7 Reasons Why Most Church Outreach Programs Fail

In my last blog in this space, I addressed the seven habits of outwardly focused churches. This time, I want to look at a related topic: 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, I wanted to demonstrate the terrible consequences and deaths of local congregations that occur when members are inwardly focused.

The feedback my surveys have stimulated from pastors and church leaders included the point: Please share the specifics of what effective, outwardly-focused churches are doing. Although I have filmed a video on this topic, I think it is worth sharing some of the points in this rather brief blog post.

Reasons for failure

Some leaders asked 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. Members see them as an end instead of a means. As a consequence, some will participate in an outreach ministry out of 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 a 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 church obligations.

6. Outreach programs can offer excuses for people not to be outwardly focused. As a church consultant, I used to conduct church surveys. A common theme I heard expressed: “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 people don’t usually choose it.

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 their accountability to an institution.

The story doesn’t end

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.

Whether observer or expert, though, we all have an obligation to share the good news with those outside the church. Without new growth to bring life to a body, it will shrivel up and die.  

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Thom Rainer
Thom S. Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources (LifeWay.com). Among his greatest joys are his family: his wife Nellie Jo; three sons, Sam, Art, and Jess; and six grandchildren. He was founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His many books include Surprising Insights from the Unchurched, The Unexpected Journey, and Breakout Churches.

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