Episcopal Diocese of Albany, NY
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The Role of Missions and Outreach in the Local Church

by Canon Neal Michell

When I became the rector of St. Swithin's, the parish profile indicated that the parish was very committed to mission and outreach. Upon arriving I discovered that the vestry had just passed a budget that provided no money for outreach and that their commitment to outreach had been defined by the large number of ministries and social agencies the church funded. The vestry acted essentially as a United Way. I was convinced that we could do better.

First, a definition

First, we need to explain what is meant by outreach. In evangelical churches, outreach involves evangelism. In mainline churches, outreach means helping the needy. So, for this church not to be involved in outreach meant that it was not giving back financially to its community. It had essentially become ingrown.

What we did with outreach

What did we do with outreach? Several things.

  1. We committed to give what we budgeted. Before I arrived, the vestry had committed 10% of the operating budget to outreach. When the church fell on hard times, this 10% became a reluctant budget balancer. Finally, as an act of honesty, the vestry committed no money to outreach. We established a budget for the first year with a 3% line item for outreach and stuck to it.
  2. We agreed to give no money to any ministry that didn't have a parishioner involved in it. This kept us from functioning as a United Way, check writing agency, and allowed the vestry to "own" the ministries that it was funding.
  3. We gave money only to ministries that had articulated some sort of gospel purpose in it mission statement. We knew that there were a lot of well-meaning service agencies, but there were plenty that combined gospel connection with the helping that they did. This furthered our own call as a church to proclaim the gospel.
  4. We highlighted volunteers from those local ministries that were parishioners in our church. This put a real face to the local ministries that we were funding and provided greater ownership of that ministry among our congregation.

What we did with missions

What did we do with missions?

  1. We adopted two major missions involvements. Using the analogy that the reason lion tamers use stools when working with lions because the lion gets paralyzed not knowing which leg to look at, we limited our foreign mission involvement to two missions that our parishioners could participate in.
  2. We made long term commitments to those two mission involvements. We recognized that we wanted to have a lasting impact outside our church and were not interested in solo trips that might assuage our concerns for missions. We adopted two missions so that our involvement was viewed as an ongoing extension of our church's ministry.
  3. We highlighted the prayer concerns on a regular basis and reported regularly on the progress. We knew that what gets emphasized gets funded. The concerns and positive news from these missions were reported on a regular and ongoing basis to the congregation.

Why we participate in missions and outreach

Finally, it's helpful to recognize why we participate in missions and outreach.

  1. Missions: The Great Commission. We participate in foreign missions trips because it helps us to fulfill the Great Commission. In addition, we looked for the evangelical component in the outreach ministries to that same end.
  2. Missions: One of the best forms of discipleship and renewal. Short-terms foreign mission trips are one of the best ways for people to grow as disciples and to enliven peoples' faith. Some people who go on short-term missions trips find their faith reenergized and renewed; others come to a new and deeper faith in Christ for the first time as a result of their participation.
  3. Outreach: Pure religion. James 1:27 tells us that "pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. . ." We are involved in outreach because our heavenly Father has a love for the poor and windowed and orphaned. We do it simply because it is of the heart of God for us to care for the needs of others. It's a matter of obedience, whether the local church is ever benefited at all.
  4. People don't want to be a part of an ingrown church. We also are involved in missions and outreach because it is one of the signs of a healthy church. People don't want to come to a church that is constantly in survival mode. As people created in the image of God, we have a need to reach out beyond ourselves, just as God reached out to us. A church that is not reaching beyond itself is not bearing the image of God nor reflecting God's nature. People intuitively recognize that and will shy away from a church that is too self-focused.

Finally, let me urge you to match the number of ministries that you are involved in with the size of your church. It is better for a smaller church to have one or two signature ministries that it is involved in than to have a laundry list of ministries it contributes to. The laundry list approach may assuage a congregation's guilt, but having one or two signature ministries maximizes the impact of the church and gives the congregation an identifiable identity regarding its impact.

Until next time,
Neal+

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