“If your church vanished tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anyone care?” Those were the questions posed to our small ministry team years ago at a local ministry conference in Cincinnati, Ohio. There were probably a hundred people in the room that day, but I felt like Rick Rusaw was speaking straight into my soul. Rusaw, coauthor of The Externally Focused Church, had flown in from Colorado to speak to local church leaders. I remember being excited to purchase his book and get started. I remember personally reflecting on his questions after the conference and not liking my answer. Unfortunately, the answer to both his questions that day was probably “No.” If our church vanished tomorrow, no one would even notice we were gone.
In my early years of ministry I served as a children’s minister and then family life director at a church in Southeast Indiana. I remember many conversations after that conference about not waiting for our neighbors to come into our church doors, but instead we had to go to them as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19, 20. As church leaders, we had to decide. Were we going to be a church with a missions ministry where we sent a few to do the work of the church, or a church on mission?
The apostle Paul gives us a hint to the answer in Colossians 4:2-6. “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (emphasis added).
Being the Church
I see things changing in church cultures today. Church leaders are now encouraging their congregations to organically go and be the church wherever the Lord plants them, not waiting for the church to organize an event. It may be leading the PTA or volunteering at a local food pantry. It may be raising funds for a friend with cancer or fostering a child. The goal is to serve others in a way that is both loving and authentic and earns the right to be heard with unbelievers. Christ’s vision for the Great Commission was to equip and empower unschooled, ordinary believers like you and me to share the gospel with our family, friends, coworkers, and community. That’s the way Jesus did it. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13, emphasis added).
One of the dangers I often see with church outreach programs is that a congregation can quickly becoming lulled into complacency, waiting for that once a year service project led from the pulpit and organized by church leaders. Another danger is when the church recruits the best of the best and guilts them into serving only within the church walls. Neither is what Jesus had in mind with the Great Commission.
Start with Prayer
Whether you come from a church of 25 or 2,500, every church can have a powerful impact outside its walls; but it has to start with prayer. Pray as a church, asking the Holy Spirit to open doors. Pray with people—even unbelievers—and begin building relationships with them whether it be at work, on the ballfield, or down the street. Bathe everything in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to season your words, actions, and attitude with his divine power. Remember Colossians 4:2. “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”
For several years, I had the privilege of serving as the director of community and pastoral care at Whitewater Crossing Christian Church in Cleves, Ohio and the blessing of working alongside a great team of visionary leaders including senior pastor, David Vaughan. He constantly reminds his flock that you can’t just “sit and soak” but instead you must “stand and serve.” What does that look like for the church today?
Visionary church leaders understand the real mission of the church isn’t counting how many are seated on Sunday morning, but how many are sent out every day of the week to share the gospel. Training disciples who will go and make other disciples; that is what will exponentially grow the kingdom of God.
Assessing Your Outreach Strategy
It’s important that every church, whether large or small, takes the time to assess their outreach strategy. Here are some important things to consider when deciding on next steps for your church.
Take the time to assess the needs around you. Talk to community leaders like
city council members and school officials and ask, “How can we help?” In our area churches, schools, business leaders, and other non-profits have come together to create local faith advisory boards where leaders meet on a regular basis to discuss the needs of the community and how to best meet them.
Invite others to join in. Friends, neighbors, even those you are serving. Often,
without meaning to, we devalue others by doing for them what we could do with them. When we do it for them, it sometimes can create an “Us” vs “Them” mentality. It would be quite a testimony of the sending power of the church if the project was able to empower others and sustain itself long after you were gone. Ongoing outreach opportunities are a great way to attract hungry seekers looking for a place to plug in and serve and also reach skeptical ones in a powerful way.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Take the time to look around at others who are meeting a
need in the community and partner with them. An outreach ministry or service project doesn’t always have to have your church’s name on it. There is great synergy when churches partner with other organizations around them. At Whitewater Crossing, we found this out in a powerful way when we built a new building entirely devoted to local outreach. Since opening just two years ago, the Whitewater Life Center has partnered with local civic organizations like the Kiwanis and Free Store Food Bank to help fund and distribute weekly backpacks full of food to local schools and hot meals to neighboring children in the summertime. Instead of opening up our own car repair shop, Whitewater has partnered with a local non-profit organization called Wheels that has already donated more than 1,000 cars to families in need.
Bloom where you’re planted. Ask your congregation to look around at where God
has planted them at home, at work, and at play. Challenge them to open their hearts and begin to pray, “God, how can I help?” and “Here I am Lord, send me!”
Do you want serving to become part of your church’s DNA and not just another program or annual event? If so, then release your congregation to serve outside the church walls. Challenge them from the pulpit to look for doors God may be opening around them. If we unleash the church to bloom where they are planted, we will produce a harvest of righteousness for the kingdom of God! That, my friends, is the Great Commission. That is the church working right!
Linda Hutchinson’s 20 years in full time church ministry prepared her for her new role as executive director of Rock Solid Families, a faith-based non-profit organization in West Harrison, Indiana dedicated to coaching couples and families.