How I Learned to Look Outward

It’s fall 2009. I’m in Loveland, Colorado, at a church volunteerism conference, with eager anticipation for many of the speakers and sessions. But there must have been a ‘dead’ hour, because I know I didn’t expect much from one particular session. But three years later, that’s the session I remember most.

The session’s title: The Externally-Focused Church. I knew it was on churches volunteering in the community. I was in favor of that, and hoped to pick up some useful tips, but I had heard the social ministry/social justice emphasis before, usually from churches more liberal than mine. I knew it all already.

Genuine service gets people’s attention.

The speaker began by drawing three large circles, one above the other two, overlapping. He said one circle represented the needs and dreams of the city; another, the mandates and desires of God; and the third, the callings and capacities of the church. He described in detail the three places where two circles met and overlapped. Then he pointed to the center, the place where all three circles overlapped. Service, he said, is the sweet spot, the meeting place of what God wants the church to do, what everyone at church can do and is called to do, and what the community around the church would welcome. Wow. This is not what I was expecting. I was hooked.

I was even more engaged as he explained that service does not detract from or compete with our primary calling of sharing the Gospel. Genuine service gets people’s attention. It leads to conversations and partnerships and relationships, all of which open the door to natural witnessing opportunities. People today don’t look to the church for answers to their spiritual questions and they’ve learned to tune out the thousands of marketing messages, including religious ones, they receive constantly. But true service, given without expectation of anything in return, gets noticed. Eventually, people will ask, “Why are you doing this?”

Most of our people have a heart for helping others in need.

I read the recommended book on the flight home. The following year, at the next volunteerism conference, I attended four sessions led by the book’s authors. In 2011 I found an all-day Externally Focused Church conference. And on Feb. 8 and 9, 2013, my home congregation hosted one of those authors, Eric Swanson, as speaker.

These past three years, other priorities have been uppermost at work, particularly implementing volunteer screening policies. But this externally-focused idea hung around. I shared the book with my lead pastor. We read and discussed it in lead staff meetings. I made a point of getting to know the leaders of our community Volunteer Center, our local volunteer administrators’ network and the leaders of church organizations that serve the community. Our church held our first “The Church has Left the Building” event. I recruited a Community Service Steering team to help me lead our expanded efforts.

Our short-term community serving brought in new volunteers.

We’re still at the starting line, planning our first steps. But I’m convinced God will use this for the good of our people, our community and His kingdom. Everyone who has read the book is excited. Most of our people already have a heart for helping the less fortunate in our community. According to a published survey, when asked, “What helps you grow in your faith?” a high percentage of church members respond, “Serving.” Our first efforts in short-term community serving brought in new volunteers, people who aren’t volunteering elsewhere at church, and some who are not yet regular in worship. I’m personally eager to figure out where I can best serve in my community and to grow in my ability to talk about my faith.

The adventure begins. I can’t wait to see what God will do.

The Externally Focused Church and The Externally Focused Quest, both by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson
Eric Swanson website
Externally Focused network
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