Going beyond starting a backpack program
In the wake of the social unrest of 2020, many churches wrestled with how they might respond to injustice in a tangible way. We commend the desire of churches that feel called to “stand for justice.” Such efforts are often an extension of their love and concern for their neighbors. But many pastors who reach out to us are unsure about the tangible steps needed to move forward. Many of the ideas are narrow in scope, often focusing on actions such as launching backpack programs and starting food pantries.
Those services can certainly have their place. However, I’d love to help churches to think beyond these standard “helps ministries” and consider the bigger picture of what’s happening in their communities before launching into something new. My hope is to empower churches to develop approaches that will bring lasting transformation through the power of the gospel.
Here are five critical questions for leadership teams to consider in developing a strategy to engage in “community outreach.”
1. What is the leadership’s vision?
The church’s leadership (for example, the elder team) must be clear about their overall ministry goal. Does the church want to focus on reaching the surrounding community with the gospel (meeting spiritual needs)? Or, does it want to focus on developing a social program (meeting physical needs)? Or both? Having clear answers to these questions will provide a solid foundation for everything else that follows.
In my opinion, churches should first place a priority on gospel-focused outreach to meet the spiritual needs of the community. Jesus’ words cut right to the heart of the issue:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matt. 16:24-27)
That’s not to say that meeting physical needs isn’t important. Programs such as yearly backpack programs for foster-care children, trash cleanup at a local park, or food boxes during the holidays, can have their place. In fact, we see this principle both by example and command in Scripture:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. (Acts 2:45-46)
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? (1 John 3:17)
The focus of these Scriptures is that Christians were known for voluntarily caring for one another, including physical needs. (It would be a step too far, however, to say such scriptures ought to be used to warrant compulsive participation in government social programs.)
While helping to meet the basic needs of brothers and sisters is good, church leadership must also be clear on this: humanitarian efforts should never be conflated with genuine gospel preaching. Nor should they be a substitute for biblically informed means to improve distressed communities. In the hierarchy of priorities, we must place a high value on robust gospel ministry and discipleship. A person’s greatest need is their spiritual need for the cross. That’s where the curse of sin is broken and new possibilities for the person become available.
2. Is the outreach program built on a robust biblical framework?
This step might seem basic, but in our experience, it is often significantly neglected. One of the first questions we ask a church or ministry that we work with is this: What is the biblical warrant for this ministry? If the response is little more than an expression of “love for neighbor” or “helping widows and orphans,” then there is still significant biblical work to do.
Here’s an example. Noticing our neighbor’s lack of basic needs could be the start of an outreach effort. But it’s also more than that. Programs designed to “help” others cannot merely be motivated by good intentions. For example, a biblical vision for “helping the poor” ought to include a long-term strategy of empowering ministry recipients to provide for their own families’ needs:
For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what is left. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. (Ex. 23:10-11)
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:9-10)
God’s laws provided a pathway for basic provisions for the poor, but work was still required. Even though the poor man didn’t own the land, hadn’t tilled the ground, sown the seed, or hired the harvesters, he was still required to put in some effort. Why? Because work is part of the purpose of being a human (Genesis 1:26-27; 2:15) and laziness is a sin.
This means that efforts to “help the poor” ought not be an invitation for able-bodied people to violate God’s design. Rather, the goal should include education about biblical principles of work and financial management, which leads to self sufficiency. Instead of merely handing out free food, it might be better to create a work-for-food program where recipients are expected to contribute labor to making the food pantry work, such as cleaning bathrooms, unloading freight, stacking boxes, etc. The program could also require food recipients to take job assistance classes and learn resume writing skills, or budgeting classes, with a potential end goal of weaning themselves off the program.
All too often, churches mirror the culture’s values by creating dependency, rather than operating according to biblical principles and implementing a better vision for community change.
3. Have you assessed the actual needs of the community?
One of the most common mistakes that we see is that a church will launch the kind of ministry its leadership is excited about instead of assessing the actual needs of the community. Sometimes it’s easy for a church to look around the neighborhood and see potential opportunities for outreach, but other times the opportunities are more elusive. The most visible issues aren’t the ones needing to be addressed. There may be issues lingering behind closed doors. Either way, it’s important to take time to assess what’s actually happening in our own backyard before developing a new program. This will require some data-gathering.
A good place to start is the Census.gov web site. Type in your church’s zip code, and you will be immediately met with a snapshot of the two- to five-mile radius around your church. You can then begin to investigate what needs are in your area.
Here are a couple more examples to help get you thinking.
Your church may be thinking about starting a food pantry for single parents within your community. However, there are already 4 food pantries located within a 5 mile radius of your church. After doing more data collection, you find that many of the single parents are looking for opportunities to work, but they can’t afford childcare. You may consider gathering volunteers from the church community and starting a volunteer run day care or after school care program so that parents have the opportunity to work. This would help financially so then they may not actually need the services of the food pantries they frequent.
Or, let’s say that your church is located in a very affluent area where the median income is $125K a year, and you notice that your area has a high rate of homes with computers and high-speed internet. That would make us wonder how many of those homes might be impacted by porn or cocaine addiction. Perhaps that is an issue where your church needs to focus. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because a church is located in a more affluent area that the surrounding community doesn’t have needs. Perhaps their needs are just more hidden inside nice homes. Rich people also need the gospel.
A second step in data collection involves talking to the ministries that are already servicing in the area. It’s possible that your church doesn’t need to start something new. Could the leadership team partner with another local church or para-church ministry that is already reaching the unreached with the Gospel? It might be more efficient to shore up the efforts of a small ministry that’s already embedded in the community.
4. Do you have key leaders in place with the right skill set to oversee the outreach ministry?
Sometimes a single person can have a big vision, but not the ability to execute it. Even if they have the ability, it’s not generally healthy for the whole project to ride on the shoulders of one person. This is why it is important for church leaders to develop a team with the right skills, experience, and spiritual gifts to oversee the development, launch, and ongoing execution of the new outreach effort. If these elements aren’t in place, it might be better to slow the development phase and wait for the Lord’s provision for staffing.
For more tips about hiring, check out Krista’s interview with Dr. Gary Miller.
One of the most common pitfalls in launching a new outreach ministry is the failure to plan for the long haul. It may take only money to get the effort going, but it will take commitment to sustain it. When churches do something for a year or two and then the project folds, the community loses out on the needed resources that are being supplied. They may also get a message that the effort was more about making the church people “feel good about helping others” than it was a commitment to stand with neighbors through hard times.
As the church looks toward maintaining the long-term health of the new ministry, it will also be vital to think about how future leaders and volunteers will be inspired to catch the vision. The church leadership will need to clearly communicate the mission, vision, and values for the new venture, including a strong biblical warrant for the ministry. Understanding these pillars will help to increase the congregation’s buy-in, which is needed both for financial support and for raising up new volunteer staff.
5. Does the outreach program communicate with the unreached in their native language and cultural context?
Best practices among missionaries have taught us that when doing cross-cultural ministry, the ideal is to have someone in leadership who is native to the community that is being serviced. So that is also something to keep in mind as part of the recruiting and staffing process. For example, if the church wants to develop a sports ministry as a way to engage the community and invite new people to the church, that effort would ideally be spearheaded by someone who has both a knowledge of sports and the spiritual gift of evangelism.
Or let’s say the church is looking to launch a ministry to reach the LGBT people with the gospel. It would be good to consider recruiting a leader who is mature in the Lord, has the spiritual gift of evangelism, and has come out of that lifestyle.
Being able to “speak the language”—whether it’s knowing sports or being from a particular lifestyle or ethnic background—can be an important factor in success, as is the ability to think creatively about how to use the ministry as a bridge to expose new people to the gospel.
But that’s always the case. Even though the missionary best practices tell us that evangelism and discipleship is ideally led by cultural natives, God can still work. We would be remiss in not mentioning how God moved in situations where vast cultural and linguistic boundaries were crossed by people like William Carey in India, Hudson Taylor in China, David Wilkerson in New York City, and Elizabeth Elliot in the jungles of Ecuador. All God needs is our willingness. If He is in the effort, He will make a way.
By keeping these principles in mind, churches, ministries, and schools will be well on their way to creating a Gospel-driven ministry that will serve their community.