By Frank Powell
Why does the church exist? If I asked this question to a thousand Christians, the answer would be fairly consistent across the board. The church exists to reach the lost and make disciples (or some variation of this phrase). The problem is most churches aren’t reaching the lost and making disciples.
Maybe this is because churches don’t understand the culture that must be present to reach the lost. Yes, the Spirit is essential and can work through any church culture. But some cultures are more favorable to the spread of the mission than others. There is a reason some churches are externally focused and other are not. There is a reason some churches are impacting the culture and awakening people to Christ and others are not.
What does a church culture prepared to reach the lost and unchurched look like? I want to introduce 10 signs your church is ready to reach the lost and engage the unchurched.
As you read, you will be surprised. These signs don’t appear to be representative of healthy church cultures. But healthy cultures (at least in terms of stability) rarely focus on the lost. They rarely engage the unchurched. These might be ideas preached from the pulpit, but they are not actions in the lives of members. So, understand, sometimes what appears to be instability and failure is actually growth and forward progress.
Here are 10 signs your church is ready to reach the lost.
1.) Longtime church members are upset.
Carey Neiuwhof talks about this here. When the unchurched or lost begin showing up at your church, some long time church members will become upset. People who don’t know Jesus don’t understand the “code.” They don’t speak the church language. And these church people only like those who speak their language.
But this is not true of everyone. Some Christians will see the shift and be revitalized. They understand the goal is not to be comfortable and safe. And this will ignite their heart towards the mission. So, if your church has some Christians uneasy and upset, don’t feel bad. This is a natural part of a culture focused on reaching the lost. Embrace it.
2.) Members celebrate when people are sent into the world.
‘Success in the church shouldn’t center around how many are gathered, but how many are sent.’
The God we serve is a God who sends people into the world, not gathers them into a huddle. Likewise, success in the church shouldn’t center around how many are gathered, but how many are sent. Insider-focused churches try to plug people into the life of the church. Churches focused on the lost try to plug the church in the life of the world.
Recently, my wife informed me of a local ministry in Jackson, TN focused on ministering to women at a strip club. These are ordinary women. No special training. Just women who decided volunteering at church wasn’t the extent of their ministry for God. So, Friday nights are not a time to rest and wind down from a long week. They are a time devoted to prayer and showing up at a strip club to minister to women.
They realize being sent is the call of God. They understand being sent isn’t a future event or an overseas calling. Being sent is a lifestyle. A way of living. The way of Jesus.
3.) Traditional stances on moral and cultural issues are re-examined.
Recently, I talked with a man who used to be in ministry. This man focused his ministry on reaching the lost and unchurched. For a season, everyone was enthusiastic about this shift. But eventually excitement relinquished and reality set in. Leaders began asking questions. People were coming to Jesus who lived together before marriage, had broken marriages, and everything in between. This forced everyone to re-examine issues like homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, etc.
You see, when your church focuses on reaching the lost, the issues most Christians talk about abstractly become concrete. Sexual immorality has a name. Tom. Jill. Billy. These are real people with real struggles. They aren’t ideas. And this creates tension. Healthy tension, but tension nonetheless.
If your church isn’t re-examining traditional stances on certain issues, you probably aren’t reaching people who struggle with these issues.
4.) Church attendance is no longer the primary metric for church growth.
If your church is focused on reaching the lost, weekly attendance will decrease. Some regular church members will leave, and new converts won’t initially attend church regularly.
But this is where using attendance as a primary metric is dangerous. If your church is reaching the lost, attendance might decrease, but engagement will increase. And engagement drives church growth and effectiveness, not church attendance. The issue with most insider-focused churches is engagement can be a very difficult thing to measure. And these churches must have a concrete metric to gauge the condition of the church.
Churches focused on reaching the lost value church attendance, but they never allow a packed room to be more important than engaged people. Because decreased attendance isn’t always a bad thing. It might be a sign your church is ready to reach the lost.
5.) Leaders admit struggles and sins.
One thing the lost and unchurched sniff out immediately is…hypocrisy. And a hypocrite isn’t someone who sins or struggles. A hypocrite is someone who knows sin exists but either covers it up or is blind to it. The lost won’t hang around in churches where everyone has it all together. I don’t blame them.
Churches focused on the lost have members keenly aware of their sin. These churches will be transparent about sin. This starts with the leaders, but it doesn’t stop with them. A culture of authenticity and openness is present in these churches. This might come off as a sign of weakness to some insider-focused churches, but it is really a sign of strength. Because it is in weakness God is glorified. It is through sin the gospel’s power comes to life.
Don’t expect those who don’t know Jesus (or those who understand the infinitely wide gap between man’s sinfulness and God’s perfection) to be at a church where leaders aren’t confessing and repenting.
6.) Programs and events are scrapped.
Churches focused on the lost and unchurched always filter programs and events through the mission and vision. These churches realize neat, tidy programs and events often hinder spiritual growth and development. And they aren’t willing to keep a program on life support at the expense of losing people.
‘Externally-focused churches won’t hold on to a program at the expense of losing people.’
Programs and events are inherently wrong, but too many churches place more value on programs than people. They would rather scrap people than scrap programs. This is a problem. Churches who value reaching the lost are flexible. They understand the church isn’t about programs and events. It is about people.
7.) Being a family isn’t a core value.
The church is a family. But the traditional American family isn’t a great metaphor for the type of family the church should be. The traditional American family looks the same. They do everything together. They enjoy the same hobbies and activities. And they are typically exclusive.
The church, however, should not look the same. People from all walks of life should be present. People from all backgrounds should be present. It should never be exclusive. For churches focused on the lost, the mission will be more important than meeting together and placing everyone in nice, neat groups.
8.) Everyone is ok with not being ok.
Insider-focused churches would rather keep their Christian bubble from bursting than allow someone who curses, smokes, or makes obscene gestures to know Jesus. “Holy huddle” churches might keep their children from hearing “bad words,” but they will never experience the power of the gospel. They will never see God altering trajectories and transforming lives.
Churches focused on the lost understand faith in Christ doesn’t equal instant behavioral transformation. They take people where they are and embrace the journey, bad words and all. They celebrate transformation, but they don’t expect every person to transform instantly (or equally).
9.) Pharisees are leaving.
It is impossible to make everyone happy and pursue the mission concurrently. When making disciples is the priority, Pharisees get angry. Eventually, these Pharisees will be fed up with the direction of the church. And they will leave.
Churches focused on the lost value reaching people more than keeping people. They understand you can’t have both. This is why a compelling vision is essential. When vision is present, decisions and actions are filtered through this vision. And angry Pharisees don’t fit in a vision focused on the lost.
‘Churches must decide whether they want to keep people or reach people.’
10.) No one is talking about “church issues.”
‘Churches focused on reaching the lost don’t have time for meaningless conversations.’
Churches focused on reaching the lost and fulfilling the mission don’t have time for meaningless conversations. They don’t gather to answer questions no one is asking. They don’t use the pulpit as a platform to discuss political or denominational issues. These churches are focused on Jesus and the gospel. They understand, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, the gospel is of first importance. Everything outside the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is secondary.
Meanwhile, insider-focused churches are constantly gathering to discuss why their denomination is the best, why their interpretation of a particular Scripture is right, and why in the world the Seahawks passed the ball in the Super Bowl when they were six inches from the goal line?
Alright, maybe I have asked this question to a few people since it happened. But, really? A pass play?
I know there are more signs a church is ready to reach the lost. Let’s keep the conversation going.
I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!
To review the studies included in the Framework and find out why we have concluded these things you will need to see the notes which are available by contacting us.
Please also share our blog to allow others to review and contribute – we need everyone, not just leaders, to play their part in building a church that others want to come to.
Frank serves as a college/young adult pastor in Jackson, TN. He loves sports, outdoors, and playing with his two boys. You can find him at http://frankpowell.me/
Copyright 2015 Frank Powell. Permission is granted to copy, forward, or distribute this article for non-commercial use only, as long as this copyright byline, in totality, is maintained in all duplications, copies, and link references. For reprint permission for any commercial use, in any form of media, please contact us.