By Joel Rainey
“We want to reach our community!”
In 26 years of ministry, I’ve never led or consulted with a single congregation that didn’t say this. But for too many churches, it’s just not happening.
In conservative evangelical environments, I’m discovering a go-to excuse for why a church isn’t effectively reaching its community. They say they are faithful to the Gospel, which is offensive to their community. I hear many pastors say, “It is our responsibility to be out of step with the times.”
While it’s true the Gospel is eternally counter-cultural, I’m afraid many churches have confused “out of step” with “out of touch.” Being “out of step” is our calling. We’re cutting against the grain of culture in ways that bring genuine redemption and restoration.
But there is a world of difference between being “out of step” and “out of touch.” If your church is merely “out of touch,” that isn’t faithfulness to the Gospel. That posture is one of ambivalence toward people Jesus died to save.
So what are the indicators your church might be out of touch? Ask yourself four questions.
1. Are the members of the church also members of the community?
Driving through a not-yet-gentrified area of Louisville, Kentucky years ago, we saw prostitutes on the corner, witnessed people entering the local crack houses, and sensed the obvious presence of darkness.
But once we turned into the church parking lot, we saw a Lexus parked next to a Mercedes, which was in turn parked next to a Cadillac.
Those who had been members of this church for decades claimed they wanted to reach this community. But the community had drastically changed over the years, and the church members no longer lived there!
They understood nothing of the poverty and addiction surrounding them, and had no personal desire to envelop themselves in the lives of “those people.” Instead, they expected the community to come into a facility, structure, and approach to ministry foreign to them.
If no one from your church lives in the community, it may be time to relocate your church. You could give the building to believers who actually live there.
2. Do church meetings include substantial discussion of the community and its needs?
It was a three-hour business meeting involving a lot of critical issues: “What should the worship service look like?” “How should we structure ourselves?” And of course, “Who is going to be in control?” But for 180 minutes, this dying church said nothing about Jesus or the community surrounding them.
If you spend more time analyzing the church than serving the community your church was put there to serve, it is a sure sign your church is completely out of touch.
3. Do the ministries of the church link with the needs of the community?
The church was seriously considering spending $13 million on a brand new, state-of-the-art “family life center,” complete with a full-sized gymnasium, free weights, nautilus equipment, and aerobics classes.
The problem was, no one had considered there was already a $15 million facility across the street providing all those things–in a way the church would never be able to compete.
Too often, churches start food pantries, ministries for single moms, recovery ministries, divorce care, financial counseling, and a thousand other things without so much as asking a single person from the community what needs exist.
A church truly serving its community listens to its community. It connects community needs with its ministries and those ministries with the Gospel.
4. Is community transformation part of the vision?
When I teach church planting courses, one of the assignments always includes the students assembling an initial strategic plan for a new church that includes community analysis, vision, mission, and an overview of the first 18 months. I warn the students if the vision stops with a picture of the church, they will earn a failing grade!
The church is essential to the mission. In fact, without the church, there is no true mission! But though the church is necessary, it is not ultimate. God’s Kingdom is ultimate. The result of any effective church aware of its surroundings is a community reflecting more of the Kingdom of God.
How will the community look different ten years from now if your church is truly obedient to Jesus? If you haven’t answered that question, then whatever you have described isn’t vision. If you’ve never asked the question in the first place, your church may be completely out of touch.
We preach an out-of-step Gospel, yes. But those we are called to reach with that glorious message will never hear it if we and the churches we lead are out of touch.
JOEL RAINEY (@joelrainey) is the Lead Pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He is husband to Amy, father of three, serves on the adjunct faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the author of three books with a fourth one due out this fall. Joel blogs at Themelios.