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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  • John Dennis says on

    We go out door to door at 10:00 am on the second Saturday of the month. We are in groups of 2 dressed casually and share 2 pieces of literature – one is a nicely made 4×5 cardstock info of our church and on the back is a brief gospel message (these can be used at any time by our church members). The other is a more detailed explanation of the gospel with scripture on the back. We trust God to use that by explaining it briefly and offering to explain further if they desire.
    Also for our “route”, one of the guys prints out a couple of streets with about 40 houses and he marks an “x” with a start and stop point and draws the route. Super simple, but we are slowly but systematically going through our neighborhood.
    Our conversations are usually brief, but we tell people that our purpose is primarily to share the Good News and not to twist their arm and put them in a church … but if we can be of help, we show them where to come and hear that message again. Beyond that, conversations may grow or end there … trust God for the soil that is prepared or hard. He knows. Sometimes we pray with people. Sometimes we encounter believers … so we encourage them to read the material and to pray for their neighbors.
    Going in pairs is a great way to train others and fellowship and help each other during a conversation with someone about the gospel.

  • Dr. Al Brausam says on

    I’ve been pastoring for many years. Every church I’ve pastored I’ve tried to institute a visitation program. While I was at a church in Fort Worth, TX I heard about a program called GROW. I went to FBC Dallas to hear about the program. It sounded like just what the doctor ordered. I started it at our church and after 6 months we had about 37% of the active church body involved. When I left the church, the next pastor abandoned the program and attendance declined. Recently I’ve been the interim pastor of FBC church in the Treasure Coast of Florida. I again started GROW and people got involved. When the new pastor came on board he did a lot of visiting on his own so he didn’t support the GROW program. The program went from a weekly program to a bi-monthly program. He does his own visiting so you won’t see him at any GROW meetings. The numbers of those involved has fallen way off. I’ve tried to explain to him that this program is a way of getting uninvolved member involved. This program asks members to write letters or cards, make phone calls, go out and visit, or just pray. I still believe that without an outreach program the church will never grow.

    • Hi, Can you please tell me where I can get information about the GROW program? Here is my email to send it to me — HBCPastor at outlook dot com


  • Thom, any resources or tips to train people how to share the Gospel? Or even do door to door talking?

  • Thom,

    Thank you for this article! Our lead pastor sent it to our leadership team with this note: “I am so proud of you that you are not like this. We have not arrived, but praise God we have a church that is not afraid to jump in and love the community we serve.”

    Freshwater Church – Springfield is a mission church, or rather a church with a mission. Instead of saving money to build a church facility, we are saving our money to build a community building where we will continue to love on our neighbors. Our first purchase? A house in our “poorer” neighborhood that we could first love on our neighbors and get to know them. Then we began serving our neighbors through “Clean Up Day” – a city supported adventure of bringing your trash to city dumpsters with the help of our church family. “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” – a Saturday set aside to do exterior work for and with our neighbors to assist them in cleaning up old debris around their house. Neighborhood Block Parties – inviting our neighbors to the Freshwater house for a cookout, blow up bouncy houses for the kids, snow cones and great conversations.
    VBS in the neighborhood, Neighbors Night Out – where parents can drop off their kids so that they can have a date night. After school “Storytime” – a time when Kids can come read books with volunteers, play games and have a snack.
    These are just a few of the ideas God has blessed us with and by His grace and love, we are making a difference in our neighborhood.

    We still have a long way to go and we still have much to learn, but God is faithful in leading us to love others and share Jesus. What an honor to be a part of a loving church community that puts their faith in action.

    -Denny Reeves
    Executive Pastor
    Freshwater Church – Spfld

    Banker by Day, Pastor 24/7

    • Christopher says on

      This is an honest question, I’m not trying to be cynical or snarky: How many of those people are becoming disciples of Jesus?

      • theartist says on

        Hi Christopher-Some WILL become Disciples-others MAY not. But like Jesus, this congregation (Freshwater Church) is “taking the church (themselves) to the street.” The fruit of discipleship, the Lord will let us see as we work for Him. Other fruit we will not see until we are called home. Freshwater Church -is not standing around waiting for neighbors to show up at the door of their physical location. And WE are/THEY are God’s Church-we are God’s eyes, ears, feet, and HANDS. I applaud them. Thanks Christopher.

      • Christopher says on

        You’re missing the point. Jesus never healed anybody without preaching the Word, He never helped anybody without calling them to repentance, He continually rebuked people for their unbelief, and He made many people furious in the process.

        So much of what we call outreach today is nothing more than making ourselves feel good and it accomplishes nothing from an eternal perspective.

        Just assuming someone will become a disciple based on our good works is very naive. Romans 10 makes it clear that we have to be very intentional about preaching the Word of Christ. Instead we seem determined to make people comfortable in their spiritual poverty as much as in their physical poverty.

      • I have raised this same issue with my pastor. We have a food ministry open twice per week and, of course, we see the same groups of people making the rounds. The problem is, they are never confronted with the gospel. Our outreach efforts should always be toward the goal of offering the salvation message.

  • Shannon Carpenter says on

    Our church has groups assigned to nearby schools. The groups take supplies at the beginning of the year and put treats in the teacher lounge throughout the year. We also clean the playground and paint throughout the year. We also deliver treats and thank you cards to the police and fire departments a few times a year. Volunteers run a food pantry that is stocked by donations by the congregation one Sunday each month. All of these things have led to conversations about why we do this and allowed us to share our faith. Simple kindness is outreach.

  • We don’t do outreach and our church is growing. We do have VBS each summer, we serve all over the community, we are encouraged every Sunday to “make disciples” in our everyday lives… we don’t even have “membership,” but “partnership.” I went out “visiting” every week with a church in my past, and I just didn’t see the fruit. Now I “visit” with cashiers, car salesmen, homeless, or whomever crosses my path. My son told me he drove a homeless man somewhere yesterday on his 17th birthday. I almost fell out of my chair, but he told me, “If I die being Jesus to a homeless guy, I have no regrets.” This is the kind of “outreach” we do in our Church.

    • theartist says on

      You are “reaching out.” I believe the term “outreach” can be misinterpreted and/or too limited and.or misunderstood (in definition). Jesus “took the Synagouge to the street” as you and your congregants are doing. So did your son. As we all should. LIFESTLYE. Not necessarily event focused all the time. Your son didn’t wait for an “event or occassion” to do what he did with the homless gentleman.

  • We still do outreach. We do it Sunday Nights before service/discipleship groups. at 3:30 we are set up to visit, prospects (Worship and Sunday School guest) and newcomers to our 2 mile area. We have 6 to 12 teams go out each week. Carlton Berry, Dauphin Way, Mobile AL

  • theartist says on

    The Church Member entitlement Agenda is what is causing the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ to lose so much ground in reaching th lost and unchurched. Recently, one of our members came to Worship Service drug induced. Our Church’s Security solution-rather than surround him in protection, cover him in prayer, and assist him in getting the most immediate and necessary care and help-he was barred from the grounds. This means neither his wife AND four children may not return because of this. The lost and unchurched of this family receives word of this and the consequences help to maintain the “Church Country Club Membership” stereotype label.

  • Andrew Smith says on

    We keep talking about doing outreach but I’m not even sure if we know what it is we’re not doing? And the post here didn’t even define what outreach is. We do VBS and have for many years. It has not been a “successful” outreach activity if success is measured by how many people we can start having a relationship with. The unchurched families we do get show up for free babysitting and even after we follow up, they don’t show up until maybe next year. I bet if we had “Saturday night school” they’d drop their kids for that but Sunday School. Fat chance.

    We serve in a society where the vast majority of people, not everybody but the majority, have at least a big enough share of the “riches of this world” to not really “need” God. Could it just be that we are reaching a tipping point in society in general where people don’t “need” (that is, think they need) what the church has?

    We keep talking about the death of the country club church. The churches “growing” (and by growing, I mean where I keep losing my members to) in my community have “programs for the youth” and other such draws. They can still afford to be clubs. Why are we surprised when we stopped being a club and became focused on the things we were supposed to be focused on, people stopped coming? They weren’t coming for those things to begin with and now we don’t have the resources to be a club. How many people do we really think are looking for “the words of eternal life” instead of “bread for their bellies” (real or metaphorical)?

    • theartist says on

      Hi Andrew, even in the midst of it all, we must realize that our work is not wasted when we work it according to God’s plan-even when we don’t see the harvest. Some seed will fall and not render growth and some will not (Matthew 13:1).
      The day before Ressurrection Sunday, following 3 weeks of prayer and seeking God’s direction-myself and my prayer warrior friend took Bibles and Bible Resource packages (complete with new Bible, Notebook, highlighter, Pen, and age appropriate Gospel Tracts, and candy wrapped in scripture (over 500 pieces in all) into one of the poorer parts of town. in a bit over 2 hours, we ran out of EVERYTHING. Almost all of those we offered prayer to-asked the Lord to be released from alcohol and substance abuse addictions. We took “the Church” to the street. She and I didn’t wait for them to come to the front door of the building to hand them a “Welcome to our Church” packet. The result of our God directed efforts we may not likely see until we both are called Home. Be encouraged. We must continue to be the “Few Laborers” in the “Great Harvest”.

  • John Elliott says on

    I have been reading these comments and I haven’t seed one that said anything about doing Outreach. We have not been doing outreach because of people in our area have not responded to what we did before. We are starting it back as a means of trying to grow. Our church is just about dead, not that the people are, but that most of our community has decided to go to the larger churches in town and don’t want to come to a smaller one to help us grow.
    In any case I have given our core members a gospel track to memorize so they will be ready for the new outreach we are going to start in 2 weeks. I am laying some ground work by visiting and praying and sending some notes to people they will visit. I also am asking the ones that go to not just invite to church but to give the people the gospel and let Jesus do the rest.
    Please be praying for us, we have done all we know to do and nothing has helped.

    • Praying for your church, John.

    • theartist says on

      John-Please do not speak FAILURE into the mission you believe God has set you on. (“Nothing has helped.”)-If/when you do-you are doomed, becaue you EXPECT IT. Don’t.
      I am praying for your ministry.
      Also, to all-Outreach should not be always necessarily an “event focused” thing. It is the LIFESTYLE that we must develop. It is the required lifestyle of EVERY saint in Christ Jesus “to GO…”
      For example, I always keep a pocket/bag of Gospel Tracts with me. I place them in the hands of children who pass me as I am on my way to work. I give a Gospel tract to the drive thru clerk at McDonalds, I drop them on seats of buses and Trains during my commute, I leave them in restaurant and store washroom stalls, and Hospital prayer/meditation rooms when visiting a sick friend. I smile and greet commuters as they are waiting for buses and trains to arrive. ALWAYS praying for the salvation of the one who receives it.
      WHY-Many years ago -after I received Christ, the Lord directed me to share Christ with a drug addicted friend. I REFUSED out of fear. Once I got over the fear of NOT sharing Christ with her-and I DECIDED to obey God-it was too late. She was killed by her dealer for “failure to pay.”
      All of us have VERAs (and Vernons) we have a responsibility to reach. The commandment has already been given to all who have received Christ by faith. Disobedience is not an option. Our mission field is whatever door we step INTO and OUT of.

  • Thanks for the great article. We do a combination of partnering with community programs already in place to meet real needs, and initiating our own programs and ministries to meet needs not being met by community. In either case we are intentional to live out 1 Peter 3:15. With the ministries we initiate we are very intentional to operate out on biblical foundation and introduce the gospel along the way. Out ministries include Jobs for Life (job skills training for the underemployed and unemployed in our community), food relief programs, financial counseling, serving our school district with 500 plus volunteers yearly to improve facilities and grounds, a moving ministry and the start up a separate 501c3 ca; TransAct Hope to connect people to Christ, affordable housing and a community of caring people. We work to involve members of our congregation in all of these to provide a consistent and thoughtful connection to those in our community.

  • Matt Brown says on

    This is great stuff. The only thing that the data doesn’t support (FOR US; not speaking for anyone else) is Vacation Bible School. Our local ministeriums (I’m part of 2) did some data sharing and the number of unchurched kids that came to any of the VBS programs in our area represented less than 10% of the overall numbers. And of that 10%, less that 2% connected with any church afterward. It had become mostly kids who were already part of churches just going from church to church all summer long, or parents/grandparents using VBS as free childcare through the summer. We still have a couple of churches doing it each year, but due to the limited ROI, most of us have put our efforts into other areas.

    • Debbie Goins says on

      Oh how sad to hear that churches are not having VBS anymore. Our small church (before we moved to another town) became unable to hold VBS anymore due to a lack of teachers. Even if families are using it as a babysitting service and children are attending VBS programs in other churches, I can only imagine what God can and will do with those “seeds” that are planted in the lives of those precious children. We may never see the results of our ministries and “data” is really just that. Some things simply cannot be quantified, particularly in God’s economy. PLEASE reach out to the children. We may be the only opportunity they have to hear about Jesus other than as a curse word.

      • Matt Brown says on

        We have a very thriving children’s ministry. We are just focused on primarily reaching ones that don’t know Jesus. And VBS was not accomplishing that in our context.