Four Ways to Start Applying Innovation to Outreach

I love innovation. I love discovering innovative ways to proclaim the gospel. How can congregations respond in this rapidly changing world to communicate what Christ has already done for us?

Innovation can be a scary word. It’s hard to know where to start without disrupting faithful church members who are prone to take comfort in what is familiar.

Innovation does not mean making slight adjustments to what churches are already doing, nor change doctrinal teachings to reach the lost. It also does not mean launching a new outreach program because somebody else is doing it. Innovation requires examining where you are, before determining where to go. It means examining, applying, and testing different ways to reach the unchurched that is becoming increasingly disinterested in attending church.

From launching outreach initiatives from across the U.S., I have noticed a common thread that is facing most congregations. A stigma that is attached to organized religion that is making it difficult for congregations to proclaim the truth. This stigma is creating a ten-foot barbed-wire fence that many faithful members are struggling to see. I believe this stigma is a primary reason why people are rejecting familiar evangelism methods and approaches that may have worked twenty years ago.

People don’t believe that churches have a relevant message anymore. It’s not that people are rejecting God, but they are rejecting church. Because of this stigma, congregations are having to consider being innovative in how they engage their neighbors and communicate the truth of the gospel.

Here are four ways congregations can begin to move forward to becoming innovative churches in their community to communicate the gospel:

Is your mission strategy built around the ministry leader or the church?

I believe this question is the most important step for congregations to consider.

Ministries can run into trouble when they focus on a person rather than the product (mission) when implementing outreach strategies. Many congregations can become too dependent upon the gifts and talents of the pastor. Innovation means that a congregation and the pastor insist that future outreach activities will be based on the gifts, talents, and energy of its members and not the pastor.

Congregations that are innovative requires that the pastor no longer makes themselves more important than the mission. This means that pastors stop trying to do everything and find ways to equip their members to be an integral part of the mission. When members take ownership of outreach and evangelism, and have the freedom to try new ideas, then a congregation is setting themselves up to be innovative.

Sounds simple, but very difficult to carry out. Yet, when pastors and their leadership team carefully and humbly consider this question, it will make a significant difference in their outreach efforts.

Do not be afraid to have God'sized dreams

Innovative leaders don’t think incrementally. They routinely think of God-sized dreams and strategize to reach them. This can start by trusting the Lord of the harvest when he says, “The harvest is ready, and the workers are few.” It means trusting that your congregation – no matter how small – are the few faithful workers that God can use in extraordinary ways. Innovative churches start asking, “How can we make this activity ten times better?” That question adjusts our thinking.

Know your competition

Congregations have a strong tendency to compare themselves to the mega-churches down the street. They see a large, growing church that offers a myriad of programs and immediately feel intimidated. When they compare their own church to that much larger church as their main source of competition, they will easily feel defeated. Innovative churches recognize that the big church down the road is not their competition… it’s indifference. There are some people that are drawn to large churches, but it only makes up a small percentage of the whole population. Innovative churches trust God’s promises. They trust that God blesses activity. He closes doors to some ideas, and opens doors to others. Competition does not come from other churches, but combating the father of lies who regularly plants seeds of discouragement and apathy.

Test, test, test

When congregations feel like they are spinning their wheels, then it’s time to try something else. Great ideas are often stumbled upon. Instead of inviting people to come to an event hosted by their church, it may be time to go to the people. The unchurched can provide amazing feedback on how to be effective in outreach rather than a group of believers brainstorming around a table. Innovative churches are not afraid to fail. They celebrate finding out what doesn’t work and move on to the next idea.

How can a congregation begin to implement innovation?

Innovation can be an intimidating word for church members. Its connotation suggests change and being outside our comfort zone. Yet, innovation plays a key role in helping congregations who feel like they are spinning their wheels with their outreach activities. What are some important steps a congregation can take to start becoming an innovative church?

Transforming a congregation to be innovative does not have to be a scary process. It’s not so much about trying new things, but preparing a congregation to be flexible. It’s learning how to process disappointment, because innovative churches understand that trying new ways to engage the community and proclaim the gospel are going to fail most of the time. We tend to hear only the outreach successes, but we rarely hear about the failures. We don’t hear about how often great ideas often come from adjusting, learning, and tweaking.

An innovative church does not necessarily mean launching new programs or ideas, but having the ability to change course when things are not working out as well as they had hoped. 

How can a congregation create and sustain outreach momentum while attempting to find out what works for them? Here are four ideas to help become innovative in outreach strategies. And it all centers upon how ministry leaders communicate implementation to the congregation.

When communicating a new outreach program…..

Use the language of experimentation

When you introduce a new idea to the congregation and begin the process of implementation, use the word “try” instead of “change.” Certain words can automatically stir up dissension. The word “experiment” is much safer and will draw less resistance.

Many members are going to stand on the sidelines and watch what happens, but will feel safe and be less resistant when they hear experimental language.

Avoid using persuasive language to “sell” change in the congregation. Since we all tend to want to prove that we are right, compromise or retreat may send a sign of weakness rather than a sign of wisdom. Using the word “experiment” allows plenty of room to make corrections or possibly abandon the original idea to try something else.

Use the language of flexibility

Plans are great, but make sure your pencil has an eraser since nothing new ever goes as planned. What sounds good around a table sometimes needs adjustments when ideas hit reality. For this reason, it is best to be flexible and keep other options open for as long as possible. We can say, “This is what we will do for now,” instead of “This is the way it has to be if we are going to survive as a congregation!”

Using the language of flexibility allows a congregation to safely make midcourse corrections while maintaining credibility for those who are observing from the sidelines.

Use the language of permission

Ministry leaders can become very excited about launching a new outreach program or implementing change within a congregation. In doing so, be careful to avoid the hype and making empty promises.

If something succeeds, that’s great. If ministry leaders have been using hype and a new idea or program fails, then they will lose credibility. If leaders hype everything, people will stop listening all together.

Use the language of permission when launching something new. At least half of your congregation are going to resist change until they see that it works for them and observe that everyone else is for it. Ask and receive permission to try something and see if it works. When permission is granted, it will be much easier to adjust plans or even back away entirely from a new idea when it becomes obvious that it’s not working out as well as people hoped.

Use the language of one program at a time

Pastors who are passionate about outreach are prone to have many irons in the fire. Ideas fuel their passion and don’t mind trying many ideas at the same time with the hope that one of them may stick. It’s easy to become convinced that the current idea is what a congregation needs until the next big idea comes down the path.

Long-time members usually figure it out. They will watch their pastor chase the latest butterfly and feign agreement, but end up doing nothing. They have learned that “this too will pass” and keep doing whatever that have been doing and let the newbies jump on the latest bandwagon.

It’s okay to have great ideas, but keep things in experimental mode. When communicating a new outreach program, ministry leaders can help maintain outreach momentum by trying not to oversell until something has been tried. Instead of full speed ahead on the latest idea, try slowing down so that a congregation can apply all its talents to one idea at a time.

The biggest obstacle a congregation faces when starting to become innovative is not coming up with great ideas, but learning to overcome the fear of disappointment when a program doesn’t measure up to expectations. This can be overcome by adopting ways to communicate change and receiving the permission to fail. Great ideas that work for a congregation often come from trial and error. The Lord blesses activity and will allow a congregation to stumble upon a clear way to engage the community and communicate the gospel.

One of the great joys of evangelism is being surprised by God. He is ultimately in control of bringing people to faith. In his wisdom, God has designed for his faithful children to engage the world and share the message of salvation. Members can take comfort in knowing that every congregation is planted right where they need to be. There are people in your community whom God has set apart to hear the Good News. He is commissioning us to faithfully bring that news to them. In this ever-changing world, congregations that embrace an innovative spirit to bring as many people to heaven are discovering ways to communicate the power of the gospel.

One Comment on “Four Ways to Start Applying Innovation to Outreach

  1. Very good encouragement. Begin what is started and shift emphasis if slow in seeing results.

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