It’s not just about getting into a gospel conversation – it’s far bigger than that!
There are several aspects to using invitations and surveys to reach your community for Christ. Yes, we want to invite people to church, events and courses and we want to engage in conversations where we get the opportunity to share the Good News about Jesus, but hopefully we’ll also want to know our community better so we can reach them better. It’s this latter aspect that can be easily overlooked but is vital and the one we’ll begin with.
Why survey your community?
First, it helps you understand the worldview of the community and how to reach them for Christ.
Our focus is on asking questions but surveying your community includes observing and talking to people in more informal situations. Tim Keller and J. Allen Thompson in their book Church Planter Manual say there is no substitute for this kind of research. It ‘will give us insights into the people of our specific neighborhood, their likes and dislikes, social structures, world-view outlook and religious aspirations’ and ‘will impact our attitudes and change the ways we relate, listen and speak’.
They quote John Stott saying to speak like Paul we need to feel like Paul and see like Paul. He didn’t just see the idols of Athens in Acts 17 but looked and thought about them.
If this is going to inform your evangelism then one aspect of our surveying is to:
It may be good to do a survey months in advance to inform you for planning your mission as well as in the run up to events which may be more focused on inviting.
Training in time
It’s also good to plan ahead to train your congregation. If you’re going to ask people to go out as sheep among wolves (Matthew 10:16) then it’s a good idea to give them some ammunition. Having all the answers is not a guarantee to converting someone but feeling they can answer some of the non-Christian’s questions will help church members feel a bit more confident. Teach them some of the tough questions in the lead up to the mission, e.g. in a mid-week meeting once a month, and teach them a gospel outline such as two ways to live and use role plays in your preparation. Buy the books that help Christians answer tough questions. Ask church members to review them and advertise them on a Sunday.
When it comes to training for the survey itself, remember to let them know what type of survey they’re doing and what they’re trying to achieve.
Train them also in:
What we’re not doing
We are not doing a survey as an underhand method to preach (2 Corinthians 4:2). If you tell someone you’re doing a survey then you’ve given your word that you’re doing a survey. On one occasion, before the interviewee had finished the questions my Christian brother was challenging his answers. It was quite clear to both me and the member of the public that the interviewer appeared dishonest; a poor and sad witness. Perhaps it was his zeal and enthusiasm getting the better of him, a lack of social skills or an argumentative spirit. Either way we would do well to cover this in training.
Of course we hope and pray that we’ll get into a conversation and tell someone the gospel but when doing a survey that’s a bonus not a right. Sometimes the opportunity arises from deep and meaningful questions we’ve asked along the way. But before we get onto those, a few more words on training for when we do get into conversation…
In my experience some people finish the survey and walk on but some people stay and chat. Some people just say, ‘No.’ Prepare your team for all these eventualities. Prepare them for knock-backs but also for aggression. Be innocent and also be wise (Matthew 10:16). We live in an increasingly intolerant age and an increasingly digital age. Be friendly but firm if you need to disagree but also be prepared for aggressive intolerance, being called names and being recorded by video on a phone. If things do escalate, remain gentle and move away. We’re ambassadors for Christ and the church (2 Corinthians 5:20).
Some people are full of energy and enthusiasm for cold contact work but some people are genuinely scared and anxious. Be gentle with them. Perhaps you as a minister or leader are one of those who are scared, to whom bold, extrovert work doesn’t come naturally.
For those who are timid please be gentle with them and encourage them that they have the boldness from the Holy Spirit (Acts 4) and they won’t be on their own; send them with someone more experienced or more outgoing; remind them people will be praying for them and God is with them (Psalm 23). Perhaps they could even just come along and say nothing – just being part of a pair and watching, holding the booklets and praying in their heads.
For those of you in leadership you need to get out there even if it’s not your gifting or natural fit. Do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). You can do it. Die to yourself. Lead by example. Your church needs you to. Take a deep breath and go for it. It’s like the first time you asked a girl an important question, such as, ‘Will you marry me?’ It matters.
So what sort of survey questions should we ask?
If we’re publicising an event then just invite and hand out a flier, a booklet or gospel and don’t expect many conversations. You could introduce yourself and invite them. You could ask them if they’ve ever been to church before or if they’d like to or if they would be interested in coming to your event. You could explain what the event is and ask them what sort of things they’d be interested in coming to and see if a conversation comes from it.
I have done some excellent long surveys and some brilliant short ones. It all depends on what you’re trying to achieve. I suggest longer, more detailed surveys for finding out what makes your community tick and shorter ones if you’re trying to find out just one thing, such as a suitable change of church name or venue or logo, or if you are inviting people to events.
By nature, a survey is taking a sample. You can’t interview the whole community. When you start to see a pattern or lots of similar answers then be confident you’ve taken a big enough sample. It’s not an exact science.
The type of questions to ask depends on the setting, who you’re trying to reach and what you’re trying to achieve. For example, two friends sitting at a table in the student union bar with a pint at 6 pm are more likely to engage in long discussion than a parent and child on their way to the bus stop in the rain with plastic shopping bags digging into their fingers.
Do they live around here? It may be worth finding out if the person you’re surveying is local and a potential visitor rather than a tourist from New Zealand here for the first and last time in their life.
How to start
First introduce yourself. It’s vital and so much more friendly to begin by telling them your name. I’ve had more success when saying my first name than just saying which church I’m from.
Secondly let them know what they’re agreeing to, such as how many questions you would like to ask – give them some indication that it won’t take very long. For example, you might say something like, ‘Hi. My name’s Chris. I’m from … Church and we’re asking people three questions about Easter. Would you be able to help? Thanks. What’s your name? … Great. Pleased to meet you. Question 1 …’
How to end
A mild offer to share the gospel:
‘Thank you very much for answering the questions. That’s really helpful. Is there any question you’d like to ask me?’
A greater opportunity for discussion:
‘Final Question: If God would answer you one question what would it be? … I don’t have any more questions. That’s the end of the survey but there is an answer to that question. Would you like to know what it is briefly?’ Or, ‘Final Question: Can I tell you what Christianity is all about in two minutes by drawing six pictures or is there any particular thing about Christianity or church that you’d like to know?’
Finally if it’s appropriate offer a handshake and ask their name and say you were pleased to meet them. Thank them for their time and offer them a booklet, tract or gospel, an invite to a course such Christianity Explored or any events including your church contact details.
On the day you could start with some sustenance for your team and a short Bible reading, words of courage, prayer, then go out (in pairs if possible), meeting back at an agreed time for feedback and prayer.
The following Sunday you could feed back to the congregation with encouragements, being sensitive with your language to any non-Christian visitors that day.
Consider the size and capability of your church. If you’re a small or less capable church then feel free to invite someone in from another church to lead you all in it: in preparation, in training, in the lead up and even on the day. You could enquire of your local Gospel Partnership. If you can, make sure you or a couple of people shadow him or her to learn how to do it for next time.
Go in pairs if you can. Train up others. Take turns. Show others how and give them the opportunity to have a go and then give them feedback. Remember to use the ‘praise sandwich’ – tell them two things they did well and one thing they could work on.
Suggest suitable clothing and footwear for the weather. Some of your congregation may feel the elements more than others. We’ve also had to ask one church member to wear clothes that are less revealing, however don’t dress like the JWs or Mormons. Gloves somehow seem less friendly. You may want to wear matching t-shirts that advertise the church and it’s events.
How long are you intending to be out? What distance will you be asking people to cover? Do you need to plan on a map who covers which streets? Are you going door to door round detached gated houses or round rural country lanes or waiting around outside tower blocks or skyscrapers? Are you sticking to urban centres? What time of day is best for your volunteers and those you’re trying to target? Will this only catch a certain demographic?
Using a clipboard may be quicker than an iPad or tablet, as will a quick scribble than your neatest calligraphy.
Don’t forget your booklets, tracts or gospels, invites to Christianity Explored and events with contact details and plenty of question sheets.
Get permission if you’re not on public land
We found that a national supermarket chain now owned part of the town centre and we got stopped. On another occasion a local park groundsman said we had to ask the council. It’s worth checking these things out first but be aware that there are people in authority, including the police, who don’t actually know the rules so it’s worth checking your rights through the correct channels before you take their word for it and are forced to stop. Generally you will be allowed to survey on public land.
What to do with the results
Sometimes I’ve been asked if we intend to publish the results. This will be more difficult with open ended questions and you don’t need to but you could publish some of the results and give people an opportunity to check out your website or social media, hopefully with a link to a gospel outline.
In summary I recommend:
- Planning ahead with training and corporate prayer
- A snappy honest introduction
- A few open ended questions showing genuine listening
- The option to hear the Christian view, an invitation to church, and free gospel or booklet with church contact details
- Feedback, prayer and evangelism
Happy gospelling and may God bless you.
 Tim Keller and J. Allen Thompson, Church Planter Manual (Redeemer City to City, 2002), pp. 69–71.