Have you ever been present at the birth of a movement? Normally it’s only time that brings the clarity and perspective needed to really see what is happening and the old adage that “hindsight is 20-20” applies in most cases. But every now and then, a movement emerges that is so obviously God-initiated that you know, in the moment, in the here and now, that something is up.
Twenty years ago, I left my denominational staff position as a research consultant and joined the staff of Leadership Network, a private foundation in Dallas that works with innovative churches and leaders across the United States and Canada. LN was a much smaller organization then and my assignment was to be a scout to the future in terms of church and culture, to find the areas where God seemed to be unusually at work and the leaders who were shaping the future. Something that been on my radar scope was beginning to pick up traction. It went by a number of names but the two that stuck were the missional church and the externally focused church.
The idea of a missional church or externally focused church seems to be something of an oxymoron. The original DNA of the church was missional and it was externally focused. It was and is both a spiritual organism and a social organization. The early church was a God-initiated missional movement but then over twenty centuries, the social organizational side came to dominate the spiritual, missional side. The church became an institution; religion, not relationship became its hallmark; programs and structure became the driving force rather than mission and transformation; and the focus became getting a decision rather making a disciple.
People who study our brains tell us that once someone decides to look for something specific, all of a sudden they see it everywhere. That’s what happened with missional or externally focused churches. As more an more leaders and congregations began to understand that a church, by its very definition is missional and externally focused, they wanted to network with each other, to learn from each other, and to be a part of this ancient-future movement.
Two of the early pioneers in the externally focused movement were Eric Swanson and his home church, LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, CO. Eric would become a colleague at LN and the co-author of the landmark book, The Externally Focused Church, published in 2004. He has also been a part of the creation of The Externally Focused Network that seeks to helps churches who are beginning to think differently about what the church could be–and should be– ‘for’ their community. The network helps leaders who want to start a community impact ministry and are looking for practical strategies and systems that work. It also benefits leaders who have already started a community impact ministry, but are ready to take it to the next level.
According to the network, there are four characteristics of an externally focused church.
1. Externally focused churches are convinced that good deeds and good news cannot and should not be separated. Just as it takes two wings to lift an airplane off the ground, externally focused churches couple good news with good deeds to make an impact in their communities. The good news explains the purpose of the good deeds.
2. Externally focused churches see themselves as vital to the health and well-being of their communities. They believe their communities, with all of their aspirations and challenges, cannot be truly healthy without the church’s involvement. It is only when the church is mixed into the very life and conversation of the city that it can be an effective force for change.
3. Externally focused churches believe that ministering and serving are the normal expressions of Christian living. Even more, they believe that Christians grow best when they are serving and giving themselves away to others. They are convinced that while Christians can learn through good instruction, they really cannot grow if they remain uninvolved in ministry and service.
4. Externally focused churches are evangelistically effective. People are looking for places of authenticity where the walk matches the talk and where faith is making a difference.
On the network’s website, you can find links to stories of churches around the country about their community engagement and get ideas for your church’s involvement in community transformation as well as on the network’s Facebook page, You can also search the directory of more than 1,100 churches to learn which ones might be in your area or your state for purposes of connection and collaboration.
If your church wants to learn more about becoming an externally focused church, there are two conferences this fall hosted by the network. One is an all day conference in Lansing, MI October 1 and the other is a multiple day conference in Charleston, SC October 3-5. Click here for more information. Early bird registration ends July 31. Finally, you might want to sign up for the network’s newsletter.
Movements often have a defining moment or phrase associated with them. The Civil Rights movement in the United Sates is associated with Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. For the Externally Focused Church movement, the question that defines it is “If your church disappeared from your community, would anyone care?”
What about your church today in your community? If it disappeared, would anyone notice? Would anyone in the community care?