Pastor Shipley flipped the blinker switch on his steering column as he prepared to make his last turn toward home. It was about 9 p.m. and he was returning from the Evangelism Committee meeting at First Lutheran Church. Fragments of the robust conversation during the meeting still swirled around in his mind like the mist that danced in front of his advancing headlights.
The purpose of the Evangelism Committee’s meeting was to plan events and training opportunities to engage a large percentage of the congregation’s members in outreach. The committed and passionate six-member committee knew that reaching out into their community with the Good News of God’s powerful, forgiving love in Jesus could not be effectively accomplished with just the six of them. Being witnesses of Jesus was every Christian’s privilege and responsibility. But how could they provide leadership, education, motivation, and opportunity for everyone in the congregation to participate in the Great Commission?
The committee had come up with four solid, doable, congregation-wide efforts that would be planned and provide education, motivation, and opportunity for members to engage the Great Commission to make disciples in meaningful ways. Pastor Shipley mused that there had been more than 25 ideas jotted on the white board. And he was excited about the final four:
- First, provide a “back-to-school” health fair on the third Saturday in August. This would involve the Parish Nurse ministry and other health professionals as well as multiple volunteers for child care and providing healthy snacks. They even planned a “healthy cooking” demonstration and tasting booth so the great cooks of the congregation could get involved in serving the community. This event would get people on campus and build rapport with the community.
- Second, they planned for the congregation as a whole to read and discuss, in their several small group and Sunday morning Bible studies, Greg Finke’s book, Joining Jesus on His Mission. Greg is a fellow Lutheran who has framed the privilege of relationship evangelism in a simple and biblical manner.
- Third, the committee agreed to accept the invitation of a small sister congregation in a nearby community to assist them with their Vacation Bible School in July. That meant that they would need even more volunteers to help with the planning, publicity, activities of the actual VBS, and follow-up with those who do not have a church home, because First Lutheran would be holding their own VBS near those same dates. This would be a challenge.
- Finally, the team defined a very specific event that could potentially involve nearly every worshiper in the congregation: Friendship Sunday. The idea was simple enough and was certainly not a new concept. The plan was to encourage “each one bring one”! Great plan on paper; but if past experience was the test of success, then big questions loomed.
It was this fourth effort that had Pastor Shipley’s mind at full speed, even as he braked to turn into his driveway.
Thankfully, the Lord seemed to have blessed Pastor Shipley with a sort of switch that flipped off when he walked through the front door of his home so the remnants of “meeting thoughts” blew away as he was greeted by his beautiful wife with a cheery “hello” and a quick hug and kiss. After some conversation about their respective days and planning for the next, he was ready for bed and some sleep. And he slept well.
His morning routine had Pastor Shipley up early and out for a brisk walk. These daily pre-dawn ambles were prime time for thinking and praying through random debris from the previous day or lifting up particular members of his congregation or his extended family. Today’s topic seemed to pick itself: Friendship Sunday.
“How in the world are we going to motivate, encourage, and enable a significant percentage of regular worshipers to invite a friend or relative who is un-churched or de-churched or an inactive member to worship? While the idea is noble and biblical and should be ‘normal’ for every Christian to engage, many will be very anxious about it and very possibly not do it. They are fearful of rejection!” This train of thought quickened his pace more than the neighbor’s barking dog that charged to the very edge of its Invisible Fence.
After a quick shower and light breakfast, Pastor Shipley was in his car driving to First. He set his phone and car’s sound system to continue the podcast he’d been listening to the day before. What he heard in the next few seconds gave him hope and an inspiration: “Surveys demonstrate that nearly 80% of people in the United States, our friends, neighbors and co-workers, will accept an invitation from a friend or family member with whom they have a trusting relationship. They won’t necessarily ‘meet you at church;’ but if you’ll arrange to meet them on neutral ground, like breakfast before worship, and then walk in the church building with them, nearly 80% will attend with you at your invitation.”
“That’s a crazy, hope-filled statistic!” He thought. “We are hard-wired by God to worship,” he remembered from a seminary professor. “People just don’t know the true God as revealed in Jesus Christ.” Suddenly, a workable plan began to form in his mind as he pulled into the parking lot of First Lutheran.
A Plan Takes Shape
Immediately at his desk, Pastor Shipley took out a blank 4X6 card. He wrote four names on one side:
- Bill Hanson: workout buddy from the gym;
- Trevor and Michelle, with baby Abby: just moved in next door 3 months ago;
- Orson: my tax man and fellow Bruce Willis fan;
- Ben, a.k.a. “Bear”: crusty but likable old guy at the coffee shop with great stories.
Pastor realized he could have made the list longer, but these were people he knew fairly well, and with whom he had a very good rapport. Most significantly, they were not presently members of any church, nor were they Christians … yet.
Next, he turned the card over and outlined his personal plan to invite them to worship just for one Sunday at First Lutheran:
- Week One: Pray for each of these individuals by name every day, asking the Holy Spirit to prepare their hearts for a spiritual conversation. Also pray for myself to be open to it.
- Week Two: Continue to pray every day for each, by name. Call each one on the phone just to ask how they are doing, or make time to chat if I see them in person. Take honest interest.
- Week Three: Continue to pray for each, by name. Based on last week’s conversations, discern which one(s) might be open to joining you for coffee or lunch. Your treat! Go to coffee or lunch with the one or more identified and have an extended conversation about topics of their choice.
- Week Four: Continue to pray for each, by name. Based on the lunch or coffee conversation, discern which one would be most receptive and invite them to meet on Sunday at a neutral location (even the church parking lot) and walk into worship at First Lutheran with you as your special guest. Breakfast before worship, or brunch after as part of the invitation.
- Week Five and beyond: Add more names as you go.
Putting it Into Practice
Over the next four weeks, Pastor Shipley placed this card with its list of names on his bathroom’s mirror. As he shaved and brushed his teeth, he prayed daily for each person by name. During week three, he had a great coffee conversation with “Bear” and found out he had cancer and was fearful of dying. That week also had Shipley teaming up with his wife, Cindy, to invite Trevor, Michelle, and baby Abby over for a spaghetti dinner. Together they learned that Trevor and Michelle weren’t married, but were desirous to do so. During week four, Pastor Shipley invited “Bear” to worship at First; and Cindy reached out to Michelle to invite her, Trevor, and the baby. All four met Cindy in the parking lot of First Lutheran and walked into the sanctuary together the next Sunday!
Later in the year, six weeks before “Friendship Sunday”, Pastor Shipley, as part of his sermon, handed out 4X6 cards to every worshipper, from fourth graders on up to the most senior attendee. He laid out the plan and had people write at least three names of individuals:
- Who live in a 10 mile radius of the church;
- With whom you have a trusting relationship and/or shared interest (friend or family). This could be an inactive member of First;
- Whom, to your knowledge, does not attend any Christian church.
With a show of hands, nearly everyone could write down at least two names. Some people later reported 6 or 8 names!
After the ushers handed out the details of the simple plan’s instructions, Pastor Shipley invited old Ben, a.k.a. “Bear,” forward to share his side of the story that took place over the last few months. He was now in the Adult Instruction class at First and was grateful for the way the congregation had welcomed him. He was most happy to know that Jesus loved him and was always with him as he went through cancer treatments. As “Bear” spoke, his adult son, whom Ben had invited to worship that day, wiped his eyes and smiled. “Bear” concluded his brief talk with these words: “I’m just really thankful to God, that Pastor Shipley thought enough about me to pray for me and invite me to First Lutheran. Now I know that God loves me.”
Author’s note: Will this be your experience in your congregation? You won’t know until you try it. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. People come to faith in Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They join a congregation of God’s people through relationship(s) with God’s people because the Spirit uses each of us as His witnesses.