Sunset Oaks Sponsors Apartment Evangelist Experiment
How does a church reach out to a young, white-collar, well-educated community that does not feel a need for God? "The traditional means by which we have done outreach are no longer as effective as we hoped," said Walt Groff, Rocklin-Sunset Oaks church senior pastor.
Located on a busy road and closely surrounded by four apartment complexes, the Sunset Oaks church is a prominent building in its neighborhood. The goal of the church leadership is that its neighbors will regard Sunset Oaks as their community church.
"We hope that they find they are welcome here and that we're here for them," said Associate Pastor Greg Webster. However, the strict rules of many apartment complexes forbid church members from going door-to-door to contact residents.
The church decided to conduct an experiment in outreach by supporting an apartment evangelist — a 30-year-old Bible worker named Ben Wesley.
Wesley lived in one of the complexes and experimented with creative ways to reach out to people. He learned to bake bread so he could give away fresh loaves as get-acquainted gifts. He received permission to start an apartment newsletter, which reported upcoming community events, including activities at the church. He played in a Sunday morning flag football game at a nearby park with other young adults from the church.
The church started seeing the results of Wesley's efforts. He conducted Bible studies with a woman who started visiting the church. A man from the weekly football game began attending a Life Transformation Group at the church. Wesley started exercising with the assistant manager of one of the apartment complexes, which resulted in positive on-going contact for the church.
Friendship evangelism is a delicate balance. Wesley wanted to be approachable: "I try to put myself in other people's shoes a lot and be friendly to everyone I meet." However, he didn't want to scare his wary neighbors. "I can't come across like some crazy person."
Wesley found his experience was very different from his previous evangelistic work. "As a typical Bible worker, you go door-to-door looking for ripe interests. If no one answers, you move on." But in this situation, "It's about consistently loving your neighbors."
"The generation that are Ben's age and younger, they are skeptical by nature," said Webster. "They won't be fooled by any superficial attempts to proselytize. An actual relationship is the only way they are going to be moved."
After nine months, Wesley found employment elsewhere, and the church leadership evaluated their experiment. "As most things are, this was a bit of a trial and error experience," said Groff. "It was very positive, as far as it went."
Groff believes churches need to stop being afraid of trying new ways to evangelize. "We copy the methods of others; there are fewer and fewer examples of innovation," he said. "We need to be creative and take more risks with our outreach."