Understanding the Externally Focused Movement

By Krista Petty, Eric Swanson, and Rick Rusaw

Just a few years ago, a Google search for “externally focused church” found nothing. But today that search yields tens of thousand of references.

What does it mean to be externally focused? In their book The Externally Focused Church, Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson offer this description:

Externally focused churches are inwardly strong but outwardly focused. They integrate good deeds and good news into the life of the church. They value impact and influence in the community more than attendance. They seek to be salt, light, and leaven in the community. They see themselves as the “soul” of the community. They would be greatly missed by the community if they left.

But beyond the book and the popular term, the ideals and actions behind the externally focused church movement have been paradigm-shifting for many leaders. Krista Petty sat down with Rusaw and Swanson to learn more about the origins of this movement and what these two leaders have learned in the last decade about churches desiring to transform their communities.

How did “externally focused” get its start and become such a buzzword?

ERIC: The term externally focused church has its roots in Leadership Network’s Urban Church Network that began in 2000. Through site visits, gatherings, and phone conversations with more than 150 churches, we discovered we were identifying a genre of churches that were thinking differently about what a church could be and should be. We were identifying churches that were incredible agents of transformation in the community.

It was no surprise that many urban churches have historically been involved in their communities. But what did surprise us, however, was the number of suburban and even rural churches that were thinking differently about what church should be. These churches were discovering a new vitality and level of effectiveness as their congregations made the shift from “serve us” to service.

The similarity we recognized among these churches led us to find a name that went beyond “urban” or “missional” to describe what they did. We realized we were using the adjective “externally focused” to differentiate these churches. And now many, many churches are describing themselves with those words. In retrospect, it seems we stumbled on a very apt term to describe what these churches are.

RICK: We know that being externally focused isn’t a new idea. The missional efforts of churches have been around forever—since the early church. The term externally focused has simply provided language for the local congregation to think beyond the walls of the church and see the needs in the community around them. Whether the church is urban, rural, suburban, small city, or large metro, it can be externally focused.

Is externally focused a trend or something more?

RICK: I believe this is beyond a trend; it seems to be a move of God. Trends often have their basis in one locale or idea and then spread out from there. Trends catch on because there is some direct benefit for the individual or organization to adopt it. Those following a trend often adopt a certain style.

But we see the externally focused idea and emphasis in a variety of places, with differing ideas, often competing strategies, and arising from the most unlikely of sources—some Christian and others secular.

God’s heart rejoices when lost people are saved and his heart breaks at the plight of the poor and disenfranchised of our world. If the body of Christ is called back to caring for the least and reaching out to the lost, God will honor and bless that.

If that’s a trend, then I’m all for adopting it—but I think it’s something more. Maybe this is a wave God has caused and we are riding. Or maybe believers have caused the wave and God is blessing it. Either way the wave is here!

ERIC: As difficult as it is to learn to surf, it’s far easier to catch a wave than to cause a wave. We see this not as a “40 days” campaign but a 40 years of repurposing what the church is intended to be.

For some churches trying out some externally focused tactics or programs, it will certainly be a trend that will pass. But I really think externally focused is more than that. This is a shift not in degree but rather in kind. Being externally focused—measuring effectiveness and impact, not by numbers that we can bring into the church but by the transforming effect we have on the community—is something that God seems to be doing all around the world.

Sometimes movements have a beginning point, like the ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond. Externally focused is different. Since we’ve started on this venture I’ve been to Europe, Asia, Latin America, and India; and the story is the same. God seems to be telling Christian leaders and church members alike that if the church is not engaged in love and service to the community, it just isn’t church.

I remember hearing Rick Warren speak at the Saddleback HIV/AIDS Summit. He said something like, “I have two advanced theological degrees and I’ve read the Bible cover to cover countless times. I don’t know how I missed 1,200 verses on the poor, needy, widows, orphans, etc.” This just seems to be something God is doing—giving us new eyes.

What is the biggest shift a church makes in becoming more externally focused?

ERIC: Moving externally focused ministry from a ministry “tactic” to a constitutive or defining element of what it means to be church. If externally focused ministry is merely a tactic, then eventually some administrator weighs results for the church (growth, increased budget) against effort and moneys spent. Churches that have made the above shift realize that many things they do result in kingdom growth but this per se is not necessarily a church growth strategy.

As you engage in community ministry and network with church leaders, what are you continuing to learn about externally focused ministry? Have there been any surprises?

RICK: Along the way I have learned several things. First, I was surprised at how suspicious community agencies are of the church. The church in America has created a reputation of being only interested in self. While I believe this is an unfair assessment, it is the popular perception. A pleasant surprise is how quickly the church can actually get past that as we partner and serve without strings attached.

One of the phrases I use with my ministry friends is, “You have to rake a lot of leaves.” By that I mean creating credibility can be a long haul because earning the right to be heard happens in relationship. When we build relationships, the church can get invited to have a voice at the table in so many ways.

Honestly, I have been surprised at how often we are now asked by the community to engage with them on projects and initiatives. It’s not uncommon for us to be asked, “What do you (LifeBridge) think about that?” or, “We want to have your church represented on this task force.”

A second surprise (although it should not have been) is that no matter how long we have been engaged with an agency, when there is a change in leadership we must reestablish credibility. For example, if new city officials are elected they often don’t know all the years of behind-the-scenes serving that has been done. You have to be patient as they learn to see the value and contribution.

I think my biggest surprise is that something so biblical—so much a part of the ministry of Jesus and the early church—seems so novel to us. Finding ways to do good deeds that create goodwill and allow us to share good news seems like a new strategy, but show and tell has been around a long time.

What’s on the horizon in externally focused ministry?

ERIC: We sense we are not even close to cresting on this wave. More and more churches are discovering that unless they are engaged in the dreams and needs of their communities, they’re just not the church God wants them to be. Congregations all around the world are discovering contextualized ways to love outside the box.

Last month I met with church leaders from China who are having banquets for the poor and handing out scarves and hats to street children.

A group of believers on a college campus does something as simple as pick up bikes that have fallen over as they walk across campus.

A church in New Zealand started a bank from their church, trained 130 debt counselors, and helped folks in their community pay off their consumer debt.

There seems to be no end to innovative ways churches can love and serve.

Krista Petty is a freelance writer and coach for externally focused churches. She lives in Johnstown, Colorado, with her husband, Steve, and three children.

WORTH A CLICK: www.externallyfocusednetwork.com

The Externally Focused Network is a free membership Web site containing a collection of stories and resources for both individuals and churches. Membership to the site includes access to all areas of the site as well as subscription to the monthly e-newsletter.

“Your Church” is a section of the site containing links to ministries that support and help church leaders serve their communities, stories of churches in action, as well as free white papers and resources from partnering ministries.

“Your Life” is a section of the site that includes inspiring stories of individuals using their lives on loan for God’s purposes, a listing of externally focused churches across the country, and links to service organizations.

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