Churches don’t reach people…

Time For Plan B Photo by Bjørn Giesenbauer via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Churches don’t reach people… People do.

Maybe that’s a statement of the obvious for you. But if you read enough church blogs or look at enough books or listen to a bunch of pep talks you may begin to believe the lie that churches, their leaders, and their programs reach a lot of people.

They don’t.

Less than 5% of our culture is actively involved in church. That’s a lot of smoke and not much fire.

Neighbors loving neighbors reaches people. Which involves talking and getting to know people who live next door to you. Which involves you being home and not hiding in your house.

Here’s a little secret I learned from working on church staff.

It feels good to keep people busy.

It makes you think you’re being productive. It makes you think that they are keeping your ministry a priority. You look really good with lots of things going on and people running around like busy little bees.

Having a lot of people involved in your programs is a powerful temptation as a church staff member. The bottom line is that you feel like its your job to grow a program. Heck, there’s a good chance it IS your job to grow a program.

But if you step back for a minute and think about it– For every moment you are keeping a person at the church “doing ministry” you are actually preventing them from doing the one thing we know works. And the one thing every believer, including your pastor, is called to do universally.

Love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew 22:39

A lot of church involvement is actually counter intuitive to your church actually reaching a community.

It might feel good to keep people busy. But in the end it is killing your ability to grow the church.

Reality Check

For Kristen and I it took stepping out of a busy bee church and into a situation where we could simply say no to everything but church attendance to have this truth awakened in us.

Believing in the “churches reach people” paradigm is really just an excuse for me to not reach out in love to those in my neighborhood. I might feel pretty good about keeping busy in the church. But my life ends up with a lot of smoke and not much fire.

We try to do the bear minimum and I still feel like we are over involved. We have church on Sunday. Community group on Monday night. And youth group on Tuesday night. (I’d skip church and youth group over community group, by the way. Community group is our lifeline.)

And it still feels like too much.


What if community service became the program of the church? What if you had a simple service on Sunday morning and then sent the people of the church out to apply what they’ve learned in their life?

What if the role of the staff is to go out with the people of your congregation and work alongside? Not as a program overlord, but as an encourager and equipper.

Wouldn’t that be a biblical expression of church?

Or have we bought so firmly into the current paradigm that we don’t think simple expressions of faith in action will work anymore?





13 responses to “Churches don’t reach people…”

  1. Tim Avatar

    Have you read “Missional Renaissance” by Reggie McNeal? He says a lot of this stuff, too. It’s all about being kingdom-minded instead of church-minded. And yes, there is a difference. Good stuff.

  2. Daryl Andrews Avatar

    Well said Adam. My wife & I have just stepped away from our church, and we are coming to similar realizations. However, we are struggling to find a church that isn’t attached to the current paradigm. Do we just compromise, associate with a church perpetuating the paradigm, find some community within (small group, life group, community group, whatever someone wants to call it), and try to live out what might be a beautiful expression of the church? I guess I just am not willing to compromise yet… If you know of some Jesus followers living out what your talking about, especially in my neighbourhood, let me know.

  3. Kevin I Avatar

    A lot of good points there.

    I think another good thing for a church to do is to turn the whole church into that good neighbor in addition to encouraging each other to be good neighbors and reducing program commitments and business.

    Our church has tried to be a good neighbor in a couple of different ways that have had a great impact, we give out free food at community events (which is always a great conversation “why is this popcorn and snowcone free?” “because we have a bunch of it lying around, so why not!” “you’re not going to preach at us or give us a tract?” “Nope, we’re here on snowcone business today..”), open up our bathrooms during parades and on Halloween, letting small businesses and local charities use our space at low or no cost, showing up as grunt labor for community and fundraising events as a congregation, None of this was meant to feed or start a program, we’re just trying to take the loving neighbor idea and making sure the church as a whole lives up to it as well and instead of another program allowing our congregants to meet their neighbors in this way.

  4. adam mclane Avatar

    @daryl- The church we go to now does as good a job as any at bucking the trend. Like I said in the post, I know I frustrate the staff because our family says no a lot. But at the same time I have very open chats with them as to why.

    I refuse to give up on church. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that church is a part of the Christian life. I can’t/won’t give up on that. We are involved. We go most Sundays. And we give our fair share. Tony Compolo quote some dead guy, I think its Augustine, and says “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.”

    I won’t lie and say there aren’t times when I want to give up on church. But I just suck it up and get it done.

    @kevin- that’s flipping beautiful. Thanks for sharing. give your church a shout out. What’s the name and where is it?

  5. stew carson Avatar

    I think its important to realize that what most of us know as ‘church’ isn’t necessarily what has existed as church throughout the last 2000 years!

    By cultivating Christ’s community in your neighbourhood you are both being & doing church. The fact that you may be unincorporated doesn’t diminish what is happening.

    The local church (as we currently see it) is not the hope of the world. The hope of the world is as Dallas Willard writes, little kingdom beachheads in neighbourhoods living the Jesus life. People are waking up to this reality from all walks of life. You don’t even have to leave your current church, just be willing like Adam to say ‘no’.

    Here is how a group of Denver area churches are working at it:

    Where do you live Daryl?

  6. Daryl Andrews Avatar

    Great comments Kevin, Adam, & Stew. I definitely cant give up on the church (people) but the current paradigm I have given up on. And many ‘churches’ I see, consider the bread and butter, the priority #1, is the Sunday morning service (entertainment), and the active (busy w programs) christian family.

    Example: If we financially support a church that is pouring resources into the wrong things (Obviously worshipping God is worthy, but we dont need to pay a majority of our staff, building, bells and whistles, etc into a couple hour program), when do we stop enabling the problem?

    I live in London, Ontario, Canada. I will admit I know some amazing influencers (including pastors, and other forms of leaders) who are wanting change. Even my former church I was employed at (we lost lots of support with the bucking of the trends discussed above) is wrestling with all the write questions.

    But I am struggling to see little kingdom beachheads growing…let alone changing the world.

  7. adam mclane Avatar

    @kevin- A kick butt smoke machine and some lasers, yeah I don’t want my money going to that either! I wrote about that last week:

    The best way to see systemic change in a church NOW is to stop funding the problem. Most churches have a month or two of reserves, tops. I guarantee if the people kept coming but chose to give money to say… relief work.. that things would change in weeks and not years!

    Those lights and smoke machine would be on Craigslist by 4th of July!

    There must be some type of missional gathering in London. Really, nothing?

  8. Daryl Andrews Avatar

    @Adam. Obviously some churches are trying to be missional. I have some dear friends leading some communities of believers in London. However, many (not all) still seem to be enabling the problem… or maybe on the positive front… I lack the patience to see change happen so slowly. I realize my issues are probably more a negative reflection of myself then my circumstance.

    What relief work would you recommend supporting? I have a passion for students especially. Examples of groups I love include: International Justice Mission, Youth for Christ, Invisible Children, Blood: Water Mission, YMCA, etc.

  9. adam mclane Avatar

    @daryl- here’s a Haiti relief thing I’m personally involved with and giving to:

    But you’ve listed a big bunch of awesome orgs as well. 🙂

  10. Andy Avatar

    I think there are elements of “INservice” and “OUTservice” that are present at healthy churches. There is a time for being fed in church, a time to be poured into by a leader (or leaders) in the context of Christian community. This is absolutely scriptural and is a vital purpose the church serves. Many times this happens in the context of “programming.” And while we can and should debate the nature of those programs (cost, effectiveness, etc.), the idea that we grow spiritually as a result of INservice is not a bad one.

    However, I find that too many churches focus too much on INservice and not enough on OUTservice. I believe the goal of INservice is to create disciples who are motivated and equipped to be the Church in the world . . . outside of the walls of their local congregation. This is OUTservice, serving the community in the name of Christ, often with no strings attached. I believe part of what is being discussed by the SBC in Orlando right now is a result of SBC churches focusing more on INservice to the point that church became about collecting knowledge. The Bible is not a history book. Its precepts were intended for action. If a church compels its members to act on the teachings of Christ both within and outside, it will have met its purpose.

  11. […] I was challenged and encouraged by a couple great blogs. A couple favourite blogs of mine are: Adam McLane & Mark Oestreicher. Adam posted a blog titled: Churches don’t reach people. Mark put up a […]

  12. Kevin I Avatar

    Thanks for the shout out invitation 🙂
    We’re Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian Church in Ringoes, NJ

  13. T.C. Avatar

    another good post and now i’m praying we can move past theory and see more practice, everywhere, every city, as adam envisions.

    i/we’ve been doing it for 2 years now: no building,. no long sermons (7 minutes max); lots of conversation; no music, except on a couple occasions with a guitar and singer unplugged; lots of picnics, meals, coffee, picking up trash, tutoring kids, walking around, volunteering with organizations. it’s actually very confusing much of the time so i am not speaking as a paid expert or anything (ah yes that’s another thing, this does not attract a whole bunch of money or people, by the way). there’s no guidbook, other than maybe hirsch’s forgotten ways handbook and a few others; lots of material out there on theory and many ideas but indeed the workers are few and the enemy is dead set against the kind of movements that adam is inferring.

    a few interrelated opinions as i work this out for myself in collaboration with people like you who i love and appreciate so much:

    1. do it. stop talking about it. leave your church and do what you are saying. that’s the message i keep getting, and increasingly i have less time writing about church reform because there is, as you say, so much work to be done. people want this but we are on the leading edge and it is hard work. nonverbals are the message – what is our message – go out and get it done and build it; know that it will take a long time so you have to start now, stop writing about it folks.

    – remember that jesus resisted the temptation of feeding everyone. it’s about more than just feeding hungry people. it’s about feeding some hungry people, but it is about more than that. man does not live on bread alone. there is a ministry of the word. how do you do that in the context you are imagining? don’t answer, do it. let me see how it looks. this becomes the riddle to solve once you jump out of the building. you have to create things, against people’s comfort and habit; how do you minister the word out there in the world? this isn’t haiti, this is the usa – how do you preach when only 5 percent as adams says are listening to the preacher? go for it. get it done. it’s possible. hint: the people who need the word are not reading this blog.

    – can you really go to a church and not give money? like NOT giving money will cause them to do what you say? perhaps, but why are you following a pastor who won’t listen to this message without such coercion; when will he get it? you are feeding the problem just by being there; your vote is your butt in the chair, more than your money. … this is just devil’s advocacy. i know the line about reforming from within. yet we really need more people who flee from their church and see it as more than an opportunity to just go to the beach. we need warriors building this new kind of thing. reform from outside.

    – a big trend that has to be bothersome is this rising chorus of critique against the church without a rising army of folks living out the alternative. gen x got its name from being meaninglessly non-committal and complacent and i know too many of us who are not really engaged and fighting the good fight with a covenant community, we’re just saying things like “church is everywhere” and “love your neighbor” and yet it looks like a ministry of convenience more than anything. i like to write so i blog; i like to feed the hungry so i do that. i like beer so i drink with my neighbor. … all fine and good, but: are we becoming a generation of disciples and disciple-makers? is this generation being shaped and formed into Christlikness against he prevailing tides of individualism, hard-work, consumerism, well-touted charity, etc.

    – i really suggest we all tithe and then some, just simply give everything we can; and see the tithe more than just giving to the poor but also giving to the word; i would uphold a levite + sojourner/needy/hungry tithe. don’t throw the baby out with the bath water is what i’m saying. yes stop paying for pyrotechnics and excessive a/v and megabuildings (or buildings at all) but do pay your pastor. have a pastor! have a church! be the church! commit. covenant. be a family. share everything.

    – to sum up folks at some point we really have to turn these diatribes into something that we can show the world and be accountable to the broader church and say, “this is what we’re talking about. it’s a work in progress but here it is. join us. work with us. help us. fund us. serve with us. get messy and live dangerously too.” there must be very soon a large network or web of such churches all around, every city, so when folks like daryl are asking the question, “where is this?”, there will be many options.

    – i’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection which uses Ephesians as a launching pad to discuss ecclesiological issues. i suggest it as a tonic to the missional material so prevalent today. let’s not worship mission or create an idol out of food or coffee or anything else. let’s not just react to what’s at hand. let’s endeavor to be the church in all it’s fullness.

    muich love and gratitude for people like you.

Leave a Reply