Seven Habits of Outwardly Focused Churches

It was not a dramatic moment in time. Instead it was subtle, almost too subtle to be noticed. It became evident first in mainline churches. But evangelical churches followed a few years later. The erosion was slow, but it became glaringly apparent after several years.

The change of which I speak is the movement away from outwardly focused ministries in churches. Over time, most of the resources of time, money, and ministries have shifted more toward the members. Churches are now gathering in holy huddles with little intention of breaking out into a world of lostness and loneliness.

How It Happened

How did this negative trend develop? Though many perspectives could be offered, allow me simply to share the practical perspective. There was a time when most churches had an outreach ministry. And more times than not, this ministry was a type of program with predictable patterns.

But church leaders, vocational and lay alike, became program averse. So they slowly began eliminating outreach programs in their churches. I understand why this development took place. The programs seemed ineffective, not culturally relevant, and often cumbersome to lead and implement.

The problem, however, is that nothing replaced the programs. And the mild culture of outreach in churches was replaced with no culture of outreach.

At the same time, more churches started sending members on international mission trips. This development was good. But it gave many in the church a sense of false comfort that the church was really outwardly focused. The problem was that many times the local community became a neglected mission field.

Possible Beginning Points for an Outwardly Focused Church

So I began asking leaders in outwardly focused churches about their practical steps. I made certain the leaders were in different size congregations lest I offer suggestions limited to one group of churches. The leaders were in churches with worship attendance ranging from 50 to 2,500.

The answers I received were immensely practical, very helpful, and highly doable. Though this list is by no means exhaustive, here are seven of the more common habits.

  1. The church takes time during each worship service to pray for the community. Prayer is powerful; and the church members become more focused about their communities.
  2. A volunteer or staff person is accountable for the outreach ministry of the church. If no one has leadership responsibility, it does not get done.
  3. A regular report is provided to church members about outreach and ministry efforts in the community. What gets reported gets done. Have you noticed most churches provide financial reports to the church members? That says the money is important. We need at least equal emphasis on the importance of outreach ministries.
  4. Churches have regular “mystery” guests come to the worship services. One church leader told me that his church asks someone in the community to be a mystery guest every quarter. Those guests are always first-time guests, and they share their experiences with leaders later that day or week. The church members thus get to see the worship services through the eyes of a community member.
  5. The church gives obsessive attention to their websites. A church website is the new front door for churches. It’s almost always the first place prospective guests go. These websites should be designed in a very guest friendly way.
  6. The churches are intentional about scheduling ministries, events, and activities for reaching the community. One pastor told me that his church always focuses on one key community outreach ministry per month. The church’s attendance is less than 80, but it was under 40 two years ago.
  7. Churches are intentional about connecting with their communities through social media. It is mindboggling that we have the most pervasive form of communication in history, but very few churches use it strategically. I know a pastor in a rural community who worked with a Millennial and asked her to lead the social media outreach. It has been a great success because someone is responsible for it.

Share Your Stories

There are many great stories from other churches about effective community outreach and impact. I would love to hear your stories. Indeed I would love to hear any of your thoughts about this article and the seven traits I noted.

I look forward to your comments.


  1. Mark Dance says

    I like these practical steps/habits. As you said, they are not limited to large churches.

    I still struggle with how to replace the outreach programs of the past with local outreach ministries that are relevant and effective. Our staff and Small Group leaders follow up on “prospects” in a fairly efficient way. Most of our community outreach ministries are directed through Acts 1:8 partnerships, which are implemented through our adult Small Groups, college and youth ministries.

    We need to do a better job of praying for our community in our worship services. Thank you for the encouraging nudge!

  2. says

    I agree with what you say about the website being the “front door.” I’m amazed at how many churches haven’t invested a few bucks a month for this. In my opinion the website doesn’t have to be elaborate–just something simple with information on service times, directions, etc.

    I’ve also been surprised with how many church websites don’t have service times on the front page (or at least somewhere easy to find).

  3. says

    This was an excellent analysis Thom! I consult with many churches in East Tennessee on outreach to lead to a rejuvenation of their churches. You’re right, too many churches took this “inward” approach because in many ways it was easier and cheaper. Unfortunately, because of this these churches are dying because they are not fulfilling their main purpose. To make disciples of Christ by loving and serving their neighbors. Outreach is ministry. Without outreach there is no ministry and thus no purpose. In many of these churches, I’ve seen it is an indication that even members are many times not ministered to and are not growing in faith. This lack of outreach is a symptom of a seriously sick church. We need leaders today that are willing to stand up in churches and make those efforts! The pastor or pastoral team cannot do it alone! Outreach is a responsibility for every single Christian. Thank you for providing those 7 ways to begin reaching out. I would have never even thought about #4!

  4. says

    I’m doing a series right now on Wednesday nights on making disciples, and I mentioned how what gets measured gets repeated. We measure butts and bucks, but not disciples. The closest thing is baptisms and Sunday School attendance, but these still don’t seem to say enough. How can we do a better job measuring what matters?

  5. Chris Amos says

    Great past and great timing. The Lord planted Chr1st Fellowship Community Church in September 2012. Our greatest need was that of unity. We use the 1 instead of I in Christ to remind us that we are to be 1 in Christ by keeping Christ 1st! For several months He has knitted us together as a group of believers with one mind and one passion.

    Just recently I told our folks it is time to turn our attention outward. Sunday I preached on the early Church template for Godly growth… Acts 2:45-47: Good Deeds illicit Good Will which opens the door for the sharing of the Good News. Leave the “adding to the church” up to The Lord.

    I have challenged our folks to stop talking about CFCC and even stop talking about Jesus but to rather spend a season listening to the needs in their neighborhoods, offices, schools, etc… Once identified we are going to use what resources we have to meet those needs, no strings attached. 3 needs already being addressed include providing free Childcare for police officers so they and their spouses can go on a date once or twice a month. Paying to have police K-9 units spayed with a special coating to protect the dogs from the paint rubbing off in their coats and eventually their skin. And adopting a local School’s staff, not the students!

    I say all that to say Thom your post is right on time and very encouraging.

      • says

        I see that most churches are focusing on taking care of members and moving away from the great commission. God spoke of us and are big barns..but today its looked at as this shows the cruption of the money..we spend money with ease within . But for the less we become unsure are don’t recognize the need so much.. we have excepted a love that we feel comfortable with to call love… but this love I feel dissent hold water… we love are pets more than people..I feel its because of this inwardness…the safe haven for the so called cristion ….the church…. such a shame to see …carry your cross to the world …all things shall be added to you ….lv all

    • Randy says

      Chris, can I get a transcript of your Acts 2 sermon? my email is pastor dot spaceboy at

  6. Reginald Gabel says

    Really surprised someone hasn’t mentioned Facebook or Twitter… We are a small church and we do have a webpage but most of our information is done with Facebook. As more members get smartphones we have seen a very rapid use of our FB account. In the process of having our own APP for the church. Pray needs are met quickly, meeting, fellowship and many will share their post with others. We place daily devotions and quick tips and our following is growing. Prospects prospects prospects. Since we are small I handle most of the posting. It is a way for a pastor to touch member quickly and keep up with their needs. Of course most of the users are 55 and below, so I still use traditional media with them. I love the fact that our youth are comfortable in FB messaging me and asking questions on FB… ways of outreach will always change but the need of outreach will not change…

  7. Fred Russell says

    As a long time Baptist I think there are a few major things we need to consider changing. Our focus on counting everything as a way of validation of our efforts is business oriented instead of ministry oriented. Instead of counting baptisms we should consider counting the number of people actively serving. That’s a real indication of God working.

    Secondly life groups are better connecting points that Sunday school. Real relationship has to develop and generally Sunday school is not traditionally good at that.

  8. says

    Some churches have forgotten about outreach ministries as well as the scripture that states that we should feed the hungry and how JESUS requires one to give me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Jesus did these things and so does the Shiloh Seventh-Day Church in Charleston,SC. We have an active food ministry at least 3 days per week. We assist members as well as the community with clothing as needed. We visit the sick and those who are discouraged as well as visit the prisons. Recently we began rendering random acts of kindness to the community each month as well. We are by no means perfect but the message is perfect. To God be the glory great things he has done.

  9. says

    Hi Thom, We are a small church with a large vision. I appreciate your sharing. I do believe we all need to listen and learn from one another as it would be helpful to everyday ministry. One of the areas we encourage is a strong prayer life. As a church we outreach in different areas but one that is encouraging is prayer walk. We walk our community and knock on doors asking if we can pray for them. We also have them fill out prayer request where the teams return them to the church. They are prayed over weekly and we will also have a special service where the prayer request are placed on a table at the front of the church. The leadership leads the congregation in pray for these request. I have found the more we minister out the healthier the church becomes.

  10. Ralph Ruffin says

    We use social media for many things in relation to the church and it proves beneficial in many ways. I have read a couple of things concerning churches having one person solely responsible for social media and would like to read more on this. Do you have any insights or recommendations about a social media “director” who would serve the church specifically by posting and updating those sights? I tend to think this is a simple process, but would hate to overlook the obvious on some of the does and don’ts.

    • Mark says

      Don’t post too frequently. That can result in people disregarding your posts. Unless it is something serious, don’t burn people out,

  11. Margaret Smith says

    It is so exciting to see this kind of survey being published for all of us to take note of. This seems to be the message of the day in our small community. Not only are our local churches taking notice of outreach, but we are actually working together to help each other outreach better. It is very exciting to see the different denominations working together, loving on each other, for the benefit of those outside the church family. I’ve never seen anything like it in 32 years of Christian life.

  12. says

    Good stuff. I had an outreach to churches and hired a person to research the churches in our area. Few had web pages. Many that had them had no address or phone number so we could not contact them.

    All denominations were included. They deserve to die.

  13. says

    The church where I worship, (12th Street Baptist, Gadsden, AL – – was, at one time, in a neighborhood that was changing around them. Today, they are about 10 minutes from their former location. Their current pastor, Craig Carlisle, led the church to move (he’s also a product of the church, having been born into the church and called to ministry while a member there) into an old, closed K-Mart building in a nearby town.

    Since that time., Brother Craig has led the church to support a church plant in Miami, FL, another one in Cincinnati, OH, and a church in our own county, about 20 miles or so away on the same side of the county as our congregation. Just a few months ago, our church, under his leadership and his discipling new leaders for the ministry, began to serve hot prepared meals for the under-privileged in our community and county. Additionally, we support foreign and national missionaries through direct gifts and through giving to missions through the Cooperative Program.

    I’m so proud to be a part of a church that looks beyond its four walls and doesn’t think of ministry as a tool to increase “nickels and noses”!

  14. David Harstin says

    In rural settings where churches have traditionally survived by being family chapels, real outreach is especially challenging, because it has never really been tried. Demographic changes (e.g. aging communities, families with fewer children and lack of economic opportunities leading to out migration) are the primary reasons behind declining church membership in these areas. In short, for generations these family chapels have simply reproduced themselves via births and marriage. So the biggest challenge to rural churches is developing a real local mission focus for the first time. For pastors and laity alike, we must get focused on better understanding our faith and seeking the Spirit’s guidance that we might discover our congregational calling. Only then, we will be able to effectively communicate our faith in ways that help people to discover God’s prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace in relationship with God’s people. Let us become as little children in the arms of Jesus.

  15. Darrell Gleason says

    Dr. Rainer,

    My church is undergoing a transitional period and has called an intentional interim. Outreach is one of the major focus we are seeking to impress upon the church. May we place some of your blog postings on the church website if we give proper credit?

  16. Ruth Haydon says

    These are great ideas! We need to have someone in charge of outreach.

    One thing that we have been doing for the last two years is having outreach Sundays. At least four times a year, our church has a special outreach program to the community. We have church during the Sunday School hour and then we break into teams for outreach. Three teams go to local nursing homes, one team goes to a local gas station and washes windows, a couple go out and collect trash in the neighborhoods around the church, a couple of teams go out on prayer walks. Finally several teams go out to neighborhoods with welcome packets and knock on doors to invite people to our church. We have had several families that are now attending our church because of this outreach.

    All teams where t-shirts with the church name on it. This has been rewarding for our members and people in the community have commented positively on our outreach.

    Our biggest problem in our congregation is that we are in a very transient area with a lot of military families moving in and out. We have to make a conscious effort to greet new comers, even if we are embarrassed to find out they have been attending for a while.

  17. STEVE DE RUSE says

    As a Pastor and a City Council Member, I can attest to the fact that pastors and their congregations are clueless when it comes to “community” ministry. Most believe they are “outwardly focused” but the reality is, they are looking outward from an inward vantage point. Churches are planted in communities, but they lack any connection to the local community. Cities are made up of people groups such as, seniors, older adults, young adults, children, etc. These attend various events such as local sports like youth soccer, baseball, while the parents might be part of a service club like Rotary, or the women’s club. The seniors have their own social clubs. There is the business sector large and small, the PTA, the list goes on, and then there is local government. The point is in order to be “outwardly” relevant the church must look at the above mentioned groups as the mission field. I planted a church years ago and decided that the local community was going to be our mission field.

  18. says

    SO timely! In our staff meeting on 5/27 we had a looonnng discussion about facebook’s power, reach, and potential. We’ve had a church page for several years, but we don’t come close to maximizing what we could be doing with this tool. That it’s free is such a no-brainer blessing!

    Another option we are going to try is – another free social network, but more actual social interaction than cyber time. It’s a club listing with group sites (homepage, photos, meeting notices, member profiles, etc) that you can sort by geographic location and activity interest. There are Meet-Ups for canoeing, singles, spiritual discussion, parenting, crocheting…. It’s also free with a global reach, anyone can start a Meet-Up!

    Thanks for your encouraging exhortation!

  19. curtis says

    Reporting on the budget is easy, you just report the number of dollars that came in, and the number of dollars spent. What metrics would we use to report on local mission work?

  20. Lihai says

    I lead a inner city church in a place called Boksburg in Johannesburg ( South Africa) the members are mainly elderly and the church mentality is very much a ‘ country club’ on. Do you have any practical ideas off moving the attitude if the members .

  21. Martha says

    Our church also has become very focused on reaching the community around us, but have trouble knowing tangible ways to do that. I really appreciate the practical ideas and would like to hear more.

  22. says

    Was wondering what parameters were used to identify “outwardly focused” churches? I wonder at times if outreach measurements are usually short term based in that they measure immediate and close impacts instead of impacts of a church on people, churches, ministries, and lives that are not included in short term measurements. I know baptisms and attendance would also be increasing along with these more unmeasureable impacts. Seems like to see the health of the outreach of a church you would in affect need to consider both. Great article. Thank you.

  23. says

    Thanks so much for your articles. I find them very insightful. I’m in my first pastorate in a church that is a replant (35-45 in attendance). My issue is not the desire or the motivation to be outwardly focused. I see a lot of blogs and articles about being missional in your own backyard, and I’m fully on board. My problem is not “what” but “how.” Where can I find some practical, real world ideas, for small churches on a limited budget, to be intentionally outward focused in their own back yard? Thanks!

    • Thom Rainer says

      Bobby – Thank you. Your question is a good one. I plan to deliver a webcast about that issue this fall. Make sure you are on my email list, so you won’t miss the announcements. You can sign up on the front page of my blog.

  24. says

    I wish I had time to sift through all the comments to see if someone has already answered this question, but I’m just going to go ahead and ask instead. I think most of us would agree that the outreach programs of years past eventually became culturally irrelevant, as you mentioned. What outreach events are seeing more success today? We have been in our very small church less than a year and are trying to find outreach that works without doing a lot of trial and error. So what works now? How are other churches incorporating effective outreach events? I would love to have some input! :)

  25. Daniel Fusting says

    Great topic. All replies are very good. However, I would like to propose that there are four basic corner stones for any Church to fulfill its mission and that there is a natural, logical sequence of importance and progression. Quite simply, here they are.

    1. Spirituality
    2. Faith
    3. Community
    4. Ministry

    Reflect. Are these not the sequential steps Jesus himself followed in founding His church?

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