When I was in high school (in the late 90s), I discovered vintage clothes. In the small town where I grew up, we had small businesses known as “dig stores.” They were vintage clothing shops that had a large piles of clothes on tables or in a room where you sorted through clothing, looking for buried treasure. I remember the first time I found a pair of bell bottom blue jeans.
Anyone with just a bit of age on them knows that some fashions return to haunt us. When I was in high school, my parents laughed at my clothes, saying the 70s had returned. Today, I laugh as styles from the 90s climb out of their grave. Fashion is apparently not the only things from our past that revisit, and when it comes to local missions, that may be a good thing.
A couple of weeks ago, I ran across an article in the Baptist Press lauding the return of door-knocking as an outreach method for contemporary churches. Robin Cornetet, the author, writes, “A Louisville pastor has busted the longstanding myth in the church world that door-to-door visitation is out of vogue and no longer effective.” The piece continues by pointing to Mark Bishop, the campus pastor for a Louisville church, who has developed the practice of knocking on 200 doors per week. The results, almost 40 baptisms over six months.
Is the practice of door-knocking coming back around to contemporary church practice? I will put my cards on the table and say I hope so.
Do not be too quick to dismiss it
I believe the temptation of many when reading an article like this, especially folks my age, is to dismiss this as an exceptional case. We assume this pastor’s outreach was effective because it was in Louisville and not some city outside the Bible belt. Or, maybe we become suspect of the validity of these conversions. Surely, this practice of walking up to some stranger’s door is manipulative. Could these people have actually known what they were doing when they got baptized?
Fact is, many of us have a negative predisposition toward door-knocking. We have been told it is too forward or makes us look like car salesmen or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or, maybe we have bought into the idea that our culture no longer responds to this, that it is contextually irresponsible to walk up and talk to strangers about the gospel. Then again, maybe there is a little piece of us that find these arguments against it as convenient cover for not sharing the gospel with people we do not know. Maybe it just makes us uncomfortable, so we do not want to do it.
Contrary to our go-to criticisms, there is evidence to suggest that people may not be as weirded out as we assume by religious conversations with strangers. Last year, Lifeway Research conducted a study that found roughly half of the people surveyed said they would not mind having a religious conversation with someone if prompted. If that is the case, then we need to do more prompting, and knocking on someone’s door is certainly one way to meet them.
Door-knocking gets a second wind
In addition to the Baptist Press article, several other instances of door-to-door evangelism have cropped up lately in conversations with others. I am hopeful it is the beginnings of a trend. Several months back, I had the pleasure of attending a No Place Left conference in Houston. Hundreds of people had gathered from around the world, most of them actual practitioners, to discuss a particular method of church planting. Their method relies heavily on “broad seed sowing,” or sharing the gospel with many people. As a means of sharing the gospel as often as they do, many turn to door-knocking. This has been met with success.
I know of another missions agency in the Houston area whose primary method is based in door-to-door introductions at apartment complexes that house high numbers of foreign born people. They are attempting to church plant among unreached people groups in Houston and have developed relationships with a number of families this way. Another well-established church here in the area visits guests that attended a worship service at their home with the intention of sharing the gospel with them. They use three circles.
Finally, some good friends of mine are planting a church out West (nowhere near the Bible belt) and are attempting 75 gospel shares per week. Of course, spending time pounding the pavement in their community’s neighborhoods will be necessary to accomplish that goal. They have only been in their new city a few months. People are already confessing Christ, getting baptized, and small group Bible studies are beginning that will soon become a church.
Two common problems in current outreach models
Instead of immediately dismissing an article or story that disproves our current narrative, we would do well to consider the implications. There are two common problems in local missions addressed by a potential resurgence in door-knocking as a means of gospel proclamation. First, too much church growth today happens through transfer and not conversion. Second, for many the emphasis on relationship evangelism has resulted in a withdrawal from steady gospel proclamation.
When it comes to the Great Commission, conversion growth is good growth. Churches really only grow in three ways: biological growth when members have children, transfer growth as members leave other churches to join ours, and conversion growth when someone who was previously not a believer becomes one and joins a local church. Responsible ministry aims for the last one. We want people who were not previously disciples to become disciples. Yes, I know it is not that clean in reality. Sometimes, people have strayed from church for years. Maybe we call these people “dechurched.” That is important too. Furthermore, people move into town and need a good church. But any church that grows primarily by attracting members from other churches needs to question what it is doing. If the conversion of unbelievers is a primary goal, then getting in front of people who have no connection to a local church is necessary.
Additionally, many of us bought the narrative that conversions only happen rarely and after months and months of proving we are someone’s best friend before they will trust us enough to talk about the gospel. I am all for relationship evangelism when it actually involves evangelism, but I have written before about how we use that idea as a cover for never sharing the gospel. Responsible church discipleship should equip members to examine their network of friends, coworkers, and family for those who need to hear the gospel. Yes, developing real relationships with people for the purpose of Christian witness is a great idea. However, that is not the same as assuming the gospel cannot work on strangers. And for what it is worth, knocking on someone’s door (especially your neighbor’s door) is one way to develop a new relationship. These things are not mutually exclusive.
Perhaps door-knocking is one fashion that will make a comeback in local church missions. Of course, this kind of evangelism is no magic bullet in reaching a community with the gospel. Then again, neither were all the “relationship evangelism” techniques that seemed to replace it. Instead, whatever methods of proclamation we use, we must ensure they are sincere and done with grace and humility. However we choose to share the gospel with others, let’s just make sure it happens.