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As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17
A few weeks ago the wonderful folks at ACS Technologies asked me to write a series of articles about what is takes to reach the “hard to reach” for Christ. When we launched Compass Point Church in Lakeland, Florida, eight years ago, we did so out of frustration. In our community there were over 250,000 people that did not attend church on a regular basis – yet it seemed like every church in town was only interested in reaching those already attending other churches.
In essence, churches in Lakeland were “trading sheep” while people were going to Hell. As a response we launched a church with the sole vision to reach the hard to reach for Christ. Currently over 80% of the people that regularly go to Compass Point never went to church before. Over 70% came to know Jesus and were baptized in our church.
The Realities of Reaching the Hard to Reach
I meet church leaders and planters all the time that say they have the same desire – reaching people far from God with the Good News of Jesus Christ. The reality is that I see very few follow through. The main reason seems to be that reaching really messy people sounds good and looks good on paper, but the reality of reaching them is something entirely different.
Your Church Will Probably Be Small
No one wants to hear this, but it is true. Church is the only “business” in the world where our “target market” doesn’t want or realize they need the “product” we are selling. In reality, it is easy to grow a crowd, but not easy to grow the Kingdom. When you live, sleep and breathe reaching the hard to reach the potential is overwhelming, but the actual converts are few. Compass Point could have done marketing, mail outs and cool events – which would have made us larger by reaching disgruntled Christians going to other churches. However, we intentionally only try to reach the hard to reach, which means that all our efforts are relationally based. Relations take time – conversion to Christianity takes even more time – thus resulting in slow growth.
Worship Just Stinks
Reaching the hard to reach means reaching people that have no clue what a hymn is or who Hillsong United is. They are not going to clap along, raise their hands or sing out. This is for two reasons: a) They don’t know God so they can’t really praise Him. b) They may be used to getting drunk, stoned or raising their cigarette lighters/cell phones when live music is being played. They are moved by musical performances and visual presentations – but they are not going to participate much.
You Will Always Be Financially Strapped
Hard to reach people have no clue about tithing and they often don’t carry cash. Even if they did, your “vision for your community” is nowhere on their radar when it comes to personal spending. They may throw a few bucks in the offering plate out of guilt or obligation. The other reality – even when they come to know Jesus it is usually two to three years before they contribute financially.
Small Groups Are a Dud
It doesn’t matter if your focus is on building community or digging deeper into Biblical truths – unchurched people do not attend small groups. The main reason is that they do not want to go to someone’s house they don’t know and feel stupid for not having more knowledge about the Bible. You can eventually work through this, but it takes quite a bit of time.
It Is Either Hot or Cold – There Is No Middle Ground
Reaching the hard to reach for Christ has the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. There are very few “normal” days. There is nothing that compares to seeing someone far from God accept Jesus Christ. There is also nothing that compares to seeing that same person reject every attempt at discipleship and revert back to the life they came out of. One minute you want to shout praises from the top of your lungs – the next minute you want to curl up in a ball and weep.
The Rewards of Reaching The Hard to Reach
You Get To See God Move
I cannot tell you how many times things looked bleak or on the edge of disaster – then God showed up!!! There was the day when it looked like we were going to have take a loan from our denomination just to pay bills. Then our Executive Pastor checked the mail and found a letter with a $10,000 check made out to us. There was the time when a local church told us we could use one of the vacant buildings for our youth to meet in. When they saw the “kind of freaks” we reached they changed their mind. We moved our teen Bible study to a local park because there was no place we could afford to rent. Imagine our surprise when God moved and teens hanging out in the park started showing up to our study – and getting saved. Our student ministry almost doubled in attendance. Reaching the hard to reach is always a risk and God always shows up in a miraculous way!
You Get To See People Come To Christ
This is literally the thing that gets me up in the morning. To see a person that was lost spiritually and without hope come to Christ is an experience beyond words. You get to see God become real in their life and them develop hope in their heart. You get to watch as they start “getting” the Bible and apply its truths to their life. You get to see life – and eternity – change. There is no greater feeling!
You Get To Take The Battle To The Devil
Reaching the hard to reach isn’t for the faint of heart. It also isn’t for pastors that want to spend 30 hours a week on sermon prep or hanging out with other church leaders in coffee shop. It is for those that love to be active on the front lines of spiritual warfare. When you are trying to reach people that Satan has a firm hold of it will create some pretty interesting scenarios. You are constantly under spiritual attack, but you are also constantly seeing the Devil lose people from his grip. That is a GREAT feeling!
You Get To Have An Exciting “Job”
Reaching the hard to reach is NEVER boring. If you are a thrill junkie, ADD or just an adventurous person then this is for you. You meet some pretty extreme people and see some pretty extreme things. No two days are the same and no two people react the same way. There is always a new risk, new adventure and new people that have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
You Play a Part In God’s Plan
As a pastor I never have a day when I wonder if God has His hand on us. This is not out of arrogance, but out of fearful humility. I know there is nothing we do special that reaches people – it is solely the work of God in our midst. I have discovered that when your church’s sole mission is to reach the hard to reach there is evidence of God’s moving on a weekly basis. I know that we make mistakes and do some things that are less than excellent, but I never question if God is using us. Compass Point sees people coming to Christ almost monthly and know that we are a tool He is using to carrying out His plan for our community. It is not something we take for granted and are always grateful for.
The Methods For Reaching The Hard To Reach
Pastors or staff with a heart for discipleship, deep Bible teaching or administration are very necessary in reaching the hard to reach for Christ. However, they don’t necessarily make very good top-level leaders in the effort. A church needs a Senior/Lead Pastor that eats, sleeps and breathes reaching people far from God with Good News of Jesus Christ. Leadership building and culture building is top down. It has to flow from God to the top tier leaders – and then to the rest of the church.
Let Go of Style or Structure
People far from God have very little church experience. In essence they have no clue about what church is suppose to be. Chances are your church will be what they eventually consider the norm. They don’t care about hymns vs. choruses, traditional vs. contemporary, expositional preaching vs. topical preaching, etc. They just want to know that they will be accepted with open arms and that they will hear Truth. Don’t get hung up on trying to change the style or structure of your church. Concentrate on loving people and preaching the Word of God without compromise.
Respect Their Privacy
People far from God want to remain anonymous until they are ready not to be anonymous. Much of this stems from current culture, pains of past church experiences or preconceived notions about the Church. Respect that or you will lose opportunities. Don’t have visitors raise their hands or stand for a guest card. Don’t show up to their house during the week unannounced to satisfy the weekly “visitation program.” Don’t drive folks crazy about joining the church, faithfulness about prayer meeting attendance or needing their contact information. When you have loved on them, shared Truth with them and showed them you cared – they will gladly give you all of that – and more!
Our church is an expositional sermon series church. It can sometimes take me months or a year to get through a book of the Bible. I preach from both Old and New Testament. I never get in the pulpit unless I can somehow bring the message back around to God’s saving grace through His son Jesus. Reaching the hard to reach has to be about preaching for life change and not strictly knowledge.
Never Miss An Opportunity
We have an “altar call” every Sunday. I truly believe that the Holy Spirit is present in every situation where the Bible is being taught. I never want to miss an opportunity for a person far from God to respond to the Gospel presentation. Sometimes we have them come forward – other times we have them raise their hand – other times we just have them pray along to the “sinner’s prayer.”
Go Where The Hard To Reach Hang Out
People far from God do not hang out in coffee shops, dinner on the grounds or the lobby of your church. The hard to reach hang out in bars, movie theaters, emergency rooms, local parks, college campuses, the streets and homeless shelters. Pastors – church leaders – I can’t emphasize this enough – GET OUT OF YOUR OFFICE! If you have to spend 40 hours a week prepping a sermon then you can forget reaching the hard to reach. Leaders lead by example. If you want your church to reach the hard to reach you have to set the example with personal action.
The Follow Up Once The Hard to Reach Have Attended Your Church
Follow Up When You Get The Information
This is HUGE and often overlooked. People far from God want reassurance that they have been accepted. When we get a “first time guest” card we make sure that there are three “touches” in the following week. One of our volunteers sends a hand written card thanking them for attending which usually arrives on Tuesday. I send them a personally signed letter inviting them for coffee which arrives at their house on Wednesday. Our Discipleship Pastor sends out a letter outlining our small groups opportunities which arrives by Friday. Notice that we never make a call or visit their home. Since 9/11 people DO NOT want you to drop by for a visit. Due to sales calls and bill collectors they also do not want to be contacted by phone. Pastor – let go of tradition and embrace new ways of contact!
Keep Great Records
Follow up and continued contact is paramount in taking a person far from God to the point of being a discipled follower of God. The only way to really keep up with this process is a great church management software program. They are expensive, in depth, time consuming and NECESSARY. Put this in your budget and culture as a non-negotiable. Jesus didn’t tell us in the Great Commandment just to reach people and baptize them – He also told us to make disciples. This is not possible without good record keeping and follow-up processes.
Offer Multiple Routes For Discipleship
Sunday School is great. Small groups are great. Special discipleship events are great. None are effective by themselves in discipling the hard to reach. People far from God, new to church or young in their Faith need multiple opportunities at multiples times to be properly discipled. In essence, they need options. If your church is able to offer small groups, Sunday School and special events, then do it. The hard to reach will not attend all of them – but will normally attend one of them. Embrace the idea of one message – but multiple avenues for sharing it.
Walk with Folks
Over the last 50 years the Church has done its best to streamline or fast track the discipleship process. Ultimately I feel we have failed. The only real example of discipleship in the Bible is taking a small group of people and walking with them daily for several years. It doesn’t matter if your church has Sunday School or small groups – discipleship is relational and NOT program-based. People far from God take a BUNCH of time to truly disciple. They will make mistakes, drop the ball and try to drift away. It is only by being a part of their lives in an intimate nature that a leader can actually disciple someone.
Not Everyone Will Follow Through
This is the hardest concept to accept as a pastor. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Reaching the hard to reach means that quite a few will get past the initial excitement of “finding Jesus” and turn back to the life that they came from. Others will still attend church on a regular basis but never take the proper discipleship steps in order to grow in Christ. They make a decision to stay babies in their faith – and there is very little you can do about it. Pastor, don’t sweat that. It is the work of the Holy Spirit that drives people to grow in the knowledge of the Bible and faith in God. My uncle – who was a tremendous pastor – used to say, “Dance with the one that shows up.” There will be those that fall away, but there will be many more “hard to reach” that will chose to be properly discipled. Put your work into them – and your faith in God for the others.
A big thanks to Chris Elrod for sharing his insight on reaching the hard to reach for Christ.
Talk back! Tell us about your experiences with the unchurched – how do you reach out and follow-up?