I see a lot of church advertising these days. Many churches are utilizing billboards, print ads, and social media for the purpose of outreach. I love the concept of utilizing creative spaces to advance the kingdom. However, there is a something unsettling about public ads that advertise with slogans such as:
- “In depth preaching,”
- “Contemporary and traditional services,”
- “Bible studies for the whole family.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love all of those things. Preaching, corporate worship, and Bible study are all high on my list. And no, I don’t think the church should hide what we are doing.
However, it strikes me odd when a church’s outreach efforts advertise elements that only believers would be interested in. That doesn’t mean unbelievers don’t need it –it just means they don’t know they need it –yet.
As I see it, this kind of advertising implies one of three things about the church:
- The church assumes we live in culture familiar with Christianity. Churches must realize that we no longer have the luxury of living in a culture that is familiar and friendly to the church. Reaching unbelievers requires us to think like a missionary overseas attempting to reach a people group with no concept of church life. Certainly we would laugh if such a missionary posted a billboard in such a land that proclaimed, “In depth preaching,” “Contemporary and traditional services,” and “Bible studies for the whole family.” American churches must begin to look at their communities in the same way.
- The church only wants to reach church people only. Of course there is nothing wrong with someone coming from another church to join your congregation. We expect no less when believers move to a new town. However, that does not mean it should be the sole focus of the church’s outreach. To the contrary, the church’s outreach should focus on non-believers!
- The church has not thought through its outreach strategy. Churches often emulate other churches our peers without fully understanding the “why.” The reasoning may go like this: “If the church across town purchased billboard advertising, we should too. “ For the first church, the purpose of the billboard may be a part of a great commission strategy to reach unbelievers. But for the second church, the purpose shifts to following a trend. The next thing you know, a committee has been formed, and list of items to mention on the billboard grows into a laundry list of church programs, service times, facility pictures, and contact information. Why? Because when there is no “why,” anything (and everything) sounds like a good idea.
We all agree that our desire is to see unbelievers trust Christ, grow as disciples, and become faithfully involved in a local church. In the present culture, how then should we approach outreach? Here are a few thoughts:
- Relationships are key. The gospel is meant to be shared through relationships. Otherwise, evangelism would be as simple as posting scripture on bulletin boards across the world. Now, more than ever, the greatest tool to reach non-believers is through genuine, authentic, relationships.
- Love speaks loudly. We must follow Christ’s example to love unbelievers. This doesn’t mean we overlook sin or diminish the weight of God’s judgment. In fact, true love will be greatly concerned by the sin and the coming judgment faced by those without Christ. The gospel makes no sense without the message of God’s judgment. However, the message of God’s judgment without the gospel is not good news. Love shares the entire message.
- The Church must meet people on their turf. Surely Christ exemplified this in His incarnation –leaving Heaven to walk the earth. Any outreach strategy must include dispersing from congregation to community.
- Meet people where they are. In the same way that the church must be willing to enter unbelievers’ geographic turf, we must also be willing to enter their cultural turf. If your church advertising implies “only those who look, act, and dress like us are welcome,” that’s not gospel outreach -its legalist recruiting. However -when used to communicate a willingness to meet people in the midst of their broken, despair, chaos, and need -advertising can help a church open doors into people’s lives.
But be ready -when the door opens, it might not be “nice, neat, and clean.” Ministry is messy. Don’t even advertise if you aren’t willing to walk through the door, roll up your sleeves, and love on sinners. Because if that is the case, you’ve got bigger problems than determining what message will go on your billboard.