Debi Nixon: 4 thoughts on reaching relentlessly
By: Christa Meland
Are we in need of a new outward vision? Do you have the willingness to embrace change and do what others are not willing to do? Has our busyness in doing the inward work of the church distracted us from our outward focus?
Debi Nixon, executive director at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, posed those three questions to nearly 500 Reach attendees during her Friday night presentation on reaching relentlessly.
Drawing on Luke 5:1-5, she reminded those gathered that the call of the church is to be fishers of people. But like the fishermen in that passage, some local churches have found that after years of not reaching new people, not welcoming any visitors, not seeing growth, and not having children in the children’s sermon, they move into maintenance mode—tending to the building, keeping the current programs and ministries going, and caring for the needs of the internal members.
“You know what happens when we face continual disappointment and frustration? We begin to lose our passion and our compassion,” Nixon said. “While we are busy, busy, busy maintaining, there are people, there are crowds in our community in desperate need of the message of the good news… Have you seen them? Have you noticed? Because they are there.”
Here are a few thoughts she offered to help churches get back to an outward focus:
1. Your church must be clear about its purpose, vision, and picture of the preferred future.Church of the Resurrection is relentlessly focused on its purpose, she said, which is “to build a Christian community where non-religious and nominally religious people are becoming deeply committed Christians.” That purpose drives everything the church does. It also has a vision of God’s preferred future for the congregation: “To be used by God to change lives, strengthen churches, and transform the world.” The church is as passionate today about this purpose and vision as it was on its first Sunday in 1990, when it started with four people meeting in a funeral home chapel. Today, Church of the Resurrection is a congregation of more than 21,000 adults and children; more than 66 percent joined by profession of faith.
2. Relentlessly pursuing our purpose of reaching people for Christ requires intentionality, hard work, and change. In addition to changing from meeting in a funeral home and having one traditional service to meeting in four physical locations each week and online, the church has continued to do some things many churches are not willing to do—making personal visits to first-time visitors, taking weekly attendance and having strong follow-up processes, changing worship times and styles multiple times over the years, and allowing coffee in the sanctuary to help visitors be comfortable. In 1998, the church added video screens to the sanctuary.
3. We must go out into deeper water. In Luke 5:4, after Peter and other fishermen had been out all night and caught nothing, Jesus instructs Peter to “row out farther, into the deep water, and drop your nets for a catch.” The deep water is the place Jesus calls us to where we may not want to go, Nixon said. “What new vision, what change is Jesus calling you and your church to as you move outward into the deeper water?” she asked. “What is your deeper water?” Nixon offered these ideas, all of which her church practices:
• Equip members for evangelism—give them a framework for an elevator speech they can use to describe what your church is all about. The framework that Church of the Resurrection uses is: “We are a church that is outwardly-focused, thought-provoking, bridge-building, and hope-radiating.” Nine out of 10 people come to the church because someone invited them, Nixon said.
• Hang out in coffee shops or even gas stations to meet new people. Consider pre-loading some gift cards to coffee shops so that when someone wants to buy a cup of coffee, they get one for free with a card that says “Have a great day” and the name of your church.
• Hand out coffee in public places—for example, apartment complexes when people are leaving for work, on sidewalks, or outside of schools as parents are dropping kids off. With each cup of coffee, distribute a card with a brief message and your church name.
• Serve a meal at a trailer park in your town.
• Host events for the community at your church: movie nights, a fall harvest festival, Easter egg hunts, a health fair, and funerals and weddings for those without a church home.
• Start a ministry for children with special needs.
4. Trust God and don’t be afraid: Toward the end of her address, Nixon (referencing Luke 5:6-10) reminded those gathered that when Peter and the other fishermen heeded Jesus’ words to go into deep water and drop their nets, their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting. Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” “Church, what are we afraid of?” asked Nixon. “Hear what Christ says: ‘Don’t be afraid.’ What miracles are waiting for you if you recommit to follow the invitation of Jesus to launch outward into the deeper waters of our communities, dropping down the nets to be fishers of people?
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.