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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71 Comments

  • Great article. I’m re-posting it in the “News” section of the Exponential.org website using your attribution and link guidelines. I have it scheduled to run tomorrow morning (6/10) and appreciate your willingness to share your material with our followers.

  • The 2 words that I try to live by are “Infiltrate” and “Incarnate”. If somehow we can see that it is our responsibility and privilege to infiltrate our neighborhoods, subdivisions, workplaces, people groups, etc. and then “flesh out” the gospel,l we will make great advances in carrying out the Great Commission. If must become a lifestyle for us.

  • B Schwarz says on

    Tom,

    Here is an excellent resource for outreach. There is a conference every fall in Monterey. We brought a team last fall and everyone who attended was so fired up! We are bringing a team of 20 to the conference this fall. organicoutreach.com

  • One hurdle I discovered this past year is how “outreach” is defined by those serving in that area. My sense is the word refers to evangelism; however, one of the key people who stepped into that part of our church saw it as service projects. We butted heads a bit on it until I realized that was the difference between us. Now, right or wrong, I (as Lead Pastor) have become a primary advocate for the church on this… even though it’s not one of my spiritual gifts. Then again, hopefully by throwing myself in that direction in my own life others will lose their excuses and do the same.

  • Becky P says on

    I’m so grateful for your work in this area, grateful to have stumbled upon it in the time and place I live. We’ve been blessed in the past to have been in a godly church in which the leadership, though imperfect, LIVED outreach in their everyday lives and by doing so, brought many into the fold. We had a member in his retired years whose passion was (and is) street evangelism, who tirelessly seeks the lost, and a pastor who taught occasionally at a small Bible college and encountered many who had no clue about the genuine gospel of Christ and its effect on the life of a convert. In his teaching prerequisite church history course, the Holy Spirit brought men to our church, who then brought family members and friends and coworkers many of whom heard of and trusted Christ for first time. Some did not stay, but this was not a “program”, these people (and their wives) simply lived and SPOKE the truth. It was and is beautiful, and while the church is still quite small, it is a bright light a dark city. There are many other natural outreaches that occur in this body, to include always inviting newcomers over to dinner, never letting a repairman out of the house without at least a clear reference to the Gospel, and the breast cancer survivor always being ready to tell the gals at the gym how the Lord has provided for her life, health and sustenance, providing some paid work and a family for the poor older woman we met in the coffee shop. In living this way, when more physical needs were discovered, they were then met. I am challenged by the examples I witnessed in this particular congregation.

    We are now stationed (military) overseas in an area in South Korea where there is not a biblical church available. The way we have to look at outreach must differ in the same ways you have stated. We don’t necessarily feel confident that in inviting people to the chapel services we attend, they will hear the gospel. We don’t speak the language of the repairmen. The harvest is RIPE here though! There are dead, hurting, and spiritually hungry people all over the place who do speak our language, and many of them are the ones “serving” in the various ministries offered through the military chapel. It has become clear that a meal with our family and a firmly rooted bible study is a HUGE deal to some in need. As a stay at home mom of littles, I’ve been looking for opportunities to be involved in reaching our community, but it has taken such a different look than I would have considered in the States. I don’t have a church here, but there are para-chapel ministries that the Lord can use. Helping choose women’s bible studies for a non-denominational group that are grounded in the BIBLE and the Gospel rather than the self-help fluff, teaching in the community VBS without a pushing children for an emotionally based decision, but clearly sharing the truth and hope of the Gospel. Inviting many into our home, and asking them to stay for a time of family worship after dinner. Being intentional in speaking of the things of the Lord to everyone we have a chance to talk to, knowing that some, even the true sheep, are starved of edifying conversation in this atmosphere. The outreach programs here tend to be gospel-less, but without a Biblical church to draw people into, we are forced to work within the broken system, and in our time and place, it is where we must serve. With the Lord leading us, we can bring the gospel into these gospel-less programs. In the States, things would have occurred a little more “naturally” for us, we’d meet people in the library story time or have English speaking neighbors to engage in gospel conversation, but here, our community of English speakers is relatively small and the military dynamic adds an unnatural element to many relationships in a small community. So, Lord willing, we will continue to work within these outreach programs to bring the light in. Lord willing, it isn’t a permanent situation for us, we deeply miss our faithful church family, and perhaps He will plant one here!

    I am particularly encouraged by the points you made not only in regards to our outreach in our churches, but also in the improper emphasis on these compartmentalized ministries, and personally, on our “spiritual gifts”. I think your points can be made of prayer ministries, hospitality ministries, discipleship ministries, and individually as having the gift of evangelism, the gift of service, the gift of hospitality, as if we aren’t all called and to be ready to do all these things at all times. In considering all of these things, I am challenged to be ever ready to give an answer for the hope that I have, whether in a designated “outreach” opportunity, or seeing another young mom battling the shopping cart and toddler at the commissary.

    As a note, I’ve just finished the biography Nomad by Aayan Hirshi Ali, the ex-muslim now atheist, who charges Christians to do what the Bible says and not merely offer Gospel-less service programs for newly migrated Muslims, but to try to convert with the truth of our Good Book because the loving and gracious God we say we believe in is the heart’s desire of most Muslims (except the enlightened ones like herself. 😉 Its a very interesting read, and intriguing to hear this challenge from such a good friend of Dawkins and Hitchens.

    I look forward to your video.

  • Rob Bailey says on

    Thanks for your very helpful posts, books, and interactions with us. Unfortunately it is much easier to throw together an outreach program than it is to change the culture of a church. I appreciate all of your points above, especially regarding the front-end membership classes. They provide great opportunities to shape the culture in an outward focused direction.

  • A lot of people fear outreach as it can be related to the liberals’ social justice which many conservative Christians don’t like. The young want to show the love of Jesus to the world. Others seem to want a closed church. The biggest challenge of outreach is to get Christians to show Christianity the other 6 days per week. When Hindus act better and are sometimes more honorable than Christians on all 7 days of the week, Christianity loks like a Sunday-only religion.

  • Thanks Dr. Tom, this is a great and should be an eye-opening article for those in church leadership. The purpose of church outreach is not to just grow the size of a congregation and its membership.

    I have worked with and helped churches with their Outreach and Church Growth ministries for many years. Through these years of observing different churches I’ve concluded the following: Only by increasing the number of individual church members willing talk about Jesus and His church during their daily walk of life and that are motivated by their love for Jesus to invite those they come in contact with to addend His church, will the church be successful in its outreach and church grow efforts.

    Churches must become Great Commission churches focused and committed to reaching the lost and unchurched in their community and around the world. Teaching individual discipleship, and personal outreach and evangelism will out produce any structured outreach program a church can have. Instead of being Great Commission Church we find church that I call “field of dreams churches”. Churches that believe building and having bigger better programs and events are the answer to outreach. The cliché “If we build it they will come” is not the answer!

    In today’s churches and in the daily life of most church members, sharing ones faith with others, inviting someone to Christ and His church, or just praying with a friend or co-worker outside the wall of the church is rarely happening, or we might just say almost nonexistent.

    When we talk about church growth we should be referencing growth in God’s church, Kingdom growth, numbers in new salvations and baptisms. True church growth is not measured by the increasing size of a churches congregation or its membership. It is determined by the number of individual conversions by people accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. However, in most churches membership and congregational growth will be directly impacted.

  • Matt Lawrence says on

    We cannot help but tell of the wonderful things of Christ. Our boldness is our love for Christ come to life. Acts 4:29

  • Scott Newman says on

    In more recent years, the top reason we’ve seen for failed outreach programs as well as a general lack of witness or involvement to training is the busyness of life. Of course, what we treasure, we treat as priority.