The local church is God’s “Plan A”

The Summit’s local outreach ministry exists to send disciples to make disciples among the hurting and marginalized in our community. Serve365 is a mobilization campaign that connects Summit members to roles on campus teams that serve year-round in their community.

Local outreach teams at each campus are led by “champions” who model relational ministry, shepherd their team, and mobilize others to join them on mission. A local outreach director oversees the champions at each campus, helping campus staff to set strategic goals and connect new people.

Local Outreach DNA

In local outreach and community ministry, we prioritize demonstrating the gospel in deed and proclaiming the gospel in word. Our initiatives and projects are designed to demonstrate God’s love as a crucial part of the message, but they are also designed to build relationships with people who are far from God so he can draw them to himself.

Local outreach is not our public relations project. It’s not our way of creating goodwill in the community or forging partnerships with the city, though of course we want both of those things! At the core, local outreach is about taking the gospel to the people God commanded us to go to (everyone) who live in places we don’t (homeless shelters, prisons, etc.). If we leave the proclamation up to another ministry, we’ve gutted our ministry of God’s power for transformation in our city and opened ourselves to doing more harm than good.

If we avoid proclamation, we’re leaving it up to people to infer the gospel from our actions. That’s just not how the Bible teaches us that people will believe in God. Paul says in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (ESV). Big, bold deeds of love and service certainly cause people to ask questions about God, but they don’t provide answers. The answers to those questions are only found in the Word of God.

Focusing solely on good deeds also leads us dangerously close to what Jesus warned against in Matthew 6:1. He tells us to “beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Proclaiming the gospel with words guards us against this pitfall, because there’s no way people can hear that message and give us the credit instead of God.

Deed-centric ministry runs the risk of communicating (even unintentionally) that God primarily cares that people have more stuff, not that they have a relationship with him. Materialism isn’t limited to rich people, and many service programs simply produce very poor materialists. God may use the pain of homelessness or prison to call a person to himself, and we should never obscure God by helping them to overcome their earthly problem without also pointing to the eternal solution.

This is another one of the values we share with the church as a whole. We exist to share the good news (see last week’s post), and tangibly displaying God’s love is an important part of how we do that. We do this because we are imitating Jesus, who as He preached also healed the sick and fed the hungry as signs of a Kingdom that is not of this world. Pastor JD has often used NT Wright’s description of “sketching out with pencil what Jesus will one day paint over in indelible ink” to describe our purpose in acts of service and mercy. As the body of Christ, we are helping people see God – they should be able to look at us and glimpse aspects of God’s character.

We demonstrate God’s care for every one of His children by treating those who are marginalized as valuable, and we demonstrate his perseverance by loving others even when they don’t seem to appreciate or accept it. We demonstrate his grace by occasionally helping even when we know it will be squandered, and we demonstrate the size of his love by doing big things like ServeRDU week. Our call to imitate or demonstrate God is why we put such an emphasis on proactively going to the homeless or prison wherever they are in our city, rather than waiting for them to come to us.

Key to local outreach is the realization that being God’s demonstration community doesn’t just dictate that we serve, it directs howwe serve. The truth is that as the body of Christ, what we do and how we serve always demonstrates something about God whether we’re being intentional about it or not. The real question is whether we’re demonstrating what’s true about God or not.

Here’s a gut check for us: do we only have time to serve if it fits into the gaps in our calendar, or are we willing to adjust our lifestyle to make room for someone? Do we write checks or donate a few “like new” items but refuse to commit to being involved in the messy parts of someone’s life? Are we willing to stick it out for the long haul, or do we shy away from those opportunities that require us to commit? If a person knew nothing about God other than what they could see through our service, what would they think of Him?

The privilege we have in being God’s demonstration community is what leads our staff team to invest in initiatives that prioritize relationship and to push people from our church to commit to consistent involvement. It’s much more difficult, but that service like that demonstrates the truth about God.

Local outreach is part of our missions strategy at the Summit because we recognize that there are people right here in RDU who are far from God, and Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples of all people. Groups like the homeless and the prisoners may not naturally be in the places we live or work, so we’ve got to go to them.

If you read through the book of Acts, you’ll notice that for the early church sending was the role of the church as a body, and going was the role of the individual members. Everybody did both! Under the great commission, every Christian is called both to go themselves and send others through the local church. For many of us, the place we will “go” is right here in RDU…to the homeless, the prisoner and the disconnected youth. In fact, I’d say that if you’re part of the Summit and you’re not actively preparing to go to a church plant, you probably fall into this category.

Our staff team and leaders often talk about how local outreach is primarily about sending, not serving. That doesn’t mean we don’t serve (we do!) but rather that the service projects are often the method by which we send people. Darrin Patrick says it well in his book For The City: “at the end of the day [it’s] not just about “volunteering” to serve our city and help people — it’s about incarnation. It’s about giving our lives for the sake of those in need to share the message of hope that we have found in Jesus Christ. And we do this by serving.

Practically, there are a couple of ways this plays out:

  • We don’t delegate ministry to the professionals – we partner with excellent organizations that set our people up for effective ministry. We look for partners who can get our members & small groups involved in relationships.
  • We try to minimize the events and projects held on campus. Of course, some events make sense to be at a Summit facility, but outreach isn’t outreach if people have to come to us! We want to leave as much space on your calendar as possible to be in the community.

We often respond to your idea like this: “that’s a great idea, why don’t you run with it.” That’s not to be annoying (really), but to encourage you to go!

If you look at our local outreach initiatives as a whole, we do a lot of projects and programs. Our “champions” spend time organizing project details, recruiting project volunteers, and measuring program outcomes…we even organize a whole week of ServeRDU projects each year. But ultimately, all of these projects function as our method for sending people carrying good news into our community.

You could think of local outreach projects as platforms that allow you to cross paths with people you otherwise might never meet. If we believe that God created every person in our city to worship him and our lives don’t normally intersect, then we’ve got to figure out how go to them. Often the most natural way to do this is by working together on a project that addresses a felt need in our community.

The value of a local outreach program is directly related to the quality of relationships that result from it. The “one-and-done” projects are rarely worth the resources invested in them because development (materially and spiritually) is a process, not a product. That’s why we give very little support to projects and programs that don’t have a high relational component to them. Even our ServeRDU Week projects – as low on relationship as we’ll go – are limited to the initiatives running all year, so there’s an opportunity to take the next step with someone you meet.

Valuing people over projects doesn’t just require intentionality in planning and selecting projects – it takes initiative from the volunteers participating in the projects. If a project gives us initial steps toward a relationship, we’ve got to proactively look for the next step toward friendship.

Although this statement would certainly be applicable to people living next door to us, in this case we’re talking more about the Luke 10 kind of neighbor.  Specifically, our neighbors who are homeless, orphans, prisoners, unwed moms or disconnected youth.  We prioritize reaching these five groups of people in part because they are bound together by a common experience that can prevent them from seeing the Gospel as good news forthem.

It’s fine to talk about “reaching the homeless” or “caring for the orphan”, but we’ve got to be careful not to define our neighbors by their situation instead of by God’s design for them his image bearers.  We need to be sure we remember that our mission is to reach people who are homeless, not a faceless group of “the homeless.” (We talked about this in more detail last week).  Every person – no matter how desperate or broken – was created to bear God’s image, and it’s hard to view them that way when we only talk about the issues they face.

The book When Helping Hurts describes what can happen when we try to help our neighbor without actually knowing him or her.  Materially rich people tend to assume poverty is a lack of things, but the materially poor people interviewed in the book described their poverty as “the shame and humiliation of being totally helpless and unwanted.”  If that’s true, it’s clear we’ve been communicating something other than the Gospel to them.

As we engage programs tackling material issues, we’ve got to make sure we actually know the individual people we’re serving.  Do we know how this individual became homeless, or do we just know statistically how most people become homeless?

Here’s one way to check ourselves:  continually ask Who did God create this person to be, and what’s standing in the way of that?  I bet that if we’re consistently asking those questions, our actions will communicate good news.

The value of a local outreach program is directly related to the quality of relationships that result from it. In part that’s because we recognize that people grow as disciples in community with other followers of God. It’s also because social and economic development most effectively happens in the context of a relationship as well! Experts will often talk about development as the process of leading an individual down a path that starts with a need for emergency assistance and ends with stability. The path looks something like this:

Emergency Relief » Rehabilitation » Development » Self-Sufficiency

You could think of a similar path of discipleship for someone who’s currently far from God:

Spiritual Apathy » Seeking God » Growing Disciple » Disciple-Making

This illustration is not perfect, but the two paths lead a person to become who God created them to be: a fruitful disciple both materially and spiritually. The point of a local outreach ministry is to walk with a person down both paths at the same time. Historically, the church has done one or the other, leading us to either powerless social justice or ineffective evangelism. A Gospel-centered local outreach ministry does both: leading down the first path by the demonstration of the Gospel and down the second path through the proclamation of it. But walking down either path with someone requires a relationship.

Now, we should never assume that everyone in material need is far from God, but we can expect that God might use their situation to grow them as a disciple. Our posture should be to invite them to join us as we also grow as disciples. That’s why we don’t create special discipleship ministries for “them”. Our goal is not to create special small groups of homeless people, but to see those who were homeless in small groups with us.

If loving our neighbor requires actually knowing our neighbors, it follows that the best ideas for new ministry initiatives or resources come from the “front lines” – members of our church who have ongoing relationships with folks we hope to serve. Through these deep relationships developed over months and years of working together, these “champions” are able to balance their new ideas with the wisdom that God gives to accompany His calling on their life.

Listening to our champions also allows our ministries to pursue appropriate contextualization of the Gospel to a community, group, or even individual. As we grow to know neighbors who are homeless or incarcerated, we no longer define them by statistical trends; instead we see in each person a mixture of needs, assets, spiritual understanding, and resistance to truth. While that increases the complexity of our ministry, the good news is that – as Tim Keller says – the gospel has supernatural versatility to address the particular hopes, fears, and idols of every culture and every person.

Front-line champions at the Summit have immersed themselves in the lives, hopes and beliefs of the people we hope to serve, so they have a unique ability to help us understand what we should or should not do to lead a person down the path to fruitfulness materially and eternally. Undoubtedly even these folks will get it wrong at times, but they have already built a foundation of trust that covers misunderstandings.

If sending people into overlooked areas of our community is a strategic priority for local outreach ministry (and it is), it makes sense that the resources at our church should facilitate that goal. At the Summit, we don’t view ourselves as a grant-making organization – our resources are mobilization resources. We want to position the assets at our disposal – our staff time, our communication channels, our facility space, and our money – to make our members as effective and fruitful in going to our city. It’s important, because it’s part of demonstrating the truth about God: he didn’t cut us a check to cover our sin debt, but sent his son to bear our burdens as his own.

In other words, we want to avoid the temptation to fund someone else to do ministry for us. It’s easy to fall into this trap because there are so many areas of ministry in our city for which we feel unprepared and unqualified. And we are. But our response should be to get trained, not to shrink back or leave the responsibility to “the experts.”  Think about this: if next month we’re given $5 million to hire top experts to eradicate homelessness in RDU over the next two years and no Summit members were involved, our homeless ministry will have failed. Our mission was never solely to eliminate material need, but to demonstrate the love and character of God. Grant-making organizations play a crucial role in our community, but the church’s role is to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

That’s why the first question we’ll ask an organization or ministry is about the involvement of Summit folks in their work. The sequence is important: our resources follow our people, they generally don’t precede them. But its also why we try to be generous to our partner organizations who create the opportunities and resources for us to serve our community. With our preferences and schedules we aren’t always the easiest folks to coordinate, and these local organizations are key partners helping us reach out to our city.

Paternalism happens when someone who has authority or resources restricts the responsibility or choice of another person in the perceived “best interests” of that second individual. It is the result of defining our neighbors by their situation or need instead of by God’s design for them. (More on that here.) These unhealthy relationships can occur when we enter into potentially positive relationships like mentoring or coaching without valuing the other person, and even a well-meaning church can accidentally fall into this trap when working with folks in material need.

In the book Toxic Charity, Bob Lupton describes the shame and embarrassment an unemployed father feels when materially rich church members provide gifts to his children that he can’t afford and the dependency that misguided aid can create in entire communities. Paternalistic attitudes often result in services that temporarily alleviate material need, but do nothing to help someone discover who God created them to be.

We’re all susceptible to this trap: it is the “default setting” for prideful people who happen to have more of something than the person next to them.  We must actively try to befriend our incarcerated or homeless neighbors – it won’t just happen. Building relationships of real equality between people of unequal power isn’t easy, but there are a few habits we can develop that can help us to avoid the trap:

  • Ask lots of questions. Do you know anyone who can _? Got any ideas for this? What do you think about _? Good questions help you assume the posture of learner, not savior.
  • Build relationships on friendship, not need. A lot of relationships start with a need (for a job, a ride, etc), but relationships build on need rarely last long. It’s ok to meet a need, but try to make your next step something that has nothing to do with that need…like eating a meal or watching a game together.
  • Whenever possible, do with rather than doing for. We may have or know something that our neighbors legitimately need, but a posture of partnership – even if it takes longer – validates everyone’s contribution to the solution.

We’re wrapping up this series of posts on the 10 core values that shape our DNA with a very practical guideline. We can easily be tempted to start a new partnership or ministry initiative BIG, with a lot of people to create an atmosphere of excitement and momentum.  There certainly are times when a big event or project can play a part of an effective launch strategy, but they are usually more useful in highlighting a growing ministry than getting one off the ground. In large part, that’s because our goal of building lasting relationships is much harder to achieve in huge groups.

If you remember, we shared several weeks ago that being God’s demonstration community doesn’t just dictate that we serve, it directshow we serve. A church is not alone in desiring to serve its community: schools, neighborhood groups, synagogues, mosques, and businesses frequently volunteer for service projects. Other churches even organize church-wide project days similar to our ServeRDU Week. But when the church comes back the next week to mentor the high school student or spend time with the refugee family, that certainly sets the family of God apart! Our local outreach ministry should be characterized by faithfulness in follow-through, trusting that God will provide the fruitfulness.

Our capacity for follow-through should match the size of what we plan, otherwise we’ll wind up over-promising and under-delivering. It’s not because we don’t want to impact our community on a big scale, nor is it because we don’t believe God will bless us with growth. If he grows it bigger than we planned, he’s fully able to grow our capacity too!  Rather this principle is about acknowledging that our ministry is more about caring for the people around us than it is about mobilizing a mass of volunteers to tackle a problem.  That’s why “shepherding” is one of the key elements we want to see in every local outreach leader. The commitment to follow through over the long haul distinguishes actual ministry from service projects.

Contact the director at your campusContact the local outreach pastoral team