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7 Ways to Keep an Outward Focus

Part six in this series on church revitalization entitled “Kick Starting the Plateaued and Declining Church” is adapted from an article that I co-wrote with Mike Dodson (who was also my co-author for Comeback Churches) for the Spring 2010 Journal of Evangelism and Missions. You can read the rest of the series here.

As Nehemiah was leading the revitalization process in Jerusalem, some key moments emerged where he recognized the need to clarify the vision and keep the people focused. Like in chapter four, the work of the people to rebuild the wall is being ridiculed, and Nehemiah responds: “After I made an inspection, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials, and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the great and awe-inspiring Lord, and fight for your countrymen, your sons and daughters, your wives and homes.'” (Neh. 4:14 HCSB)

Isn’t that what vision is all about? Nehemiah appeals to the fact that what they are doing is bigger than they are. In other words, it’s not about them. It’s about God, and it’s about fighting for each other. He makes it about the Lord and “us” again.

Granted, it’s hard to find a real outreach focus in Nehemiah. However, we know from Scripture that God’s ultimate purpose for Israel was to be a blessing to all nations, and even Jesus pointed out this intention in the Gospel of Mark based on the Old Testament; “Is it not written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?'” (11:17 HCSB) The problem is that Israel never really understood God’s desire and intention when He chose them. Having said that, Nehemiah did provide an example of outward focus and ministry by abolishing the usury practices in chapter five. In addition, he didn’t take advantage of the privileges of being a governor because he knew the burden was heavy on the people. Unlike former governors who took advantage of the people and were domineering, Nehemiah “didn’t do this, because of the fear of God. Instead, I devoted myself to the construction of the wall, and all my subordinates were gathered there for work. We didn’t buy any land. There were 150 Jews and officials, as well as guests from the surrounding nations at my table.” (Neh. 5:15-17 HCSB)

First, it’s clear that Nehemiah set an example by working right alongside the people. He didn’t just walk into the situation and start giving orders and telling people what they were doing wrong and what they needed to do right. That’s at least part of what gave his vision casting credibility. Second, it seems like a small thing, but Nehemiah practiced hospitality by feeding people who came from the surrounding nations. That at least hints at an outward focus.

More than that, we know we have been given the task of being outward focused. When churches lose that, it’s a big reason they end up plateauing or declining. Church can easily become about what the existing congregation wants, instead of thinking about and serving people beyond the existing group. In revitalization situations, this often has to be initiated carefully because internal people and things sometimes need to be changed or adjusted before you can start effectively doing outreach.

In other words, be careful about bringing new people into an unhealthy situation too quickly. It has to happen, but be careful about the timing. Try to bring the body to this place together. Pastor Chris Justice offers some insight on this. As he began to project a vision of kingdom growth, he noticed that Lee Park had a great deal of classroom space not being used, as well as a balcony being used for storage. Pastor Chris began to say things like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we were using all of our classroom space?” and “Wouldn’t it be great if the balcony was full?”

As the church began to refresh the building and property, they also developed an outward focus. Evangelism teams were started to reach into the community. In addition, the church offered a bilingual vacation Bible school because the community around the church had transitioned. They also held an outdoor service with a Spanish translator. After experiencing a low attendance of 50 people, clarifying a simple vision, building an outward focus in a troubled neighborhood, merging with another plateaued church, and several years of intentional ministry, Lee Park is now averaging almost 900 in worship. In addition, another church plant is meeting in Lee Park’s previous facility.

Understand that this process isn’t often accomplished with great ease. Many churches are stuck because the vision is foggy at best. If there is a stated vision, it’s been diluted within a cluttered mess of statements, strategies, traditions, and programs. The people within the congregation are likely not on the same page regarding the vision. In addition, many churches are built around themselves. One simple way to find out–draw a line down the middle of a board or piece of paper and have people within the church honestly assess what functions and ministries of the church are being done for the church versus reaching out to the community. Most likely, the need to lead the church to engage outside of her four walls will be obvious. Then seek to mobilize the congregation to move outwardly any way that all of you can think of to do it.

Since it is easy to lose momentum and drift back into old patterns, here are a few ideas to help keep the outward focus fresh:

  1. Plan some simple events to minister to people that involves a group of people from the church. Then have someone share brief testimonies of the outreach experience.
  2. Develop a simple outreach plan for the church and then highlight one different part each week in the worship services.
  3. Pray for God to change your heart and the heart of the church during public prayer times and pray Luke 10:2.
  4. Provide training for people to better share their faith, like “Share Jesus Without Fear” or “More to Life Training.”
  5. Make a big deal about baptisms by explaining what they represent and invite baptismal candidates to share their testimonies before the whole congregation.
  6. Meet monthly with key leaders to update, recast a vision for outreach, and pray for God to move in the lives of the church family to act on the vision.
  7. Develop a list of people who do not know Jesus and pray for them regularly with key leaders and before the congregation.

Be sure to read the rest of the series, and then come back to discuss.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.