Seven Reasons Why Most Church Outreach Programs Fail

One of my passions in life is to help churches move from becoming inwardly focused to outwardly focused. When I wrote I Am a Church Member, my key motivation was to demonstrate that biblical church members are always looking outwardly. When I wrote Autopsy of a Deceased Church, my desire was to demonstrate the terrible consequences and deaths of local congregations when the members are inwardly focused.

The Readers Speak

I was overwhelmingly grateful when nearly 1,000 of the readers of this blog responded to my reader survey. I am still reading and re-reading that invaluable information.

One issue I heard clearly was your desire for me to share the specifics of what effective outwardly-focused churches are doing. I heard you. My work on that request is almost complete, and I will be sharing it in video format this fall. The necessary brevity of a blog post precludes the type of discussion I want you to hear.

So Why Don’t You Deliver Us a “Plug and Play” Program?

Some of the readers asked for me to deliver the latest outreach program to their churches. Hear me well: There is nothing wrong with outreach programs per se. They can be very helpful if put in the proper context. The problem is that most highly prescriptive programs do not do so. As a result, they do not deliver their intended results.

In fact, they can, in some cases, do more harm than good if they are not framed well. Allow me to share seven reasons why most well intended outreach programs fail.

  1. They are seen as an end instead of a means. As a consequence, some will be a part of an outreach ministry as a sense of legalistic obligation. Most church members, especially Millennials, refuse to participate in something unless they know the “why” behind it.
  2. Most outreach programs are not addressed in front-end membership classes. The best time to help shape expectations and responsibilities of members is when they first become a part of the church. Rarely is the issue of becoming outwardly focused addressed.
  3. Many outreach programs do not feel natural. Though it is cliché, the best way to share the love of Christ is in the natural overflow of our love for Him. The best outreach ministries should teach us how to channel that overflow.
  4. When a church has an outreach program, it can be perceived as a ministry for the few. So the majority of the members can say it’s “someone else’s” ministry. The Great Commission is not a multiple choice question.
  5. Most outreach programs fail to explain that sharing the love of Christ is a vital part of spiritual growth. Instead it is often seen as a “check list” among other obligations at the church.
  6. Outreach programs can offer excuses for people not to be outwardly focused. I used to conduct church surveys when I was a church consultant. A common theme I heard was: “I do this ministry, so I don’t have to be involved in evangelism and outreach.”  In other words, being an outwardly focused Christian becomes an option among many. And it’s usually not chosen.
  7. Outreach programs can put the responsibility of evangelism on institutions. So if a church is not evangelistic, it’s because the denomination or other resource providers are not doing their jobs. Local churches and local church members shift accountability to an institution.

The Story Does Not End Here

I am often guilty of declaring problems rather than offering solutions. Stick with me. I have exciting initiatives ahead. I will be specifically sharing this information with those on my email list, so if you have not signed up, you can do so here.

In the meantime, please share with me how your congregation is focusing outwardly. Those of you in local congregations are the experts; I am a mere reporter.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Posted on June 7, 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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  • Hilary says on

    I would say the church I serve has been very inwardly focused for the past good while. I’ve been there 4 years as Children’s Ministry Director, and as far as I know it’s always been inward. Maybe attractional-leaning at best. Senior pastor left last fall, so now we’re in a transition phase, and one of the things people are seeing we need and saying they want is to (finally!) get outside our church walls with the Gospel. When our Children’s Ministry team was tasked with the development of the idea and got together to brainstorm this, we landed on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan for direction – the Samaritan, when he encountered the injured man, began with providing emergency care to meet the immediate needs of the injured man: bandages, medication, removal to a safe place. Then, the Samaritan provided for the injured man’s ongoing needs: funds for care and a place for his convalescence, a promise to return. We figured that what we need to do to “Go and do likewise” is determine who in our physical community has immediate needs – who is the proverbial injured man laying on the road – and then meet those immediate needs, with the plan to develop a relationship to provide for ongoing care. In keeping with the “widows and orphans” direction, we looked for those most marginalized in our society, and the organizations already mobilized around them that we can partner with, and we’ve landed on our schools and our nursing home facilities. We have lots of both in our area. So this summer, we’re going out to “do likewise” for our closest public elementary school and nursing home(s). We will work to meet the immediate needs as identified by the leadership of the school and nursing organizations on a day-long service project day in August, and then in the following months/years we will work to develop relationships and provide ongoing care.

    One of the components of ongoing care that is critical is the prayer initiative. We often pray for our own church members, our programs, our missionaries, but I cannot tell you the last time we prayed for our community, or for specific needs and people in our community who are not a part of our church. As we roll out our “Grace Goes” initiative, we are making need-specific prayer a big part of it, so that those in the body who are not particularly willing or able to wash windows at the elementary school can PRAY for “Mrs. Smith,” who is the teacher of the classroom whose windows we’re washing, and for the 26 1st graders who are in her class, 10 of which are considered “at-risk”. 10 (or more) of which we’ve provided school supplies and winter coats for. All of which we have volunteers serving in math and reading groups each week, or at lunch or on the playground. The more people hear about our community’s specific “men laying on the road bleeding,” the more we are moved to serve, pray for, do for and think about them, and before you know it, we are no longer an inwardly focused church.

    So… I have no idea if or how this is all going to roll out. 🙂 On paper it sounds wonderful. All I know is that this is the path God has led me down personally over the last several years, and now, apparently, it is time to lead some others down the path as well. Our community has lots of “injured men laying on the road” but we’ve also had lots of priests and Levites too. Praying we all become Samaritans, even as I chuckle at the humor of anyone WANTING to be known as a “Samaritan.” God always has the last laugh. 🙂

  • Barb Irwin says on

    I really appreciate and enjoy my church . We are outwardly focused in several ways. We have a lively once a week Celebrate Recovery meeting that includes both the church and community. We also have a time once a month when we make sandwiches for the homeless. We have one Sunday afternoon a month when we invite people to come to our food pantry. Lastly for now we started having free supper once a month so far for the lonely, singles, ill people (can even do take out or we will deliver) in the community and church. We have live music sometimes and good fellowship.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks for the great testimony of your church’s ministry and service, Barb. I would love to hear how many of those people have become active participants in your congregation.

  • Thom: As a lay leader with an Outreach Focus for more than 30 years- let me share with you one more reason Outreach Programs fail: We (in the church) look into our communities and see what we believe are “real needs” that need to be addressed. So we design an Outreach Program that we feel will address that need. Where we fail is in not going to the community or neighborhood and asking the folks who live there, the people we plan to serve, what do you see as the issues that need to be addressed, and what do they believe are the programs or services that are needed. We often fail to involve the customers in designing the solutions to their problems.

    Thanks for your insight into the land of Outreach.

    Jack Hanstein, Canon
    Episcopal Diocese of Arizona

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Well said, Jack. Thank you.

    • The outreach based upon what people in the church think the surrounding community needs sometimes has issues. Some think that asking people what they need is just giving in to everything when the actual need is something that church people never thought about. Look at college campuses. That is a significant place to do outreach. However, many churches, though most are represented, don’t get university outreach correct.

  • Hello Dr Rainer. I would like to thank you for raising this issue which, I must admit, I struggle with greatly. I think I could identify with some of your seven points. I am Deacon for Missions in a small church in South West England. I often wonder about the effectiveness of church programs and the forms of so called evangelistic outreach. In my current experience church outreach events are often put on by church leaders and undertaken by church leaders. What is more, missionaries are regarded as the people God has given the ‘gift’ of evangelism to. This leaves the rest of the body, who are largely fearful about sharing the gospel themselves, to think they can ‘pass the buck’. Evangelism has become associated with what gifted professionals do rather than what every Christian is called to do – obey the great commission to go and make disciples by engaging and confronting people with the gospel message.

    I often hear Christians quoting words reputed to have come from Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary use words”. However, I fear that while many Christians are willing to be seen doing something either at church or in the community they are much less willing to verbally (and tactfully) present to outsiders the charge to repent and believe in view of God’s coming Kingdom. As for using words ‘if necessary’, surely words are always necessary if faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God? Without words, how can we effectively call people to repentance and faith and present them with a correct Biblical worldview?

    Forgive me if, for the sake of brevity, I seem to be oversimplifying the matter. I am speaking about what I see in my own context. I look forward very much to being enlightened by your forthcoming research and being encouraged. I thank you once again for taking on this important issue. Blessings.

    • jonathon says on

      >Surely words are always necessary.

      The idea is that there is an obvious difference between you, the Christian, and others, the non-Christian, that is so striking, that the non-Christian will want to emulate you, the Christian.

      When was the last time somebody came up to you to ask: “What is it that you have, that I don’t have?”
      That is preaching, without using words.

      • What about when the Hindus have better ethics than the Christians? Some seem to think that all non-Christians are heathens. Sometimes the Christians would do well to learn from others or emulate Jesus more. Gandhi said he liked Jesus, but did not like Christians.

      • jonathon says on

        Part of that issue is that the majority of self-described Christians know neither the ten commandments of the Tanach nor the two primary commandments of the Gospels, even though the former are listed thrice in the Torah, and one of those versions is repeated again in the Pauline Epistles, whilst the latter appears in both the Gospels, and the Pauline Epistles. As such, most so-called Christians are utterly clueless about Christian Ethics and morality.

      • This is why the Anglican communion service begins with either the Ten Commandments or the summary of the law.

        I took a class once on Christian ethics and it wasn’t too good. That is a very hard class to teach.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Jeremy –

      Neither the lifestyle witness nor the verbal witness are optional for believer. Such is the nature of the Great Commission. Thanks for your good comments.

  • Michael Cooper says on

    All too often, our efforts are more focused upon getting people to a church-based activity, rather than truly trying to help people connect so that they can begin to invest their life into another. At least that’s a struggle that we’ve been having in our little church.

  • Donn Kirkwood says on

    I can’t stop thinking about you section on “Great Commission Amnesia: we are to make disciples, we are to baptize, we are to teach.”

    I just heard a great message from God through my pastor and now he gives the inventation to the lost. I sit deep in prayer with my head down that Jesus would overwhelm them with his love that they would come to the alter. But after service I look at the congregation and wonder how can God through our pastor save lives if no one is bringing the lost to church. When someone does come to the alter it is usually a rededication or a child of a member never a stranger. This is my first concern.

    I believe strongly the fix would be to make disciples. However, I have never seen this program and I have gone to a lot of different churches especially when I was in the military. Didn’t matter where I was I was going to find me a church to attend on Sunday. I do have to say those experiences are some of my greatest testimonies. But back to my point a program that teachers members to go out and witness and invite new people weekly is none existanct. The church I attended with my father-in-law before he pass away thought I was crazy to suggest to take my Sunday school class and invite everyone in our community to church. This would be dangerous taking these children from house to house inviting people to church. Me personally knew The Lord would protect me, but I do put a lot faith on The Lord and I have truly been bless for this.

    My second concern is new members of our family that gave their lives to The Lord. They come to the alter then what. Which goes back to make disciples, this would also fix this problem.

    I just feel this is a time we need disciples more now then ever, we need our churches to be growing not shrinking, we need to recruit more soldiers to fight for Jesus against the principalities of this world.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks Donn.

    • Grest insights, we have to allow the world to see God through our lives and His light through out the eay we sre outside of church that attracts others hearts. The issues today is many Christians on look the role or part on Sunday and through out the week they blind in with the world. I believe that’s why many people don’t want to know about the God we serve because many are not walking in their proper anointing thats upon their life.

    • Hit the nail on the head!!!

  • Southern Pastor says on

    Dr. Rainer, what suggestion(s) would you make when the church leaders (read: deacons) talk about “winning the lost” but literally will not support any attempts to involve the members in that goal? They won’t show up, pull funding, spread dissension, sleep through the worship services (when they bother to come). It’s a pattern here historically that, as soon as the pastor actually starts to gain some influence and trust in the congregation, they begin to oppose him (that little detail was omitted during the interview 3.5 years ago). How do I even start to lead them toward a biblical view and practice of evangelism?


    • Thom Rainer says on

      Southern Pastor –

      Your situation is common, so I fully empathize. I suggest you start with one or two persons who are fully on board with your outreach ideas. Don’t try to make it church wide or even deacon wide. Starting with a few, a very few, is very effective; and it’s very much along the lines of the way Jesus led.

  • Logistics. The lack of administration is a big problem in outreach. . Who keeps up with the records, prepares the visitation packets, finds the names and address, types them up, and trains the visitors. In smaller churches, it’s the pastor who’s already overworked and maybe not particularly good a logistics. In other churches, it’s a well meaning layman who loves the Lord, but has no administrative skills.

    Just getting people to show up and go doesn’t work. How many times does a pastor make a big appeal for visitation and folks show up. Then they stand around trying to figure out who they’re going to see and who’s going together. By the end of the second visitation night. all the real prospects have been visited. Then no body shows up for the third night and the next Sunday the pastor rails against the congregation for their lack of evangelistic fervor. A bad experience for everyone.

    Every successful outreach program has to have a great secretary behind the scenes and a good administrator at the helm.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Lowell –

      You are on target for programmatic outreach. I am suggesting that churches need to consider outreach even beyond the programs. Thank you.

    • The church I was a member of they had a ministry leader but no one to put their hands to the plow! When I joined and completed my beginner’s bew member classes I was lead by God to open this ministry and serve the community, with love and an open heart!!!! I was to log in all donations ( food wise) and hang up in size and gender all clothing and place shoes on the racks. We began to receive sooo much food daily because we partnered up with feeding America that we needed more volunteers to help! We had eventes for back to school, Christmas and Thanksgiving, it was great but many of the millennials hearts weren’t what you think should have been in this ministry at all!!! You have to be compassionate, loving, ready to pray at any moment, caring anf have a heart of Christ and thanksgiving to share with those lost and in need. Im a ministry student( at the end on my B.S.) degree heading into my Master of Divinity at the beginning of 2017 and my hearts desire is to open up my own outreach ministry through Christ Jesus and not only help, lead and minister to all in need of a word from the Lord and a second, third or fourth chance at life but to also house them as their taught life skills to keep them focused on standing on a biblical foundation.

  • I love this article. Keep these types of things coming!

    I have found that when you motivate the younger members who are not bogged down with traditional ideas of outreach that it becomes useful. Most people have sacred events that they have hosted for a long time that produce no fruit. And most people can’t even tell you the purpose of the event. Outreach can be simply relationship building events such as Easter Egg hunts with a small prayer. This lets you interact with the public. Or it can be a home visit by a single person ministering to a specific person. But if you want it to be evangelistic outreach you have to find creative ways to share Christ. No Church is in the same setting so each Church has to find their ever changing outreach means. Jesus reached out with food to a multitude while he preached. But he also ate meals with smaller groups of people and taught them about God. Other times he was traveling and when He was able to do good to others he did it. My churches current goal is to awaken people to the fact that friendship outreach is everyone’s calling in life. If you love Jesus. If you are saved by Jesus. Then you will reach people for Jesus. We do community based things as well.

    Remember that in our lives as followers of Christ it’s always Jesus plus nothing is everything. He will guide us to reach people, if we are saved. Or else your Jesus who your called to grow in likeness of is not the biblical Jesus.

    Have a blessed and
    Evangelistic outreach kinda day:)

  • Pat Hicks says on

    Please tell me what outreach means to you….is it a congregation having events like Easter egg hunts for community…car shows…harvest fest….etc…or is it when the people go out two by two and call on visitors or prospective visitors. Pat

    • Pat, why does it have to be either? Or why can’t it be both?

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Pat –

      See the comments of Alex and Terry. They have both answered your question well.

      • Matthew Kurtz says on

        The Outreach committees help to coordinate and promote events/activities (Easter egg hunt, car show, chili cookout, etc…) within the Church that support the 6 disciplines while emphasizing on “Witnessing, Service and Worship” in those 6 disciplines. The Outreach Committee will promote these events with the congregation and employ them to share the word with their family, friends, co-workers, and so fourth. When a Church organization/committee creates an event (car show, euchre tournament, hoedown, spring fling auction, etc….), the Outreach Committee becomes the committee dedicated towards getting that event communicated through out the Church and into the community. Promote from within and celebrate in the community.

        Another group that may be inside the Outreach Committee are the members dedicated to calling those members that have not attended church in 3,6,8 wks with the goal of having that member return and not become lost in their spiritual growth. Then, also, calling on 1st time visitors to encourage them to attend again without being viewed as pushy. This is a focus group of members dedicated towards providing support and help to those individuals or families that may be straying from church participation or worse….their faith. Would this be considered “outreach”? To the 1st time visitors…I would say “yes”. To the existing members, I would say that this is a “ministry support and reminder”. A reminder that God loves them and their Church family misses them. This is another are within Outreach.

        1 Corinthians 9:22
        To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.

  • Philip Bohlken says on

    The church my wife and I attend wants to resurrect its outreach efforts. I was asked to make a very brief presentation after each of the two worship services. I said we had two simple requests of everyone. First, I asked everyone to think of people in their acquaintances who are living apart from involvement in a Christian congregation and pray for them daily to be open to the Gospel message. Second, I asked them to think about their experiences of God’s faithfulness in life and begin to think about one or more of those as their story with a before, a what happened to make a change, and an after telling how life is better now. They are to write those stories in 100 words or less and practice them so that one day they may be able to tell those stories to those for whom they are praying. This two step request should help the congregation be more outward forcused and give everyone a sense of involvement. I am indebted to Bill Hybels in Just Walk across The Room for most of this.

  • Seven might be seen as causing many of the others. Evangelism has to be an individual mandate lived out through community. If someone is not attending a church where they feel they can invite a friend to attend with them they should attend another church. Often times I feel those who attend insider focused churches would hesitate to bring their lost friends.

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