Tom Ehrich, one of my favorite thinkers about church in the 21st century, recently told me he is down to one pivotal question for the congregations he works with. That question is: “Is your primary orientation inward or outward?”  His contention is that, until we get this right, our internally focused planning and programming obscures the most important task we have been given.

I think he is right. Many would agree to those words, but fail to full appreciate the implications of such a shift in our orientation. To ask this question is to embark on a fundamental and often uncomfortable shift for many congregations. We have been trained to provide services for our constituents (read: members) and to work hard at meeting their expectations. Clergy and lay leaders spend untold amounts of energy seeking to provide just the right kind of food, environment, worship format, program, facility, etc. for those who attend our church. We have spawned what my colleague Nelson Grenade termed “the concierge minister”. Such ministers are expected to provide whatever the congregation wants, even if it conflicts with his or her core convictions about the church.

Inwardly focused, self-absorbed congregations produce highly anxious leaders who live in fear of offending a constituent and with a nagging sense of building a church that Jesus would not attend.

While we may talk about “outreach” to the community, often what we actually mean is some form of “in-drag”. The only way we know to help people is to pull them into our facilities and then try to fix whatever ails them. We have a gnawing sense that our efforts are producing less and less return on our investment, but we really are not sure what to do in lieu of what we have always done.  Such is the dilemma of many a loyal and faithful congregation as we live into the 21st century.

To reorient ourselves toward an outward focus is more than simply lip service to a generic missions program or tossing a few crumbs to the less fortunate around us. It is to take seriously both the great commandments and the great commission, and to seek to integrate them into everything we do and say.

To be outward oriented is to recognize that God is at work both within and around the church and to seek out that activity and name it. One pastor I know simply invited his congregation to start noticing and naming “where I saw God at work today”. The energy has been contagious as the congregation awakened to the possibilities of working with the Spirit in ways that have been too often overlooked.

Part of our reorientation will be the recognition that our scorecards and metrics will need to change. Our traditional scorecard items of “nickels and noses” are not adequate for a future that is outward focused. Balancing our obsession with attendance and finances with a hunger to measure our impact on our larger community is a seismic shift for many. It may help to recognize that this is at the heart of the way Jesus taught us to live out our faith.

Dave Ferguson, the lead pastor of Community Church in Chicago, suggests we need a new set of metrics to more adequately reflect our outward orientation. “Adequate metrics for your church will reflect your understanding of the mission of Jesus”. 

If the mission of Jesus takes seriously not only those inside the church but those outside, then we might consider expanding our scorecard and metrics to include such impacts as:

  • Impact on local crime rate.
  • Impact on high school dropout rate, graduation rate, test scores, college admission percentages and acceptance.
  • Impact on divorce rate, marriages restored.
  • Impact on: number of orphans, widows ministered to, prisoners reached, poverty averted, adequate housing provided, hungry fed, etc. (see Matthew 25)
  • Clear discipleship thresholds identified and measured.
  • Life-changing stories told and encouraged.
  • Hours spent off church property by staff in ministry. (What if we expected every staff member to spend 25% of their time working with non-church members?)

To shift our orientation from self-preservation and self-service to an outward orientation built upon a deep love of our city/community is to make the same transformative journey the disciples made as they walked alongside Jesus.

Initially, the disciples were fixated upon what Jesus could do for them (Mark 9-10, for example). Gradually, on the far side of the resurrection and as the Spirit opened their eyes and hearts, they became obsessed with what Jesus could do for everyone. More than an evangelism campaign, their primary focus and concern became sharing this Good News with their external community. Self-preservation gave way to sacrificial love for others.

We may discover that the pivotal question for every healthy faith community remains what it has always been: is your focus internal or external?

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Bill Wilson
Dr. William “Bill” Wilson founded The Center for Healthy Churches in January of 2014. This followed his service as President of the Center for Congregational Health at Wake Forest Baptist Health since 2009. Previously he was Pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, Georgia, where he served since 2003. He brings over 33 years of local church ministry experience to CHC, having served as pastor in two churches in Virginia (Farmville BC and FBC Waynesboro) and on a church staff in South Carolina. Bill has led each of the churches he has served into a time of significant growth and expansion of ministry. He is the director of CHC.