Autopsy of a Deceased Church Outreach Ministry

His statement shocked me.

To be certain, I knew the anecdotal evidence was not good, but his words surprised me beyond my worst expectations. He had ministry responsibility for calling on nearly 250 churches. He knew most of them well. His comments still ring in my mind: “Almost none of the 250 churches I serve have an ongoing outreach ministry in the communities they are supposed to serve. A few of them think they do, but they are really just following up with guests who visit.”

Wow. No ongoing intentional outreach. At best follow up of guests.

And we wonder why our churches are struggling. We aren’t reaching people because, well, we aren’t trying to reach people.

What has happened? How can we explain the death of ongoing outreach by our churches? I’ve worked with thousands of churches, so I have a few ideas.

  • We became so enamored with the worship service as the front door, we concluded that it was our outreach. But cool and dynamic worship services are not outreach into our communities. They are attractions to attend.
  • We don’t know how to get into our communities. I agree that cold-call visitation is difficult. But if you have killed that in your church, with what did you replace it? What is your church doing every week to connect with people in the community?
  • We rejected programs because we think programs aren’t cool or relevant. Let me give you a clear example. Vacation Bible School is the number one evangelistic tool in America. But many churches have given up on VBS because it’s a program, or because it’s traditional, or because it’s not cool. By the way, it’s not too late to change your mind about a summer Vacation Bible School. Check it out:
  • We call everything outreach and evangelism. If everything is outreach and evangelism, nothing is outreach and evangelism.
  • We’ve become so busy doing good things in our church that we neglect the best. True story. The most hours of “ministry” in one church I know is the flower ministry. Okay, if you are working in a flower ministry, that’s fine. But if that’s the number one ministry of the church, it’s not fine. And flowers in the worship center make me sneeze.
  • We decided to do away with intentional outreach because of a lack of participation by members. I almost did exactly that very thing in a church I served because we only had an average of 12 people per week doing any kind of outreach in the community. Then I did the math. Those 12 typically had three types of meaningful outreach contacts a week. That’s a total of 36 contacts a week and 1,872 a year. That’s big.
  • We have become so comfortable and complacent with the way we do church that we don’t want any outsiders to mess it up. In other words, we will fight for the precise worship style or carpet color we want, but we will yawn at the thought of our neighbors going to hell.

I am performing several autopsies of deceased outreach ministries in churches. Soon I will be performing autopsies on those same churches themselves.

Reach out into your community and live. Or neglect it and die.

It’s really that simple.

Posted on April 23, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I think the outreach it self will not bring people into church it is our relationship with others the out reach gives us the opportunity to become friends or earn their trust so we can invite unchurched to Sunday services I know it is hard because I don’t always do it myself I let life get In the way of ministry

  • I think a lot of people in a our churches are doing things in the community we’ve just not trained them view it as Kingdom work. For example, we lament a lot about Youth Sports, but instead of viewing youth sports as the enemy of church programs what if we instead trained our people to view youth soccer as kingdom work and not just “kids sports?” That’s been the focus at our church this past year which has led into a intentional season of serving our community that end shaping our culture for years to come.

    With some great help from Will Heath at Auxano and of course, God, we have created a “campaign” that’s really just a tool for us called Here/There. Our church wants to live out the greatest commandment by serving our community just as many hours as we serve in the church (loving our neighbors as ourselves). On the surface it’s easy to say “That’s not possible people don’t have any time!” But the fact is many of our people were already serving in hospices, or the United Way, or youth sports, or Kiwanas, etc. So the focus for us was to train our folks to view the places they are already serving as their “There.” Also we have a 50 year old building. In the past when we’ve needed to complete a big project we asked and the congregation meets the need financially. We have one of those projects this year and instead of just asking just for the money we need for “here” we asked for double that and we are going to give half of that money away. So as much as we love ourselves enough to renovate our building we are show our community we love them just as much but financially blessing organizations doing kingdom work in our town. So we set a God sized goal for our church of 150 for 18,000 hours of service (9,000 here and 9,000 there), $36,000 ($18,000 here and $18,000 there) in 365 days.

    We are just a few weeks in and we’ve already seen tremendous success and several of our members are serving in areas we never knew they were serving in. We are now trying to meet those folks as they log their hours and capture those stories to continue to build excitement and momentum. We’ve guests come in this season and stick because folks desire to serve and it’s great booster to know they don’t have to stop coaching soccer, they just have to start viewing their soccer kids and families as their mission field and adjust accordingly.

    I think there is much wisdom is the “keep doing what you are already doing, let’s just change how you do it” mindset rather than pioneering new ground as a church and creating new outreach ministries. And for us, we’ve spent a lot a time cultivating relationships with a couple of groups in our community doing great work and have been able to send them people who haven’t been engaged but now want to be. We’ve invited the leaders in our town for lunches, we’ve prayed with our police chief, etc. As a staff we’ve just put ourselves out there as a resource for our city leaders.

    All of that though, for our church, goes back to our mission which is simply “As Family We Go.” It’s great to be a good healthy family of God, but we never go anywhere we can’t build His Kingdom. And that is, ultimately, what we are called to do.

    • Doug Schneider says on

      Thanks for sharing this Jeff, how has the response been financially? My hunch is that this generation may indeed give twice as much to impact our communities in addition to building facilities. What are you seeing?

  • A mentality that we cannot reach out and minister to others unless it’s part of an official church program. We have neighbors, coworkers, family, and other acquaintances that we already know. But yet it doesn’t always occur to us why God placed them in our lives. If it does occur to us, we may only invite them to church (which is good) but think that’s all we have to do.

  • Thom, thank you for your books and website. Because of “Who Moved My Pulpit” (A gift from an unlikely source, a story by itself) and a year of Friday’s spent in prayer and fasting, we launched our first service–a new ministry–in a church which is almost dead. This past Sunday was incredible. God has done one miracle after another to bring it all together. It would take too long to tell you about it, but one day I’m going to have to write a book or make a move. Only those who know the Lord Jesus Christ would understand or believe it. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Together, we’ll glorify the Lord for His unspeakable gift. Our God is Faithful and True!

    • Sorry for the typ0. I meant to say “make a movie.” I don’t want to move from where God has placed me and what He has me doing…EVER.

  • An outreach ministry means that you have to get your hands dirty as well as attempt to learn what other people believe, even if contrary to their own beliefs. For some reason many Christians just want to tell everyone else they are wrong without first listening to the person. Also, contrary to what many Christians have been taught, those who believe something else aren’t totally unhappy and are sometimes happier than the Christians who may even secretly want to know their recipe for happiness. You aren’t going to try to convert someone to something you yourself don’t even like.

    • george cochran says on

      I think you’re on to something here. To get to the heart of the issue, you must ask a series of “But why?” questions. The starting point is to acknowledge that very few churches in America have an effective outreach ministry.

      But why? Because few members participate and even fewer non-believers respond.

      But why? Because most members are inwardly focused on church and most non-believers have no interest in institutional religion.

      But why? Because many churches follow a professional ministry model that enables members to divorce belief from obedience.

      But why? Because it’s easier to manage than organic structures that empower members to grow through mentoring relationships.

      But why? Because many elders and deacons would rather perpetuate traditional church activities.

      But why? Because they are not spiritually mature themselves.

      But why? Because they were never personally discipled in a loving mentoring relationship.

      But why? Because their own elders and deacons preferred traditional church activities over mentoring relationships.

      This process finally exposes the ‘elephant in the room’. Before members (and leaders) turn outward to reach lost souls, they must first turn inward though personal discipleship. Only then will hearts be compelled by Christ’s love to be authentic witnesses to their community–starting with those already in their sphere of influence.

  • Apologies… the computer changed my word to “in-churched” instead of “UN.”

  • Thom,
    My church has tried a variety of very good things to reach out to the community, but none of them seem to result in true outreach. Not that they are a waste of time… ministry is what Christ commanded us to do… but the efforts don’t seem to connect spiritually with far-from-God people. In a way, I think they view us as another government program. Is there something that you’ve seen in your consulting connections with churches that has impressed you as really “striking a chord” with in-churched people?

    • Dale –

      Anything we can do to encourage our members to develop real relationships that lead to gospel conversations is key.

    • Christopher says on

      You’re right about being treated like another government program. I always use our food pantry and benevolence to share the gospel, trying to present those ministries as examples of God’s grace and love, but the response is almost always one of entitlement. The idea of the church doing something out of grace and love is completely lost on 99% of the people we help.

  • Is it possible that we really have lost our vision on what it means to be a church? It appears to me that the reformed churches, and I do not mean denominations in NA have become concerned foremost with keeping the “purity” of the word, and we argue over what the definition of the theology is, more concerned about the doctrine, and how to keep it pure, than to really demonstrate to a hurting world what the love of Christ is. We get so caught up in the doctrine, that we don’t realize that those outside of the church that are hurting really don’t care what the doctrine is, they are suffering and just want to see someone demonstrate what God’s love to them looks like. We have become like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, worried that we have to keep the church pure, and neglecting the love that Jesus showed the sinners and the so called misfits of that day.
    Having said that, some will misinterpret that I am an LGBT activist, and I assure that I am not, but it simply is not my job to put myself into being a judge, deciding who goes to heaven or hell. We are simply called to show Gods love to a world that is lost and is looking for answers, and then let the Holy Spirit do the job of convicting the sinner of their sin, and calling for repentance. Instead, my fear is that we as reformed Christians put more roadblocks in the way of those living in sin, and as a result, the people looking for solutions to their problems become hardenend and angry because we dare to judge them, when in fact that is not our job.
    Don’t get me wrong, I do not agree with lifestyles that are in my opinion, a conscious decision to live that life of sin, but I am called to love the sinner without approving of the lifestyle choice. That work, of making a difference will be hard, sweaty, bloody, at times smelly, but that is the calling of every church today, to love the unloved, to reach out into the community, to plant the seed, but then let the Holy Spirit water and nourish the seed.

    • Thank you, Gene.

    • Christopher says on

      Jesus and Paul were very concerned about purity in the church.

      • Jesus and Paul also traveledectensively and spread the good news. Both Bibical doctrine and outreach are essential.

      • We don’t sacrifice our church’s purity by reaching out to the impure. After all, we too are impure. Remember the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Jesus took the active step of reaching out this person living in adultery.

    • Christopher says on

      Failure to confront sin never leads to faith in Jesus. Why put your faith in a Savior if you don’t think you need to be saved? Why seek forgiveness if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong?

      • Christopher,
        I am not advocating not confronting sin, what I am saying is that as Christians we should not be in the business of arguing what doctrine is best, and in the process, create burdens that are to heavy for a new Christian to understand. If you think that Love is telling them that they have done nothing wrong, that is a different view of love than I have.
        We are to show love, the Holy Spirit is to convict and ask for repentance. God is asking us to plant a seed of His love to a world lost in sin, and He will take care of the increase. Somehow we get mixed up with loving the sinner while not loving the sin, and we get tangled up with us as Christians wanting to judge people. I think that we get confused about what it means to confront sin which so easily slips into judging them instead. The people searching for answers can see right through our façade, and frankly, right now, they want nothing to do with Christianity.

        Look at the example of Christ with the adulterous woman. What was his response to her? He loved her and told her to go and sin no more. I do not believe that He condemned her. But He also knew that this event was a trap, because if you look in Leviticus, the penalty was for both the man and the woman to be stoned, if caught in adultery. So why did the chief priests only bring the woman when they knew what the law prescribed. It was a trap to get Jesus

    • Christopher says on

      How can we do the right thing if we don’t first think the right thing (Romans 12:1-2), which is what doctrine is all about.

      Calling people to be more concerned about helping others than doctrinal purity is, in and of itself, a doctrine.

    • Diane Hyatt says on


      • So are you going to give a newborn baby solid food at birth, knowing full well that that baby will choke on the solid food. No, we give babies at birth up until about a year, milk, and then gradually wean them to solid food. A newborn Christian needs milk, but eventually will have to be weaned to solid food, which is doctrine. it becomes a skill at knowing when to wean a new Christian to solid food, and that may be something that the Holy Spirit is better at then we are.

        It is my opinion, based upon what I am seeing in the Midwest US, that churches are declining in enrollment, even though the mission field is right in front of them. When 87% of Americans don’t attend church, then we need to reevaluate how and why we reach out to those who don’t go to church. If we don’t change, in a generation the church as we know it will disappear from society, maybe sooner.

      • Christopher says on

        What percentage of the population of Rome, or Corinth, or Ephesus do you think attended church? Yet, Paul never excoriated those believers for putting too much emphasis on doctrine; in other words, having a correct understanding of the Gospel..

        We have to get past this western idea that we are failing if at least two thirds of the population is not “attending church.”

        87% of Americans don’t attend church because they don’t believe in Jesus (for the most part). Our modern day outreach has nothing to do with the Gospel, it’s all about recruiting people to join your organization.

    • george cochran says on


  • Heartspeak says on

    Part of the challenge is folks at/in church think it’s the church’s job to do the outreach–not theirs. Consequently, they’re already one (or more) step removed from the responsibility to love their neighbor. It’s not the church’s job. It’s the job of the Church. There’s an important difference here.

  • I did a 13 week series on Autopsy of a Deceased Church.
    Instead of calling it that I called it “Autopsy of a Revival.”
    I walked through each chapter of the small text with the core of my congregation on Wednesday nights.
    My church went from 300-110 in 14 months before I came as Lead Pastor 19 months ago.
    I feel like we must address these issues.
    This is how we chose to do it.

    • Joe, was it just the sermon series? Did you also intentionally give outreach tools into your teaching and schedule outreach events, walks etc?

  • I feel like we could do a better job of this at our church. I’d love to hear some of the ideas people are seeing success from.

    • I would as well, Jared. I am also in the process of learning from other churches that are doing it well.

      • Steven C says on


        If I may, you are doing your readers a disservice when you merely tell us what not to do. The article clearly communicates that no outreach equals the death of the church which I am sure everyone reading would agree. However, you don’t explain how to succeed in leading an outreach ministry and give examples of it being done.

        “In the process” is open ended. If you truly believed this is a matter of urgency (and I agree it is) then you would explain how to get the job done effectively and give a time frame for reporting your findings. I am sure that article will explode in views. Good leaders do just that.

        To be quiet blunt some pastors are “dying” to have clear direction on doing outreach well. Even below a person asked for examples and you were unable to give them. The whole point of a blog is to effectively communicate in a quick fashion. This platform gives you the opportunity to give us those examples in a quick manner if you grant time to it.

        Is it possible the reason for a lack of leadership for doing outreach well is that many pastors, denominational leaders, and professors have given up on it as well? What is being taught at the seminary level to accomplish continued outreach ministry in the church? Methods in this information age will change rapidly I hope principles of leading outreach is taught in our seminaries and the improvements are directed by those who lead in our SBC agencies such as yourself. If they are not then we can lament baptism declines and bemoan a lack of outreach by our churches but no significant change will take place.

  • Kelly M. More says on

    How do we help our church leaders recognize we are not serving the community without offend them?

    • The best path is for leaders to offer positive ways to reach the community. But, in reality, any type of change may step on someone’s toes.

    • Da vi d Tr oub le fie ld, D Mi n says on

      Here’s a way: Ask them, “If a booger were hanging out of your nose, would you want for me to tell you or not to tell you?” Emotionally-secure church leaders will respond, “For pete’s sake–please tell me!” Then, proceed with telling them that their leadership of church outreach is a booger.

      Doing Sunday School right and well–which is a fine conservative SBC tradition (your church is one of those, right?!)–fixes all of this. The 6 tasks assigned to it all are church-growth related; if SS fails to accomplish its tasks, then your congregation WILL NOT GROW. Those 6 tasks again are:

      1. Reach people for Bible study (the same people and new people; all the time, all the time, all the time–and, all the time!)

      2. Teach people the Bible

      3. Witness to people about Christ, and lead people to church membership.

      4. Minister to people in need.

      5. Lead people to worship.

      6. Support and undergird the work of the church and the denomination (i.e., do not let your small group become any kind of cancer in the larger body).

      Sunday School is “program enough”–just practice doing it right and well, and outreach will take care of itself. See the research :-))

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