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Community Outreach Part 1 - The Framework

A few months ago I was asked to lead a Leadership Training event on Community Outreach. I led an hour long zoom meeting, and then we opened it up for a Q&A. I’ve broken down the highlights of that leadership training event into three separate blog posts to cover the important pieces. This post centers on Community Outreach for a Church – specifically, how do you structure your outreach ministries so that both the community and the church benefit – like a symbiotic relationship? How do you create something that is mutually beneficial?

First, I’m going to give you the answer, and then we will back up a bit and walk through the steps that get us there. The one sentence answer to the question – listen to this one sentence, and then if you want to take a nap for the rest of the class that’s fine. The key to effective community outreach is to understand that all outreach of the church is an opportunity for sanctification before it is a tool of evangelism or church growth. Read that again slowly. To put it another way, outreach and missions in the church is not a service we offer that they should be thanking us for, but it is an opportunity to do what God told us to do, and we should be thanking THEM for the chance to do it.

Alright, now let’s back up a little bit to give some framework. Some of this might be very familiar to you, sort of basic – but we need all the pieces for the whole puzzle to come together. And I would bet there are even a few who have never heard some of these very basic foundational teachings.

Back in the 90’s Rick Warren came out with a book called the “Purpose Driven Church” – most people have heard of the purpose driven life, but Rick’s true gift was the “purpose driven church.” Another key text is a book called “Simple Church” by Thomas Rainer, who is a very famous and well known church consultant. Now there’s a lot of great stuff in those books that we don’t have time for, but the key teaching that comes from both is something called the Ministry Process.

All of us know that our goal, our vision in the United Methodist Church is to create disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The ministry process is the part where we say “okay, how?” What steps do we put in place to take someone from unchurched non-believer to disciple of Jesus Christ. Rather than setting goals and then just hoping it all came together – what if we shaped church on purpose? What if we were intentional about the steps we offer so people can come to know Jesus.

Now, after Rick Warren’s book “visions statements” and “purpose statements” became all the rage in churches. Most of them spent months brainstorming and crafting these careful statements that they slapped on the bottom of the bulletin and completely forgot about. Thom Rainer came along 20 years later and took a look at what happened when churches were intentional with their ministry process.

Very briefly, most ministry processes all sort of follow the same pattern::

There’s three steps and they go in order: Worship, Christian Education, and then Mission/Service It’s the three steps to the Christian Disciples Life: worship, Christian education, and then mission/service.

For a while it became very popular for churches to come up with cute three word summaries of their purpose statements. And you got extra points if it was an alliteration. Rick Warren’s church, I think theirs is “Seek, Save, Send” – We seek you with our “seeker friendly worship” – you might remember that was a really big thing from his church. Then we save you – teach you all about Jesus, let the holy Spirit do it’s thing, and then we’re going to send you out into the community to love your neighbor. At my first appointment, the big mega church across the street used the purpose statement, “Gather, Grow, and then Go!” Gather for worship, Grow through Christian Education, and then Go out and serve people. In my church we use the metaphor of starting a fire. There are sparks in people’s lives. Moments when God pulls on their hearts. And our job as a church is to feed that spark. Give them an opportunity to witness God. Feed that spark. You know that part when you’re trying to light a fire, and you’re striking the flint, or matches or whatever and it catches. It’s just this tiny little flame. Baby faith needs to be nurtured and cared for. Then, after you feed the spark, you need to fuel the flame. When you’re building a fire, you don’t drop a big wet log on a baby flame. You give it twigs, right? Little pieces that help the flame grow stronger. In the development of a disciple – this is where you teach someone how to have a prayer life, how to get in the habit of daily devotions – or just in the word regularly. We move from Worship – which is the spark, to Christian Education – which is fueling the flame. In my church we say, “and when the fire has grown big enough, the people around us start to notice. When the Holy Spirit has been working on my heart through my basic acts of piety (to use the Wesleyan word), the fire in our hearts grows big enough that the people around us begin to feel the warmth. If you’ve been hanging out with Jesus regularly, and you’ve been at his feet learning and growing as a disciple – you can’t help but move to the next step to live out your faith authentically in mission and service. As a mature disciple of Jesus, we MUST serve people. It has nothing to do with the needs of the community, or even the needs of church. This is about the developmental needs of the disciple. Here's the two common problems.

First, most churches stop at step two. I’ll go to worship, I’ll go to bible study, and that’s all I need to do as a good Christian. We treat consuming knowledge as the end of the process. But the whole point of growing in knowledge is that it will equip us to live it out practically in loving our neighbor through service and outreach. Francis Chan has a great quote – it’s something along the lines of, “we don’t need another feast on doctrine, we need to get off the couch, go for a run, and work off the teachings we have already consumed. Most churches stop at step two.

Second big problem comes when churches fill step three with baby flames. You get a new person in church, they sort of believe in Jesus – sure why not. You don’t want to lose them into a bible study, so you put them in charge of outreach. They come in with all this excitement and energy, and it’s all really great – for like a minute. But it’s a lot like dropping a big wet log on a baby flame. They burn out. Their fire has not had a chance to grow, and if their motivation is not that serving others as an overflow of love as a disciple of Jesus Christ – they won’t last.

We have to flip our mentality. So many of us as church leaders, we create outreach programs and then we beg our people to participate so it will make our church more popular in the community (and then maybe more people will come to our church). But if we flip the mentality, we see the real picture: Service in the community is a necessary outpouring of authentic faith, and our church is providing an opportunity for disciples of Jesus to grow. Disciples are made when the church is intentional about encouraging people through a ministry process, an intentional pathway for people to grow in their faith. And the third step is missions and outreach. Next week in part two we will shift from framework to mentality. Now, I know at this point you might be thinking: yes, but when does the COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT stuff come. Get to the good stuff already! But just trust me – if we get the framework and the mentality right, the rest will follow. Simple, right?


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