Because I’m the pastor of a mission congregation, I’m often asked about outreach and evangelism. I think some people assume that I must have a silver bullet or secret weapon for bringing unbelievers into the church. And I do: praying, and waiting.
Oh, I’ve tried other things. Our congregation has tried canvassing the neighborhood—on multiple occasions. We’ve tried doing mercy work for people in the community. We’ve tried offering marriage classes and parenting classes that might appeal to those outside the Church. We’ve tried online advertising and print advertising. We have expended much money and effort, and—mark this well—not one of these things has brought a single person to a church service.
We have noted something interesting though. I recall one Saturday I was making phone calls to contacts whose names had been passed along to me by parents and grandparents and congregations. These were people who lived in North Liberty, who had a connection to an LCMS congregation, and it seemed a sure thing that someone out of the bunch would come to church. I think I called eight different phone numbers. Of the people to whom I spoke, maybe one sounded interested; most of them sounded eager to get off the phone. The next day, no one whom I had called came to church. But, unexpectedly, a man walked through the door whom I had never met, who had found our congregation through the internet and, after seeing our confession of the faith on our website, decided he was going to belong to St. Silas Lutheran Church. He has attended faithfully for some years now, and did receive catechesis and become a member of the congregation.
On another occasion we had a large neighborhood canvass. People came from multiple states in teams to help us knock on as many doors as possible. That Saturday the teams had conversations with people at a couple hundred homes, and left literature at a thousand houses. This whole event took a couple dozen people, hours of time, and a thousand dollars in print materials. The next day we had a visitor. I assumed someone had talked to him during the canvass. He didn’t even know we had had a canvass. He had decided the day before to look for a congregation and ended up visiting us. This young man did not become a member, but the trend continued: we do a bunch of work, and the Lord shows that our work has nothing to do with the growth of his Church.
At the time of writing this, our congregation has no bait-and-switch programs running or any formal outreach events planned. The Lord has made us completely frustrated and somewhat exhausted with our own efforts. And so, we rest, and pray, and wait. And what do you know, we have the same small but somewhat consistent influx of visitors that we had when we were frantically trying to make people come.
Now I had in Chapter 8 spent some time writing about invitation, and I should clarify: inviting people has brought some to our congregation. Yet many more invitations have been extended than have been accepted, such that the single greatest cause of people coming to our congregation is not our invitations but whatever the Lord is doing to make people show up out of the blue.
All this to say, the most effective way of bringing unbelievers into the church is first, resting secure in the Lord’s promises concerning his Church, with which we began in Chapter 1; second, praying for the Lord to bring people to the congregation; and third, waiting patiently for the Lord to act.
This approach flies in the face of the obsessively “missional” attitude of the American church (whatever the word “missional” means). For a long time, Matthew 28:19 has been the mantra, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Certainly, we continue making disciples by baptizing and teaching, as Jesus instructed in Matthew 28.
Yet if we’re looking for a mantra for our congregations, I suggest that we turn our attention to some other passages of Scripture. Mark 8:38, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” And Matthew 10:22, “He who endures to the end will be saved.” These are verses for our times, times when the American fields are not ripe for the harvest, when the weeds that grow instead of wheat would be glad to rid the earth of us Christians.
But for our hope and comfort, I propose learning Psalm 27:14 by heart, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”
And hear the words of Psalm 130:5-8, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”
The Lord is the keeper of his Church. Congregations may come and go, but he will never deprive his saints of the Gospel. We rest in his promises, and pray, and wait, not anxiously, but confidently. As we wait, we might see more people come to our congregations. As we wait, we might see our numbers dwindle. But the Lord is faithful, and ultimately, we don’t wait to see what’s going to happen to our congregations. We wait for him. Noah’s ark floats along waiting for the dove to return. And the dove shall return, bearing in his mouth a new heavens and a new earth, and we shall reach our harbor and shall forever be with the Lord, to whom be glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, into the ages of the ages. Amen.