In outreach

In outreach

John Truscott concludes his series on working with volunteers – but with a special twist. Each article focuses on one area of church life where volunteers serve rather than looking at volunteering in general. The series is designed for all church leaders.

So far the series has covered worship services, church finance, church governance, project management and small groups. In this sixth article John considers those who volunteer for outreach ministry where the subject matter of Maintenance and Equipment News is shown to be especially important.

The word ‘volunteer’ brings two different ideas to mind. One is someone who offers to fulfil a role rather than being forced into it. The second is someone who receives no money to carry out a task as opposed to a person who is paid for the work. Churches of course depend on such people, in both meanings of the term.

Much is written on how to motivate and support volunteers and I train in this area myself. But in this series I am experimenting with a slightly different approach: starting with specific tasks within church life that require volunteers and seeing how that might affect our thinking. This time I examine church outreach.

The scope of this topic

The key means of outreach will be church members witnessing to friends and colleagues and inviting them to specific church events. Here we take those centrally-organised activities that require volunteers to run and staff them, while appreciating that these also depend on personal invitations. Here are some possible categories.

Enquirers’ courses

Many churches run courses such as Alpha and Christianity Explored, either as occasional one-off series or on an almost continuous basis. These require a considerable investment in volunteer time to lead the events, prepare and serve meals (if these are included), lead table discussions, organise the setting up and packing down of each event, oversee technical issues, offer prayer support, and so on.

Life courses

These include video and discussion evenings designed for the local community, or for church members to invite friends, on topics such as marriage support, parenting (at various age-groups), and debt or personal finance. These too need a group of church volunteers to run them effectively and to engage with those who come.

Fresh Expression events

This broad heading includes regular events such as Messy Church and its spin-offs, plus a range of activities seeking to meet local needs while presenting a clear focus on the good news of the Christian faith. These might include toddler groups if combined with some form of simple talk and worship time.

To take Messy Church as one example, this requires a considerable amount of innovative planning, craft preparation, table leadership at the event, cooking and serving meals for, often, large numbers, giving the talk as well as all the logistics of collecting craft materials, setting up and packing away.

Evangelistic services

When a church arranges invitation services, usually with a visiting speaker, everyone is encouraged to invite others. But there need to be people to speak and lead the event, welcomers to make everyone feel at home, people to prepare and print publicity and others to distribute leaflets or invitations, not to mention musicians, sound and visual operators.

The church may also run services in care homes, prisons or other institutions in the area, with loyal teams who often are not seen at work by the congregation.

Young people’s events

Even if a church employs a Youth or Schools Worker, young people’s work needs high levels of staffing to be effective, and especially so with outward-facing youth work. Volunteers in abundance are needed for young people’s activities for the local community, sports activities, children’s holiday clubs, after-school sessions, and other events designed not just for the church’s own young people.

Local visiting

The scope for door-to-door work may not be what it used to be, but while the sects still employ it, Christians should not write it off. Some churches distribute print round the homes in the parish or area, especially at festival seasons, and a few door-knock at the same time to make it more personal. This requires a considerable number of people prepared to distribute and talk to people as a way of promoting the church’s ministry.

Global mission

Another aspect of outreach is a church’s support for global mission, and in particular for members who have left the church to serve in specifically outreach ministries around the world. Volunteers may be involved in groups to promote support for such people in the church, and churches increasingly send people to Third World venues to partner with Christians in other parts of the world for special missions or for building projects.

Practical service

Church members may be called upon to staff church projects in the local community: a drop-in centre, litter picking, and so on. Some churches run coffee shops and bookshops.

There will also be involvement in community activities, food banks, events and local politics where Christians can demonstrate their faith in?a public and personal way.

Applying four principles of volunteering

As in earlier articles I now take four principles of volunteering that are particularly relevant in this case. The support of a team is one key idea, but not covered here as it has been taken in two earlier articles in this series. Here are four other means of support particularly relevant to outreach work.

Quality facilities

One key means of supporting volunteers in outreach activities is the provision of a physical base of appropriate quality. A volunteer in this demanding area of ministry will have a hard enough job as it is, but much tougher if the church property and equipment are not up to the normal standards that people who you are seeking to reach expect.

So what can be done to make the building guest-friendly? If using an old church hall, is it possible to introduce good furnishings or to arrange for a spruce-up of the building, and at least to provide a tidy environment? An alternative is to move out to a local hotel or conference centre for particular events. Neutral territory has other advantages too.

Outreach activities in church, whether Alpha-style courses or invitation events, need rooms and furnishings that back up the message. If you are to expect your guests to sit through a presentation for 45 minutes, they are going to need comfortable seating and appropriate lighting, heating and sound, preferably in a space that lends itself to both up-front input and then group discussion in a cosy environment. Large spaces (for the size of group) with uncarpeted floors and old wooden chairs are not conducive to concentration.

If you are putting on a meal or running a coffee shop, the kitchen and its staff need to be able to prepare delicious food in an attractive and hygienic way, with crockery and cutlery to match. Again, it depends on the area you are in, but aim to at least match people’s homes.

Working with young people in an outreach setting needs quality sports equipment, adequate IT hardware, and games of a quality that will at least rival what they are used to at school.

Some church toilets are best avoided, some buildings are not particularly disability friendly. It is so dispiriting if instant coffee is served in plastic beakers with cheap biscuits from a kitchen where hygiene quality is questionable.

Everything that Maintenance and Equipment News stands for comes into play here. If the building and equipment get in the way of the message, guests are put off and church volunteers embarrassed.

On the other hand, an Alpha course starting with a quality meal in a room decorated and furnished to a high standard, not only impresses the guests but gives confidence to the church volunteers. So paying attention to quality for the building is one key means of supporting your volunteers in outreach service.

Quality presentations

A related way of encouraging volunteers by avoiding cringe-worthy events will be in the role and quality of the media used for sound and visual presentations. Most children are used to hi-tech presentations at school with interactive white-boards and professional standard data projection. Anyone who works in a corporate office will be using sophisticated hardware and software and will expect the same quality in any presentation at a guest event at church.

Alpha and similar courses are now themselves produced to a very high standard. The host church needs to be able to go some way towards matching this when they present the material. This calls for good sound mixing, PA and data projection with screens large enough for the numbers present and bright enough to counter typical daylight.

When it comes to print, for print is still very much a viable medium, anything being distributed to local homes needs to be on quality paper or card, in colour, with good photographic visuals and a look that speaks of professional design. Welcome leaflets have to compete with a market-place where normal standards are now well above what many churches seek to get by with. One feature of many new and independent churches is that they have embraced new technology and aim to achieve presentation standards that are at least as high as in the world of work, sport and education.

The church website needs to be seen to be designed for mobile use with a contemporary look and well-presented wording and graphics. Many look somewhat amateur.

The work of outreach is tough enough as it is, but if it is not backed up with quality presentations to match your area this will simply demoralise many who are seeking to give their time and energy to such ministry. That is why quality in facilities and presentations is a means of encouraging and supporting volunteers by giving them the tools they need.

Encouragement and freedom to fail

All volunteers need encouragement: whether in praise and thanks for their work, serving in teams and in clear support from others. Outreach workers often toil for years and may see little in the way of obvious results. To do this alone is debilitating. To have leaders of these activities that offer plenty of encouragement to their teams and who are themselves encouraged by others is a must.

Failure is not an issue we have really dealt with so far in this series. Outreach, most will admit, is getting harder as the UK becomes increasingly secular. It is possible to make mistakes in all areas of ministry, but in outreach there can often in many churches be a sense of failure.

Church leaders who preach some form of perfectionism can put many potential volunteers off. With outreach work it is all the more important to show that when the going is tough it is support that is required, not criticism. Many forms of outreach do not produce quick results. Workers have to be in this for the long haul. When things do go wrong there are lessons to learn but then the need to carry on.

If this is recognised and if there is both sufficient encouragement and an acceptance that some things that are tried may not work and that is OK, people will serve.

Leadership support

A vital element of encouragement is leadership support. The Minister, key leaders and trustees/PCC need to show that they are fully behind the work, in all kinds of ways. For example, by:

  • taking an obvious interest in the work and asking pertinent questions;
  • asking for regular reports to be tabled and discussed at trustees meetings;
  • backing the work with sufficient financial and other resources;
  • encouraging the whole church to get behind what is happening;
  • releasing the volunteers involved from other expectations of time-consuming ministry;
  • turning up to observe and help out at events;
  • personal involvement wherever possible.

But in my experience, even if the Minister takes a clear lead, many other leaders keep their distance. It may be that they are busy elsewhere but some means of support are not time-consuming, for example by a personal interest and asking after an event how it has gone.

This concludes this six-part series on examining the support needed for volunteers in specific areas of church ministry. This angle shows up some interesting needs that a more general approach can overlook.

John Truscott photoJOHN Truscott is an independent church consultant and trainer who champions the ministry of creative organisation. Visit his website and check out the Resources section for a growing range of over 150 items which you can print out and/or download. Note in particular the Management section page which includes working with volunteers. You can follow John on Twitter @johnnvtruscott. Church Administrators should join the UK Church Administrators Network (UCAN) at