Seven Habits of Outwardly Focused Churches

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.

Share Your Stories

There are many great stories from other churches about effective community outreach and impact. I would love to hear your stories. Indeed I would love to hear any of your thoughts about this article and the seven traits I noted.

I look forward to your comments.

Posted on May 28, 2014

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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  • SO timely! In our staff meeting on 5/27 we had a looonnng discussion about facebook’s power, reach, and potential. We’ve had a church page for several years, but we don’t come close to maximizing what we could be doing with this tool. That it’s free is such a no-brainer blessing!

    Another option we are going to try is – another free social network, but more actual social interaction than cyber time. It’s a club listing with group sites (homepage, photos, meeting notices, member profiles, etc) that you can sort by geographic location and activity interest. There are Meet-Ups for canoeing, singles, spiritual discussion, parenting, crocheting…. It’s also free with a global reach, anyone can start a Meet-Up!

    Thanks for your encouraging exhortation!

  • STEVE DE RUSE says on

    As a Pastor and a City Council Member, I can attest to the fact that pastors and their congregations are clueless when it comes to “community” ministry. Most believe they are “outwardly focused” but the reality is, they are looking outward from an inward vantage point. Churches are planted in communities, but they lack any connection to the local community. Cities are made up of people groups such as, seniors, older adults, young adults, children, etc. These attend various events such as local sports like youth soccer, baseball, while the parents might be part of a service club like Rotary, or the women’s club. The seniors have their own social clubs. There is the business sector large and small, the PTA, the list goes on, and then there is local government. The point is in order to be “outwardly” relevant the church must look at the above mentioned groups as the mission field. I planted a church years ago and decided that the local community was going to be our mission field.

  • From the “New Beginnings” program…

    Are we fishers of men or keepers of the aquarium?

  • Ruth Haydon says on

    These are great ideas! We need to have someone in charge of outreach.

    One thing that we have been doing for the last two years is having outreach Sundays. At least four times a year, our church has a special outreach program to the community. We have church during the Sunday School hour and then we break into teams for outreach. Three teams go to local nursing homes, one team goes to a local gas station and washes windows, a couple go out and collect trash in the neighborhoods around the church, a couple of teams go out on prayer walks. Finally several teams go out to neighborhoods with welcome packets and knock on doors to invite people to our church. We have had several families that are now attending our church because of this outreach.

    All teams where t-shirts with the church name on it. This has been rewarding for our members and people in the community have commented positively on our outreach.

    Our biggest problem in our congregation is that we are in a very transient area with a lot of military families moving in and out. We have to make a conscious effort to greet new comers, even if we are embarrassed to find out they have been attending for a while.

  • Darrell Gleason says on

    Dr. Rainer,

    My church is undergoing a transitional period and has called an intentional interim. Outreach is one of the major focus we are seeking to impress upon the church. May we place some of your blog postings on the church website if we give proper credit?

  • David Harstin says on

    In rural settings where churches have traditionally survived by being family chapels, real outreach is especially challenging, because it has never really been tried. Demographic changes (e.g. aging communities, families with fewer children and lack of economic opportunities leading to out migration) are the primary reasons behind declining church membership in these areas. In short, for generations these family chapels have simply reproduced themselves via births and marriage. So the biggest challenge to rural churches is developing a real local mission focus for the first time. For pastors and laity alike, we must get focused on better understanding our faith and seeking the Spirit’s guidance that we might discover our congregational calling. Only then, we will be able to effectively communicate our faith in ways that help people to discover God’s prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace in relationship with God’s people. Let us become as little children in the arms of Jesus.

  • The church where I worship, (12th Street Baptist, Gadsden, AL – – was, at one time, in a neighborhood that was changing around them. Today, they are about 10 minutes from their former location. Their current pastor, Craig Carlisle, led the church to move (he’s also a product of the church, having been born into the church and called to ministry while a member there) into an old, closed K-Mart building in a nearby town.

    Since that time., Brother Craig has led the church to support a church plant in Miami, FL, another one in Cincinnati, OH, and a church in our own county, about 20 miles or so away on the same side of the county as our congregation. Just a few months ago, our church, under his leadership and his discipling new leaders for the ministry, began to serve hot prepared meals for the under-privileged in our community and county. Additionally, we support foreign and national missionaries through direct gifts and through giving to missions through the Cooperative Program.

    I’m so proud to be a part of a church that looks beyond its four walls and doesn’t think of ministry as a tool to increase “nickels and noses”!

  • Good stuff. I had an outreach to churches and hired a person to research the churches in our area. Few had web pages. Many that had them had no address or phone number so we could not contact them.

    All denominations were included. They deserve to die.