President's Blog

Bonhoeffer, Carey, and the Secret to an Effective Outreach Ministry

Many Sunday mornings I find myself preaching in Fellowship churches. Tens, hundreds, even thousands of kilometres from home. My home church is Grandview, a Fellowship Baptist Church in Kitchener, ON. My pastor sees me enough Sunday mornings to prevent an elder visit.

When home, Marilyn and I get in our car Sunday morning and occasionally comment on how few in our neighbourhood are doing the same thing. So few seem to desire a church family to help support them in their spiritual growth. Why is that?

Many reasons, I guess. What should we be doing about it? We have developed meaningful relationships with many of our neighbours. My wife is amazing at this. She just cares for people and loves to chat. When we moved from our last neighbourhood, the neighbours hosted a farewell block party. I assure you the party happened because of Marilyn. One neighbour asked if Marilyn notified the family moving into our home that they are the designated Neighbourhood Caregiver. We have shared Christ with many neighbours in several neighbourhoods and have witnessed a couple conversions. God is good.

But still… so few are involved in a local church. I’m told about 20% of Canadians are going to church on a weekly or regular basis. Not so in the neighbourhoods I have lived in. What should we do? Be more missional, relational, prayerful? Yes, I suppose.

When asked this question, Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a blunt, but biblical answer. I’m going to throw it out there for your consideration. I read Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer (an amazing read, by the way). On pages 291-292 we read:

“Practically speaking, it was difficult to know where to draw the line in proclaiming the Gospel. This question would come up in a very practical way for some of the ordinands who were dispatched to parishes not terribly interested in what they had to offer. It could be discouraging. Gerhard Vibrans was sent to a tiny village east of Magdeburg that seemed populated almost exclusively by dullards:   

‘My parish of six hundred souls at Schweinitz is a very poor one; on average only one or two people go to church there every Sunday… Every Sunday, wearing my vestments, I make a pilgrimage through the whole village primarily to bring home to people that it is Sunday… The people try to comfort me by saying that I will get my salary even though no one goes to church.’”

He said that on Trinity Sunday no one at all showed up, “apart from the woman sexton.” Bonhoeffer’s response to Vibrans was simple, practical, and biblical: “If one village will not listen, we go to another. There are limits.”

He was echoing Jesus’ injunction to the disciples that they shake the dust from their sandals and leave a village where they were not welcomed (Matthew 10:14). But Bonhoeffer was not cavalier about it, and his heart went out to Vibrans, who had been about as faithful a servant as anyone could have imagined.

“Your loyal observance of our advice almost puts me to shame. Don’t take it too literally or one day you might get fed up with it.”

Bonhoeffer visited the village and preached there. He later wrote Vibrans and said that he should write his congregation “telling them that this is possibly the last offer of the Gospel to them, and that there are other communities whose hunger for the Word cannot be satisfied because there are too few workers.”

Hmmmm… an interesting approach to Gospel witness and outreach. Tell the people, “this is your last chance or our church is out of here.” Remember Jonah. He struggled to fulfill God’s calling to “go” because he thought it was casting pearls before swine trying to reach the Assyrians. But, in the end, he went and the people repented. And thankfully, Bonhoeffer did not want this pastor to take his advice “too literally”. Every person matters to God. Our job is to make sure our neighbours learn about this good news even if all we receive is their indifference in return. This kind of living takes perseverance, faithfulness, and DEVOTION.

This lifestyle choice isn’t always exciting, but it works. The father of the modern missionary movement, William Carey, left for India in the last decade of the 18th century and accomplished so much for God in the midst of hardship, persecution, and family tragedy. His perseverance and DEVOTION established a beach head for the Gospel in India in such a significant way. When asked what his secret was to his very effective ministry, Carey said he was a “plodder”. He did not see himself as particularly gifted, but he just kept at the task.

Titus 2:12b (NLT) declares that:

“We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God.”

“Devotion” might be the missing ingredient in our outreach efforts. Devotion to God, one another, and our neighbourhoods.