Is Outreach a Program or Lifestyle?

Recently someone asked me, “What do you think about programs?” I was surprised at how much I had to say in response to that short question, so I have been putting some thoughts together recently about the power—or lack thereof—of the program approach to doing church.

Seeker Sensitive Approach

Take, for example, the experiment that has been going on across the American Church landscape for the past 20 years or so—the Seeker Sensitive approach. It basically boils down to being a program approach to doing church. No one who has seriously attempted to be a “Seeker Church” hasn’t taken a trek to one or more of the Seeker Meccas in the U.S. to see how they do what they do. When going to those places, there is no shortage of very well-executed, well-marketed, snappy videos, DVDs, and a whole array of books that spell out precisely how to “do” the Seeker Sensitive thing.

The only problem is that after 20 years of doing this program—and it’s fair that we start looking at the fruit of this thing now—it hasn’t produced much fruit.

Don’t get me wrong. It was partially helpful to the Church at large— especially as programs go. Rarely do programs work in the long run. This one actually brought a measure of fruitfulness. In certain situations, it brought great fruitfulness. Overall, I believe it is accurate to state that it was an experiment that was 30% helpful, but 70% that was actually damaging to the Church at large. (Damaging in that it lowered the level of challenge to the Church’s message in an attempt to make the front door larger—well intentioned, but a big mistake in the long run. George Barna has much to say about this in his book Revolution.)

Ultimately, it was another program that promised much and delivered far less that the initial hoopla. Like all programs, in the end, it let its participants down.

Programs Don’t Work

After working in church leadership for 25+ years and observing the Church at large on a broad cross-section, I believe that this statement is absolutely true: programs don’t work! They never have, and they never will.

You have to travel a bit to figure this out, but what you will find as you get outside the good ol’ United States of America is that North America (specifically the Unites States and Canada) are the only two countries in the world that value programs. If you want to look at it another way—programs are an invention of that latter part of the 20th century in the United States. When is someone going to stand up and observe that the Emperor has no clothes on? Programs don’t work.

The closest culture in the world to North America has to be Central and Northern Europe, and even they are far more skeptical of the usefulness of the program approach to getting things done than we are at this point in history.

Serving is a Lifestyle

Take this home and ponder it: as long as you are treating outreach as a program, you will never, ever succeed at creating a widespread lifestyle of serving in your congregation. That I can guarantee. That was my hunch about 10 years ago. Now after coaching a few hundred leaders, I can pretty much prove it. History speaks truth that is inviolable. If you confine serving to something that is done once a week by a minority of people in your congregation—or say you even succeed to the point that you have people going out several times a week with evidential success—you are still laboring away at a program-based mentality. I’ve been analyzing this for a couple of decades now.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of great work can be accomplished by approaching the serving of your city with a program approach. I have seen some amazing results with this approach over a prolonged period of time, to the degree that a congregation definitely made their imprint upon a city. After diligently serving and serving, they eventually, with just a minority of their people, became known as the “Serving Church” in their city. But it can be so much more effective! There can be so much more!

Our Plan for Tampa

Consider this: Janie and I are moving to Tampa next year to plant a new church. We have been listening to God big time, seeking to put together the best of what we have learned over our years in leadership—we aren’t assuming anything about what God has in mind for this new church. It may sound trite, but this whole thing is in His hands. One of the clear operational plans we have is to make outreach absolutely organic and not programmatic in the least. We are going to, from the first week we gather, begin to create an atmosphere where it is understood, in print, in words spoken in messages literally weekly (at least a brief touch on this each week) that we are all carriers of the deeds of Jesus. Jesus walked in the atmosphere of kindness, generosity, love, acceptance…In Peter’s words, “He went about doing good to all kinds of people.” (Acts 10:38)

On a practical level, every single week as everyone leaves, smiling people at the exits will wish them well and hand them a small Ziploc bag with 10 of our Coastland Church connection cards. Our gentle challenge to them, modeled by all of our leaders, is to touch between five and 10 people during their week. I have no illusions that this will be done by a large percentage of our people from the beginning. In fact, I’m sure it will take a long time to reorient people toward outwardness. From my experience, I suspect that those who come from a long-term Church background will take the longest to reorient! Those people have heard for years or decades that self-serving living is just fine—that just giving God His little percentage, and staying away from gross visible sin and then reading Focus on the Family each month, is all that God would ever expect from any good Christian. Wow, are they wrong! There is much, much more to the picture if you or I hope to change the world! Janie’s and my aspiration is that after two years of being a public venture as a church in Tampa, 80% of our people will be touching between five and 10 people each week as they go about their business.

(Hint: If we hope they will touch that many people, then we need to carry out the lifestyle of touching between five and 10 people a day, six or seven days a week with acts of love, generosity, kindness. Our people won’t do what we do…They will do less than what we do.)

Let’s Do the Math

Here’s the exciting idea: if we have 2,000 regular attendees, do the math on how many community touches that equals. Let’s conservatively round that off to eight touches per week done by 1,600 adults in average attendance. Those people alone, without any other large-scale events, amount to just under 55,000 touches or tacit invitations to the “party” each weekend per month. Carry that out over 12 months…That’s more than 645,000 touches per year. As the church continues to grow to, say 4,000 in weekend attendance, we will be touching more than 1 million people per year—not counting our large-scale special event outreaches.

Now we are talking about something exciting—not a program, but a lifestyle that is integrated into the daily, hourly lives of our people. That is tremendously exciting to me. How does it grab you?   
Steve Sjogren has been involved in church planting in Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Oslo, Norway. He is the founding pastor of Vineyard Community Church (VCC) in Cincinnati, Ohio. With a strong emphasis on small groups, church planting, caring for the needy, and an innovative approach to evangelism called “servant evangelism,” VCC has seen attendance grow from 37 people to more than 6,000.

Copyright © by Outreach magazine.  All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Previous article5 Building Blocks of a Small Group Meeting
Next articlePreaching on the Run: 7 Tips for Bi-Vocational Pastors