Ed Stetzer: “God’s mission should be so active in a church that the city misses them when they are not around.”
I’ve said many times before that if the 1950s were to make a comeback, a lot of churches that could go on without missing a beat. The good news is they found a ministry strategy that works. The bad news is the people they reach are now 70.
Many of these churches have succumbed to the tendency that when something works, people work it. This backfires because the more they “work it,” the more they get trapped in it. Before long, the ministry strategy is 60 years old and the church that once thrived in its innovative community outreach has now shriveled to a handful of people who have completely lost touch with the surrounding neighborhood due to their well-intentioned but often insular focus on strategies and programs within their own walls.
Those leading local church bodies today know there is more to pastoral care than simply caring for the local congregation’s needs. While that is certainly part of it, the church also has to have an effective connection with the community outside its walls. There should be a difference in the community because the church exists, and if it left for some reason, there should be a felt void. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case—we become more about church preservation than community transformation.
When we took on the comprehensive Transformational Church Initiative at LifeWay Research, we surveyed more than 7,000 churches and conducted hundreds of onsite interviews with pastors. We wanted to change the scorecard from strictly looking at numbers to one that really asks if churches and people are being changed. We found that churches known as “transformational” had a number of characteristics in common, including that they engaged their respective communities on mission.
We also found that the common thread was these churches were willing to invest deeper in their mission than other churches. They wanted to move the mission forward with priorities such as engaging the lost, winning the lost and maturing believers to repeat the process. What does that process look like? Four steps are clear.
Step 1: Define success.
The standard church scorecard of bodies, budgets and buildings is too weak. Changed lives should be the obsession, with a goal of seeing Christ’s power transform lives.
Step 2: Prepare.
Churches that reach their communities will always be training their people to reach out to those around them with the gospel. Too many churches rely on surface-level orientation when we need training to be on mission. A key strategy is modeling how to engage people far from God.
Step 3: Provide personal leadership to believers.
The activity of community combined with the value of vibrant leadership provides the right environment to help believers move out into the church’s mission. The clergification of ministry confused this greatly—when we as pastors do for people what God has called them to do, everyone gets hurt and the mission is hindered. For churches to reach their communities, they must break the clergy caste system and place the mission in the hands of all believers.
Step 4: Move into the community.
Many churches seem to struggle with building a good reputation in their neighborhood. But transformational churches are not waiting for the neighbors to come to them. Instead, they go out and meet the neighbors. They have abandoned the “come and see” model for the “go and tell” model.
The faulty “come and see” mentality results in pastors who consider themselves religious performers instead of cultivating people toward a mission. Instead, pastors and church members should have a desire to engage their neighborhood with great passion and a vision to change it. In Transformational Churches, 53 percent agree with the statement “Our church celebrates when members serve the local city or community” and 44 percent agree with “People regularly become Christians as a result of our church serving.”
The picture here is of a body of believers that celebrates not just ministry that builds up the local church, but also when the community is blessed and transformed. The opposite effect happens when the vast majority of celebration is over internal ministry engagement. That church feels like an institution seeking self-preservation while the other feels like a movement into the city.
Also, we always want to be intentionally looking for ways to engage our community at large. The mission is “out there” not “in here.” We must go beyond evangelistic presentations in favor of a missional lifestyle. Training in evangelism is part of preparing for God’s mission but not living it. Service is a portion of God’s mission but not all of it. God’s mission should be so apparently active among a church’s people that the city misses them when they are not around.
This is not an abandonment of sharing the gospel in favor of acts of service only. In fact, most members of churches that engage their communities are quite comfortable sharing their faith. God’s mission does not progress unless people are talking about God’s mission to save—transformation of individuals and communities happens at the same pace that the gospel is proclaimed.
Churches making a difference engage people in ministry within the church and in mission outside the church. The church has made a conscious decision that its existence is directly related to God’s mission of seeing people reconciled to God through Christ. A Cross-centered and resurrection-powered life no longer lives for itself—it dies daily for the kingdom mission.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham distinguished chair of church, mission and evangelism at Wheaton College and the Wheaton Grad School, where he also oversees the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.