviting people to church. And when I use the word “invite,” I mean simply that: calling someone to go somewhere with you. Invitation just means invitation, nothing more: “Will you come to church with me?” If the person says no, fine. It’s not awkward, the friendship hasn’t changed, and in time you can extend the invitation again.
“But Andrew could actually bring Peter to Jesus and let Jesus do the talking,” someone might say. “Can we do that?” Certainly. Jesus has said concerning the men whom he has placed in the Office of the Holy Ministry, “He who hears you hears me” (Lk. 10:16). Jesus is the one who evangelizes. That word “evangelize” is from a Greek word εὐαγγελίζομαι (euangelizomai), which comes up quite a bit in the New Testament. It is often translated “preach good news to,” but could simply be transliterated “evangelize,” as long as it’s properly understood as preaching the Gospel. Notably, this word is used first and foremost of what Jesus does. Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to evangelize to the poor” (Lk. 4:18, quoting Is. 61:1).
Jesus continues his evangelizing through the apostolic office. Jesus charges the apostles in Mark 16:15, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation.” This preaching of the Gospel, or evangelizing, carries on through called ministers of the Gospel, as Paul writes in Romans 10, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who evangelize good things’” (Rom. 10:14-15, quoting Is. 52:7). Paul associates evangelizing with those who are placed into an office of doing so. And this is confirmed by the use of the word “evangelize” in the New Testament: Jesus does it, angels do it, and called ministers of the Gospel do it, primarily the apostles.
All this to say, you can do exactly what Andrew did. You can simply invite people to the place where Jesus is, to the place where a pastor stands in a pulpit, a pastor to whose office Jesus has attached the promise, “He who hears you hears me.” And then Jesus can do the talking, the convincing, the convicting, the converting, just as he did with Simon Peter. And you, as Andrew, can simply sit back and enjoy listening to Jesus along with Peter.
Invitation is a simple matter, and actually a delightful one for us. We often think of inviting people to church as some chore for us, but something we should do anyway because we care about the salvation of the unbelieving. While it’s true that we care about the salvation of the unbelieving, invitation isn’t a chore. Consider inviting someone to a party. It’s delightful for you to issue the invitation, because you know the party is going to be delightful, and you want people whom you care about to share with you in that delight. The same goes for inviting someone to go with you to the pool or out to lunch. Giving the invitation is a delight, because you delight in offering someone else delight. This holds true for nothing more than inviting people to church, because the church offers the greatest delight.
A pastor named Gregory the Great, preaching in the sixth century, put it this way, and I’ll conclude with this quotation: “…On the way to God, desire to have companions. If any one of you, brothers, is going to the forum, or perhaps to the bath, he invites one whom he thinks is at leisure to come with him. Well then, this earthly act of yours is itself agreeable to you, and if you are traveling to God, take care that you do not go to him alone. Here indeed is the Scripture, ‘He who hears, let him say: Come’ (Rev. 22:17), that he who has already received in his heart the voice of celestial love should also repeat outside to his neighbors the voice of the invitation” (On the Gospel: Mt. 11:2-ff.).
Steadfast Lutherans will soon be publishing a book titled “Be at Leisure: A Lutheran Approach to Outreach.” The book will be available as a free PDF and in print for the cost of printing at Lulu.com. This post is chapter 8 of the book: Invitation.