That Box We Always Talk About / Reverse Engineering Our Ministry

I would be happy to never again hear the term, “Think outside the box.

What is this proverbial box and where did it come from?

Actually we are the ones who built the box. At any given meeting about church growth/outreach/community engagement/evangelism meeting, these are the suggestions I hear church people make (with my personal response):

  • Let’s have a neighborhood Open House. (Nope.)
  • Let’s have a “Come as you are” Sunday. (Nope.)
  • Let’s open our doors to the homeless. (Nope.)
  • Let’s have a bake sale. (Nope.)
  • Let’s knock on doors in the neighborhood. (Nope.)
  • Let’s hand out flyers at the next community event. (Nope.)
  • Let’s build a Family Life Center to attract the local kids. (Nope.)
  • Let’s have a Bring-a-Friend Sunday. (Nope.)
  • Let’s create a Five Year Plan for growth. (Nope.)

These events are not only part of that box we built; they also illustrate a dated, ineffective way of being the Church today. Note that most of these ideas reflect a “come to us” rather than a “go out” mentality. Note that each of these ideas imply a quick fix that conflates having events with being in relationship with.

[Note about The Five Year Plan: Five years ago we had no idea there would be a pandemic. Five years ago, Trump had not yet been elected President. Lots of things change in five years. Strategic plans are meaningless without 1) knowing what the culture is and 2) being extremely fluid and willing to edit the plan.]

A better way seems to be reverse engineering. Let’s say that our mission goal is to serve our neighbors who are residents of the men’s shelter near our church property.

Instead of starting with the usual “how to begin?” we start with what we hope the end result will be;

Instead of this:

  1. We want to serve our homeless neighbors.
  2. We go to a shelter and hand out invitations to come to worship and after we’ll have a one-time meal.
  3. Those who come (assuming some shelter residents show up) are welcomed warmly and we enjoy a meal together.
  4. We might or we might not ever see those folks again.

Try this:

  1. We want to make a positive sustainable impact for our homeless neighbors.
  2. We contact the men’s shelter nearby by and ask how we might serve these neighbors.
  3. They suggest that our church volunteers serve dinner on the first Friday of each month because that’s their current need.
  4. We sign up to do what they need: serve dinner on the first Friday of each month.
  5. We are intentional about doing more than serve food; we introduce ourselves by name and we remember the resident’s names. Volunteers are trained in how to do this, if necessary.
  6. We authentically get to know the residents and hear their stories. We nurture relationships to the point of including residents in ideas for menus. We ask them what they need as the months get warmer. We listen to what they say.
  7. They say it’s really hot on the streets in the summer and they basically are looking for cool places to spend the day.
  8. We give gift cards for McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, or DQ to each resident the next first Friday.
  9. We continue to build relationships. We ask the residents and the staff of the shelter how else we might partner.

See the difference?

With the first way we begin by offering something easy (handing out invitations) in hopes of a transaction (they come to our church.) How much we would congratule ourselves if they joined!

With the second way we begin with the why. Why do we want to connect with our homeless neighbors? Then we ask what’s needed. We don’t make assumptions. We are not in the business of pitying “the needy.” We are in the business of making earth look more like heaven.

Future options might include attending a local job fair, learning what jobs are in need, finding grant money to pay for training for those jobs. One of our churches in Charlotte Presbytery did this. They learned that there was a need for trained forklift operators at a local job fair. They offered grant money from the denomination to train 32 people in forklift operation and all 32 got fulltime jobs as forklift professionals with benefits in 3 months.

Start with a mission goal and work in reverse. What do we need to do to make ____ happen?

And toss the box.

5 responses to “That Box We Always Talk About / Reverse Engineering Our Ministry

  1. A useful question is “Are we trying to help, or are we trying to make ourselves feel helpful?”

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Wow! What a great blog! Thank you.


  3. My former congregation was all about the first set of “Let’s.” Yard sale. Raffle. Chile cook-off. Barbecue. Ice cream social. What the church down the road did 20 years ago. Bring a friend (but no coffee fellowship afterward). Don’t change anything. There must be a lot of Presbyterians (and Lutherans) out there–we just need a better sign. “We need more people!” “We’re too old and tired to go out and meet people.”


  4. Brilliant. Thank you for sharing a new way of looking at things.


  5. Glenn Michael Zuber

    great perspective on a long-time problem!


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