It was not a dramatic moment in time. Instead it was subtle, almost too subtle to be noticed. It became evident first in mainline churches. But evangelical churches followed a few years later. The erosion was slow, but it became glaringly apparent after several years.
The change of which I speak is the movement away from outwardly focused ministries in churches. Over time, most of the resources of time, money, and ministries have shifted more toward the members. Churches are now gathering in holy huddles with little intention of breaking out into a world of lostness and loneliness.
How It Happened
How did this negative trend develop? Though many perspectives could be offered, allow me simply to share the practical perspective. There was a time when most churches had an outreach ministry. And more times than not, this ministry was a type of program with predictable patterns.
But church leaders, vocational and lay alike, became program averse. So they slowly began eliminating outreach programs in their churches. I understand why this development took place. The programs seemed ineffective, not culturally relevant, and often cumbersome to lead and implement.
The problem, however, is that nothing replaced the programs. And the mild culture of outreach in churches was replaced with no culture of outreach.
At the same time, more churches started sending members on international mission trips. This development was good. But it gave many in the church a sense of false comfort that the church was really outwardly focused. The problem was that many times the local community became a neglected mission field.
Possible Beginning Points for an Outwardly Focused Church
So I began asking leaders in outwardly focused churches about their practical steps. I made certain the leaders were in different size congregations lest I offer suggestions limited to one group of churches. The leaders were in churches with worship attendance ranging from 50 to 2,500.
The answers I received were immensely practical, very helpful, and highly doable. Though this list is by no means exhaustive, here are seven of the more common habits.
1. The church takes time during each worship service to pray for the community. Prayer is powerful; and the church members become more focused about their communities.
2. A volunteer or staff person is accountable for the outreach ministry of the church. If no one has leadership responsibility, it does not get done.
3. A regular report is provided to church members about outreach and ministry efforts in the community. What gets reported gets done. Have you noticed most churches provide financial reports to the church members? That says the money is important. We need at least equal emphasis on the importance of outreach ministries.
4. Churches have regular "mystery" guests come to the worship services. One church leader told me that his church asks someone in the community to be a mystery guest every quarter. Those guests are always first-time guests, and they share their experiences with leaders later that day or week. The church members thus get to see the worship services through the eyes of a community member.
5. The church gives obsessive attention to their websites. A church website is the new front door for churches. It's almost always the first place prospective guests go. These websites should be designed in a very guest friendly way.
6. The churches are intentional about scheduling ministries, events, and activities for reaching the community. One pastor told me that his church always focuses on one key community outreach ministry per month. The church's attendance is less than 80, but it was under 40 two years ago.
7. Churches are intentional about connecting with their communities through social media. It is mindboggling that we have the most pervasive form of communication in history, but very few churches use it strategically. I know a pastor in a rural community who worked with a Millennial and asked her to lead the social media outreach. It has been a great success because someone is responsible for it.