Some people in your community are more receptive to the gospel – and more likely to become a part of your church – than others. Good stewardship of a congregation’s limited resources calls us to invest those resources where we will see the greatest return (see Matt. 25:14ff.).
So how do you find people who “have ears to hear” the Good News and will respond?
One important principle of effective evangelism: Unchurched people are more likely to consider becoming Christians and church members during periods of transition. A life transition represents a moment in time when an unusual event interrupts an individual’s normal lifestyle. This causes disruption in a person’s psychological equilibrium. People most acutely experience “felt needs” in life transitions. And during life transitions, people are most open to reexamining their core values – including their religious values.
Every day in your community, people experience life transitions. Immediately following marriage a couple is obviously in a state of transition. After a divorce people are in a life transition. Families more often respond positively to church involvement following the birth of a child. When people or their family members are hospitalized, they frequently prove open to help and healing from God and a local church.
Your church can reach out with God’s need-meeting love to people experiencing one or more life transitions. Their need creates a window of opportunity (which will not be open indefinitely) for you to bring God’s love and community to receptive people.
A helpful way to identify people experiencing life transitions is the “Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale.”* This scale has circulated in church circles for some years and can help effectively focus a church’s caring ministry toward persons in need. The scale actually quantifies specific stressful experiences (with a top score of 100 for each stressor), so that a pastor can gauge an individual’s overall stress, compared to those experiencing other stressful experiences. Thus, the scale provides not only a guide for counseling, but also a way to prioritize pastoral attention.
As a tool to identify and reach receptive people, the Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale helpfully identifies possible affinities around which one might gather a mutual support group or target a specific ministry. The themes that the scale applies to adults can easily extend to children, youth, and seniors. These life-transition events increase the receptivity of individuals or families to the church’s outreach. Examples below show major stressors in various age groups, along with their thematic connections.
Elementary- and Junior-High-Age Children
Affinity Area Stressor
Family: Death/illness of a parent or family member
Divorce or separation of parents
Marriage or remarriage of a parent
Addition to the family unit
Identity: Discovery of adoption
Change in parent’s occupation
Change in school or grades
Health: Acquiring physical deformity
Involvement with drugs or alcohol
Relationships: Death of close friend
Changed acceptance of peers
Activities Outstanding personal achievement
Joining a church
Although the quantified degree of stress will very, elementary- and junior-high-age children tend to experience the most stress in matters affecting family life and personal identity. Research suggests that junior-high-age children experience additional stress with pregnancy out of wedlock or with breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Senior-high-age youth experience additional stress around marriage and intimacy. Research suggests that anxiety about drugs and alcohol abuse increases and new factors emerge related to education and career, acceptance in college, or failure in extracurricular activities. Joining the church becomes more stressful as well.
Younger adults experience more stress around career advancement or failure, sexual difference, children leaving home, trouble with relatives, and legal difficulties. While leisure can be stressful for senior adults, vacations specifically cause stress for younger adults.
Win Arn has developed a specific scale for senior adults. Many parallels in stressful experiences, and some important differences, arise during the senior years. Senior adults’ stress over worrying about nursing and retirement homes is as high as that caused by the death of a spouse or divorce. Health, financial risk, diminished mobility, and personal significance all emerge as important affinities seniors share.
Affinity Area Stressor
Relationship: Death or divorce of a spouse
New family members
Less contact with friends
Less contact with support groups
Security: Move to retirement accommodation
Financial loss (especially of retirement money)
Forced career retirement
Inability to drive
Health: Major physical problems
Difficulty getting insurance
Revision of personal habits
Identity: Lack of dreams or purpose
Sense of not being needed
The Best Fishing Holes
Designing outreach strategies to identify and respond to unchurched people in times of transition can yield significant ministry and growth. A reasonable question, however, is “Where do you find these people?”
Here are some “fishing holes” to begin looking for people who may be in the midst of a life transition. . . . .
Your church members’ own circle of influence offers the best place to look for evangelistic prospects. In one study we found that within his/her circle of influence, the average church member has between six and twelve unchurched persons who live within a reasonable driving distance of the church. If a congregation has one hundred members and each member averages eight unchurched people in his/her circle of influence, the chances are high that within this group of 800 people a fair number will be experiencing one or more life transition events.
Through the programs or special ministries of church you can also find people in transition. Some examples:
unchurched family members of children who attend Sunday school
special-interest groups that meet in the church
people influenced by specialized ministries, such as programs to the aged of persons with disabilities
people contacted through a short-term ministry, such as Vacation Bible School
people whose lives are touched by your small-group ministry
church-sponsored sports activities
contacts through your television, radio, or literature ministry
visitors to your church’s worship services
those who attend a church-sponsored, high-visibility event or specialty seminar of community interest.
Church staff and lay leaders often find prospects in life transitions through referrals. Many pastors, church organists, soloists, etc., get calls from funeral homes when someone has died or from hospitals when someone goes through a crisis situation. These persons can be followed up and their names added to your prospect list.
Beginning an Outreach Strategy
The best way to begin responding to people in need – and involving lay people in ministry and outreach – is to identify the areas of interest that already attract various members. Then build on their existing motivation. Look for people in your church who have personally experienced one or more of these life-transition events. Gather these members together for an evening to share with them your dream of seeing the church provide effective ministry and outreach to unchurched people who have had similar experiences. Ask the group for ideas on how the church could intentionally express God’s love to these people.
You will find that this creative brainstorming session will yield many exciting ideas from the group as to what needs exist and how the church could provide an avenue for meeting those needs. Let the members come up with their own ideas for ministry and outreach. They will much more willingly help make their dreams a reality, rather than yours alone. Work with and encourage these people to build upon their experiences in life transitions. They can then begin the process of using those experiences to take the church in exciting new directions of ministry and outreach.