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What is Effective Outreach?


“What is ‘effective outreach’?”

Someone asked me that question recently. It’s a good question. It’s also a fair question, since I frequently use the phrase “effective outreach.”

Some people might answer that question by pointing to results. If more people are attending worship, participating in Bible studies, or joining the congregation, what you’re doing for outreach must be effective, right?

Maybe. But numbers don’t tell the story.

In fact, in some cases the numbers look really good even when outreach is not very effective at all.

A congregation located in a high growth area might be really bad at outreach but still experiencing increases in worship attendance and membership. Sometimes the pastor and a handful of lay people are having a positive impact even though the congregation as a whole is doing a poor job of outreach.

On the other hand, a congregation may be doing outreach very well with little to show for it in terms of numbers because the population of its community is decreasing. (Imagine doing outreach in a town that has shut down the plant of its major employer.)

Numbers are not the measure of effective outreach. If not the numbers, then what is?

Effective outreach begins with a good understanding of what outreach is. I find that people often confuse outreach and witness.

That’s understandable because they are closely related and share the same goal. But confusing them can undermine effective outreach.

So, what’s the difference between witness and outreach?

Witness is what we do as individual believers to share the Good News of Jesus with people in our everyday lives. Think of it as the work of the “Church scattered.”

Outreach, on the other hand, is what we do as a congregation to engage the nonchurched people in our community. It is the collective effort of the congregation as an organization to make disciples. Outreach is the work of the “Church gathered.”

1 Corinthians 3:5-9 provides insights into effective outreach.

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

Practically speaking, outreach is focused on planting and watering through various activities, ministries, events, human care, etc. Outreach understands that when it comes to the growth (i.e., the numbers) “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.”

The growth is the Holy Spirit’s concern.

Through outreach, we plant, we water, and we prayerfully anticipate the growth. This means that “effective outreach” is outreach through which we are actively and intentionally planting and watering.

That raises some additional questions. So, here’s a fuller definition:

Effective outreach is the “planting and watering” (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:5-9) through which a congregation intentionally engages nonchurched people in ways that

  1. provide the congregation with means of continuing contact with the nonchurched people,
  2. foster relationship-building between nonchurched people and the congregation’s members, and
  3. offer appropriate and appealing entry points (other than worship services and traditional Bible studies) that encourage nonchurched people to participate in the Word and Sacrament ministry of the congregation.

There’s a lot to this definition. We'll start unpacking it in the next article in this series.

Questions to consider:

  1. Before reading this article, how would I have defined “effective outreach”? How does that compare to the definition in the article?
  2. How does the difference between witness and outreach help me better understand outreach?
  3. At first glance, how do my congregation’s outreach efforts measure up to the definition of effective outreach?


Reprinted from Rev. Dr. Mark Wood, "The Reporter", the official newspaper of the LCMS.

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