Outreach – That Actually Reaches Out

For several years now I’ve been in a position that has led leaders in churches all over the country to ask me questions about outreach. You know the one I love the least? It’s “how can we get non-Christians to come to our church?” You know the one I love most? It’s “how can we build bridges between the church and the secular world?” These two questions illustrate very nicely the opposite poles of spectrum of approaches to outreach. The former assumes that outreach is primarily about enticing non-believers to “give church a try” whereas the latter assumes that outreach is primarily about taking the good news of Jesus out into the world and finding ways to connect that truth to people’s lives.

Only one of these approaches can really be called “outreach” and I’m sure you’ve already figured out which one that is. But I can’t tell you how many times a church leader has wanted to talk to me about “outreach” when all they were really interested in was getting more people to visit their church. Listen, if you want more people to visit your church, what you’re looking for is called a marketing campaign.  There’s nothing wrong with having a well thought-out approach to letting people know about your church.  But that’s not outreach.  If you want people to have a transformative encounter with Jesus, and know that to do this you’re probably going to have to first go out and meet them where they are, then – and only then – are you really talking about outreach. (click here for a more complete discussion of the concept of outreach)

But how do you create outreach events that  1) connect you with non-Christians and 2) encourage natural conversation about biblical/spiritual truth?  That can be tricky business.  After all, non-Christians aren’t often attracted to spiritual things, so throwing a “What The Bible Has To Say About Your Eternal Destiny” party probably isn’t going to attract a huge crowd.  On the other hand, we want to be careful with bait-and-switch experiences; those events where people come to watch something amazing and then suddenly find themselves hearing a testimony and an altar call.  What we really want is some kind of middle ground, a place where people are naturally attracted to an event which also as natural connection points to the Gospel.

Shepherd Project recently created just such a middle-ground event and I’d like to tell you a bit about it in the hopes that you’ll consider doing something similar in your area.  We would like to help you do exactly that.  While Shepherd Project’s primary mission is not outreach per se, God has called us to equip Christians throughout the world to be able to proclaim the good news in relevant and transformational ways.  To that end, we created the Christmas Gingerbread Adventure as a pilot project with the goal of developing something that could be replicated in cities and towns around the world.

The basic idea of the Christmas Gingerbread Adventure is very simple:  create a fun family Christmas event and weave the Gospel throughout the event in natural and meaningful ways.  We launched the first Christmas Gingerbread Adventure on December 8, 2012 in Douglas County, Colorado.  We weren’t able to get an exact count of the number of people who visited, but we estimate it was somewhere around 1,000.  Because of the way we advertised the event, many of the visitors were people with no church connections.  In fact, we got thank you’s from many Christian families who said “we’ve been looking for a way to share with our neighbors but they won’t come visit our church.  They came to this, though!”  And, because of the way we structured the event itself, no one walked away feeling like they’d been tricked into a religious event.  But they heard the truth about Jesus and left with something serious to think about.

So how did we do it?  Well, as you might guess, the Christmas Gingerbread Adventure was built around a gingerbread house contest.  For our first year and minimul advertising, we were excited to have about 20 entires in a variety of categories.  Families, individuals and even businesses made gingerbread houses and entered them in the competition.  We got the executive pastry chef of the Broodmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs to come judge the contest and invited the community to come see the entries and vote for their favorites (we offered prizes in both professional judging and popular voting categories).

To up the attraction factor, we also offered local merchants space in a craft bazaar that lined the edges of the event location.  We had hoped for 10 to 15 craft booths and ended up with almost 40!  It was a win-win-win:  even though we charged only $35 for the spots, the income covered most of our event costs, the merchants got to sell a lot of stuff to people looking for gifts and visitors got to browse through a lot of cool, unique items and pick up a few Christmas presents along the way.

We enlisted the aid of local churches to run a variety of other activities throughout the event.  For instance, one local church, (thank you, Heritage Evangelical Free Church) did face-painting for kids.  Another put together a kid’s craft area and supplied all the materials and the staff for families to come and make very cool Christmas ornaments together (thank you, The Rock).

We also put up a small stage and invited musicians from the community to come take 20-30 minute turns.  We had high-school ensembles, bands, independent artists and even some members of the United States Air Force Academy Show Choir.  The one thing we asked was that they only do Christmas songs.

We naturally wove the gospel into the Christmas Gingerbread Adventure in two ways.  First, we set up live-action storytellers throught the event center.  This year we had four:  the Innkeeper, Mary, the Candy Cane Lady and a Lumberjack.  Each of these people had short 5-10 minute monologues which involved elements of the Christmas story.

The Innkeeper basically told the story of Mary & Joseph’s arrival and Jesus’ birth.

Mary told about her visit from the angel and her struggle with trusting God.

The Candy Cane Lady told the Christian symbolism evoked by the candy cane and the story of its creation (then handed out candy canes, of course!).

The Lumberjack told about the history of the Christmas tree with an emphasis on Martin Luther’s adoption of the tree as a celebration of Jesus.

We had the storytellers do their thing at regular intervals throughout the day.  It wasn’t hard to get people to listen, but to sweeten the pot a little bit, everyone who entered the Christmas Gingerbread Adventure was given a “Christmas Adventure Passport”.  This small pamphlet had a little note of explanation about why Shepherd Project was putting on this event, a Christmas quote from the Gospel of Matthew and a kind of bingo game.  Visitors collected stickers from various stations througout the event, including (you guessed it, didn’t you?) the storytellers.  When they had enough stickers collected they showed the completed Passport to our staff at booth and received a very cool gingerbread sucker that we bought in bulk from Oriental Trading Company.

Second, we announced periodically that we had a free book available at the Shepherd Project booth for anyone who wanted one and when they came by we gave them a free copy of The Case for Christmas by Lee Strobel.

Of course, as with any big event, our first time running the Christmas Gingerbread Adventure was a big learning experience.  We plan to do it again this next year making a few changes that we expect will both double the attendence and allow us to tell the truth about the reason for the season in even more compelling (but still perfectly natural) ways.

Our ultimate goal, however, is to help churches or other Christian groups around the world put together similar events.  If you’ve been reading this article thinking “I bet we could do something like that!” then let us help.  Please use the form below to contact us.  We’re putting together an information pack with all of the “how-to’s” and “do’s & don’ts”  that we generated from our experience and we’d love to share them with you free of charge.  If the interest is great enough, we may even be able to help out with promotional pieces and other printed materials.

 Want to find out more about maybe doing something like this in your area?  Just let us know and we’ll see what we can do to help!