FULFILLING OUR MISSION WITH SHOE LEATHER
BY WESLEY RICHARD
For small churches, carrying out their mission of sharing the gospel presents a challenge. Most small congregations cannot muster the financial resources for direct mail, newspaper ads, television commercials, or billboards. Fortunately, not all outreach methods require a significant outlay of cash.
For the past twelve years, our small inner-city congregation has employed a low-tech, low-budget, two-pronged approach: community census and doorknob-bag evangelism. It’s cheap, it’s direct, and it’s personal. Here is how it has worked to help our congregation meet the challenge it faces.
In the 1950s this church’s membership stood at over 300. But during the 1960s and 1970s, a period of social and industrial change in our city, the congregation we now pastor suffered severe attrition. Twenty years ago, in spite of deteriorating neighborhood conditions and a dwindling membership, the congregation voted to stay put rather than to join the flight pattern of many families and churches. When we arrived in 1985 attendance averaged about thirty, with most members at or nearing retirement age.
Unfortunately, during the previous years of upheaval when members either moved out of the community or retreated from active church participation, the congregation lost much of its direct contact with the neighborhood. Attempts to reach neighbors through Vacation Bible School and Sunday school ceased. Most members drove in from outside the area.
Today, after a dozen years of outreach effort, average worship attendance has reached sixty, Sunday school attendance stands at forty, and the average age on a typical Sunday hovers around forty. We credit the method we have used to reach unchurched people in the neighborhood for some of that change. While neighborhood evangelism can happen in many ways, we recommend a targeted approach in two phases: community census and doorknob bags.
Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?
I remember hearing the Sesame Street characters sing, “Who are the people in your neighborhood?” when our children watched that show. Congregations can answer this question by conducting a community census. Here’s how:
First, determine the target area. From which directions and from how far would people most likely willingly travel to attend your
church? How large an area can your congregation service on a consistent basis? What boundaries (railroad tracks, rivers, main thoroughfares) naturally define your community? We have targeted approximately 800 homes in our church’s vicinity between two main travel routes. We have defined this as “our neighborhood.”
Next, plan a census to find out who lives in your target area. This process can be as simple or as complex as you make it. We began
with a system of notecards and notebook paper; now we use a computer database for our records. Either way will provide an opportunity for a brief, face-to-face conversation with the occupants of each home. You can begin by consulting a city directory. Make a list of all the street addresses in your target area. As you gather information during the census, you can list it with each address. In addition, have a supply of fliers available that introduce your church.
Determine who will conduct the census and when. While one person can do the survey, sending a duo allows one person to make observations while the other converses. And in some areas, safety issues may exist. If possible, assemble a team from your congregation to help with this initial thrust into the neighborhood. Schedule the census at a time when people likely are home. In most cases, Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. works best, although late afternoon on weekdays also seems to work well. Don’t forget to pray before you set out.
Familiarize your team with the approach. Your twofold purposes: to introduce your congregation to people and to learn something about them. When making your first approach, say something like, “Hi. We are from First Church on Elm Street. We are conducting a census on this street to see if people have a church to attend.” If your church flier contains a picture of the church building, hold it up as you speak. It helps to legitimize your introduction and it may help them recognize the building. You can then follow with the question, “Do you have a church you attend regularly?”
If they answer yes, encourage them to be faithful members of their church and thank them for their time. They might volunteer the name of their church, or if it seems appropriate, you can ask where they attend. Most people willingly talk about their church and are happy to meet someone interested in their neighborhood. At the same time, though, don’t be surprised if some cannot name their church or pastor! Decide how to respond if they say they have a church but like to visit other churches. Again, encourage them to be faithful to their own church, but if they persist, leave a flier with them. If you are also gathering data about perceived community needs, church attenders sometimes have good observations to share. Frequently, they will have lived in the neighborhood the longest.
If they do not have a church to attend, you could ask, “Have you ever attended church?” This question sometimes opens the door to fruitful conversations. We have found that almost everyone has had some church or childhood Sunday school experience. Another approach: “If you were choosing a church, what kinds of things would you look for?” Their response to this question might help you determine whether or not your church can meet a need. If they show interest, note it for a later contact by someone from the church. Even if they do not show particular interest, leave a flier with a cordial invitation to consider visiting.
To those who seem uninterested, you can say, “If our church can ever be of assistance, use this phone number,” and leave a flier.
Occasionally, we ask what keeps them away from church.
One man in his seventies replied that once when he was a child, his parents insisted that he go to Sunday school. When he returned he discovered that his parents had prepared his pet pigeon for lunch. He figured if God couldn’t do any better than that, he didn’t need God.
People who close the door or respond rudely are few and far between. Some experts say that about one encounter in 400 will be unpleasant. When someone is rude, thank him or her politely and leave.
Record data before going to the next house. The data sheet can include columns for address, name, date of contact, whether or not they have a church, comments, and any other data you may wish to record.
Set up a database after returning. If at all possible, use a computer database program (such as MS Access) to keep track of the
information. Not only does a database program simplify updating the information, it enables sorting into categories. Input the information you have gathered, including vacant addresses, to help you identify changes. One suggestion: Maintain separate files for the odd and even sides of each street. The payoff for this effort will become clear in the next stage of this plan.
Update your records periodically. Obviously, you won’t get complete information the first time out. Plan to revisit these streets
at least once a year. This will enable you to check on the status of vacant houses and perhaps find someone at home who wasn’t there last time. Eventually, you can greet some people by name if you have acquired that information previously. You won’t need to check each house every year, but in a mobile community, you will find that many houses change occupants within a twelve month period.
Make a “hot list” from your data. If you noted homes where people showed specific interest, where someone just moved in, or where a need was evident, use your data to create a list of homes to revisit. After several months you will have assembled a “paper parish”–individuals whom you visit and occasionally hand a newsletter, invite to a special event, or listen to as they share stories of pain and need.
“Something Special for You” Packets
The second prong of this outreach approach can involve many people in a variety of tasks, as you prepare and distribute information packets. Our congregation uses the procedure outlined below at least three times each year: Easter, early fall, and Christmas. Now your efforts in maintaining an up-to-date database will pay off!
Prepare the needed materials for distribution. For us this includes
1. a specially prepared announcement of the event we are promoting on season appropriate paper, e.g., red or green at Christmas;
2. a carefully chosen gospel tract (Gospel Tract Society, Inc., PO. Box 1118, Independence, MO 64051-9988; phone 816/461-6086, supplies tracts on a donation-only basis and honors requests for sample tracts);
3. a sufficient number of lightweight vinyl bags suitable for hanging on doorknobs (these 5.5″ x 16″ bags can be ordered through Gulf Coast Supply Co., 801 7th Ave., West, Bradenton, FL 34208; phone 941/749-8500);
4. At Christmas we include a small candy cane and at Easter a foil-wrapped chocolate egg. Not only do these add a festive touch, they also add weight to the bags so the wind does not easily take them. In September, when we inform the community of our back-to-school Sunday celebration, we use a single-page flier. On one side we include either a picture drawn by one of our artistic members or a mini poster (purchased from Church Ad Project, 12305 Chinchilla Court, Rosemount, MN 550683242; phone 800/331-9391; website www.churchad.com) and our printed announcement on the other.
5. From your database you will need one additional item: a printout of addresses for each street, preferably with separated odd
and even numbers. We suggest sorting for “unchurched” and “address” and hiding columns with irrelevant information that could mislead or confuse those who deliver the bags. We do not distribute invitations to addresses of persons who have a church home; it wastes time and resources.
Assemble the materials. This step can involve many people. For example, during the Sunday school hour on the first Sunday of Advent, when we schedule the Hanging of the Greens, we ask some of the older members to form an assembly line to fill the bags while younger people decorate the sanctuary. Not only do these members prepare the bags, they also count out the number for each street and place them in plastic shopping bags with the appropriate printout stapled to the outside. Sometimes the mid-week Bible study group prepares them. We use a highlighting marker on addresses where personal contacts should be made.
Set a date for delivery and recruit a team of runners. We almost always deliver on Saturdays when more runners are available. Have volunteers sign up for their streets on a hand-drawn map. Some will prefer working alone, others in pairs. A dozen people can deliver 400 bags in less than an hour. Gather the group for prayer before setting out.
Hang the bags on doorknobs. If there is no knob, check for another place to hang the bag or place the flier: inside the screen
door, through a mail slot or (as a last resort) on the porch partly under the doormat so the wind does not take it. Do not place them in mailboxes (it’s against postal regulations).
How effective is this approach? In the short run, not very. No neat statistical correlation exists between effort expended one week
and community response the next. Only occasionally could we say that last week’s distribution brought someone to the church doors. The effect seems more cumulative and long term. However, by God’s grace, several of our current members came as a result of this census-and-fliers approach.
Take Jim and Carol, for example. We found this middle-aged couple soon after we began our approach to the neighborhood. From our census we learned that Jim had been baptized at our church as a teenager and that Carol was awaiting the time when Jim would return to church with her. Our contacts with them increased over a two-year period. Then one Sunday they accepted an invitation to a noon meal where they met other people their age. The following Sunday they began attending regularly. Eventually, they renewed their faith. For several years they have remained among the most active members of the congregation.
Emma, a widow long separated from a rural sister congregation after moving to town, learned about our congregation through one of our fliers several years ago. She initiated a phone call that led to her joining our church. Now her grandchildren attend our Vacation Bible School and occasionally Sunday school.
Melinda told us she had started thinking about finding a church for her family when we first met her during a Saturday census effort. She later carried through with her promise to check it out and became a member.
Others come to mind, too. Some seldom attended, but they became our congregation’s “projects” for a while. Some attended for a time but then moved away. Others came for a while and have since faded into the woodwork. Several felt prompted to seriously consider their spiritual need but chose to attend another church. And a few, now that they know who we are, have called on us in times of crisis.
However, the benefits of this approach, serving as one arm of the congregation’s growth strategy, go beyond simply filling the pews. It lets our neighbors know of our availability in time of need. It keeps us connected with the community around us. And it provides an opportunity to apply shoe leather to our congregation’s mission statement: “To study, follow and share the Word of God and to help ourselves and others walk the path of righteousness, peace and harmony the way Jesus wants us to live.”
Richard shares the co-pastorate (with his wife, Sue Richard) of Elm Street Church of the Brethren, Lima, Ohio.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY NET RESULTS, JULY 1999, PAGES 6-8.
THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.