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

  • Ah, yes. My husband and I have an outreach that specifically goes to unchurched and previously churched people. It does not produce a huge amount of people being saved. The work is slow and lonely. Not a lot of people want to help or invest time into the ministry with us. We had one person coming to our home for 6 months before they considered salvation….but she was a former New Ager and is now set-free. We witness at bike and car shows, at work, at restaurants, at nursing homes, at malls….wherever. We meet hurt people who hate church-people, homosexuals who have been outcast, and mostly lonely people. But most of all, we have a heart for those in church that think they are saved, but are not. The religious, the “Pharisees”. Hahaha…who ever thinks they want to convert the over-churched? We do. I was one of them. A pew warmer…on the way to an eternity without Christ. Our hearts are broken for them as well.

  • Just a response to all the different types of outreach programs function, goals, agendas and what is supposed to be done with it all! How about we through all that into the wind and let blow away. To Start with, God needs to be in total control of what your outreach is called to do. It is to fit into the needs of your church, age group and the communities needs for your area and of course, what the Lord feels is needed most. The best way to kill your outreach ministry is go do it like everyone else. Fifteen years ago, under the direction of God, I started an outreach program for kids because that was Gods Calling for me and our church. It started with prayer and one word from God to me. At that point my life changed forever. As a children Pastor I answered that call with no help from anyone. We lost several churched kids because of the kind of kids that were starting to come in to our family. We went from a tiny building to the kitchen area in building area 1. We then grew so big we took over the Youth Game room. At this point we became so large we built a new building for a new preteen class. After several years we are excited to announce our new Jr High Outreach Program. The Lord always tells me to LOVE, these kids, show the the love of Christ and plant seeds. No matter what we do, God says love these kids! How incredibly easy that is. After all isn’t that we are supposed to do, LOVE! when we do, and I mean truly do, God steps in and does all the rest. I am now not only the children’s pastor, I am the preteen and Jr.High Pastor as well. All kids need to see the love of Christ working through us. Most of our kids walk from the government assisted apartments because they want to be there. Not because there parents are making them. I can assure you that’s not happening. Because the dedication of myself and the staff members we have several people cooking meals for the kids on Wednesday night. We also have a family that donates 10,000.00 at Christmas to buy toys.
    Our outreach now runs from kdg – High School! We are so blessed . we started with 5 kids and know run any where from 120 -150 with approximately 200 on roll.
    Unconditional LOVE is the name of the game. Thank you Lord for allowing me to be your servant and may YOUR precious children always feel your love no matter where they go in life and may their seeds fall on solid ground to be watered and fertilizied by you words. Thank you that showing us to just love them would be a start to their relationship with you! I know in my heart when these kid\youth find themselves in the world in a sticky situation they will remember the love, warmth,friendship and the safe place they call God house, His Church!

  • I am Downtown Ottawa (Canada). As we look at how to reach out. We have talked about what does it mean to be Jesus in our neighbourhood. A neighbourhood yes has a location, but it can included our other social circles, such as work, sports teams. We have been working at helping people grow in their faith and then building strong relationships with the community by serving at already established events (Community BBQ, Community winter Carnival, community association meeting, etc.) . At the events we have not done a lot of lets say direct preaching. However it has started to build relationships, where we get the opportunity to speak later with people. As a pastor I am trying to network with the leaders of the community to open doors. We are trying to balance empowering of small group and personal outreach with larger but small corporate bridge building events. One relationship that is developing is with the homework club. Next week we are going to provide for their bbq. This is not an opportunity of direct gospel preaching, but builds relationships so that we gain a voice in peoples lives and community.

    I have learned that with such things there are ripple effects. We serve over here in one area or do something only for something to happen in another area. We are also continue to work on encouraging people to get together. So when someone new comes lets say to Sunday morning. Who is going to take them for coffee or visit outside of lets say a staff contact.

    We have lots to learn as we try to turn some hard ground.

  • At our church, the outreach starts at the top, with the Lead Pastor. EVERYTHING our church does is now viewed through the lens of reaching the lost locally, nationally and internationally. We support several church plants in the area, and partner with the NAMB in their SEND NorthAmerica initiative. We also support plants in several other cities across the country. Finally, we have various ongoing missions efforts. We annually send a team to the Navajo nation, we regularly send a team to Benin, and we send multiple teams a year to Haiti in support of an orphanage there.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that for us, outreach has become more than a program or a ministry. It has become part of our DNA and the lifeblood of our church. That change in mindset has made all the difference in the effectiveness of our evangelism.

  • When Dave Bennett was evangelism director for the Missouri Baptist Convention, he said something I’ve never forgotten. He said if an outreach program worked equally well in every church, the program would get the glory instead of the Lord.

  • We call our outreach program “Invest and Invite.” but it isn’t very programmatic. We minimize the time people spend at the church building and maximize their ability to be the church in their communities. Aside from Sunday morning, the only timet dedicated to “church” is small group night. The rest of the week, we encourage people to do life with their family and friends. It is in that doing life that Christ and what he is doing in our lives gets shared. No Roman’s Road, no EE, no tracks, no bridge diagrams. It is definitely slow going- the building of relationships- but I have to say that the results are worth the cost. There are no classes to teach people how to do this. We just tell people to talk about what Jesus is doing in their lives the same way they talk about the movie they went to see on Saturday night or how the Cubs lost yet another game.