The Biblical Basis for Externally Focused Ministry

By Eric Swanson

If you look long enough, you can find a “biblical basis” for almost anything. That’s what my friends and I discovered years ago when I was in college. We entertained ourselves by finding obscure passages to justify a wide and wild set of behaviors. (All of these are from the New American Standard Bible, my version of choice back then):

• Not wearing sweatshirts: “They shall not gird themselves with anything which makes them sweat” (Ezekiel 44:18).

• Sleeping in church: “I heard the sound of his words; and as soon as I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a deep sleep on my face, with my face to the ground” (Daniel 10:9).

• Giving money to the church: “You shall also give to the priest the first of your dough” (Ezekiel 44:30).

• The song “Dueling Banjos”: “You surround me with songs of deliverance” (Psalm 32:7).

• World’s largest kosher hot dog: “And King Jehoram went out . . . and mustered all Israel” (2 Kings 3:6).

• Being a Republican: “A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left” (Ecclesiastes 10:2).

• How Elvis should perform: “Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head” (Ecclesiastes 9:8).

• Christian dating standards: “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (Colossians 2:21).

• Not dieting: “Differing weights are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 20:23).

• Country music: “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Clap your hand, stamp your foot’” (Ezekiel 6:11).

• Women’s Liberation: “a fire burning in the brazier” (Jeremiah 36:22).

Sound Theology

Building a theology around a single verse is a lot of fun but it’s not really sound theology. That’s one of the things I love about externally focused ministry. Ministry to those on the margins of society is not justified by a few obscure verses but is one of the recurring and dominant themes of Scripture. In fact, it could even be argued that one of the pervading themes woven through Scripture is an answer to Cain’s enduring question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Because there are so many texts speaking about those on the margins of society (178 verses on the poor, 103 verses on widows, 39 verses on the fatherless, 37 verses on strangers, 102 verses on aliens, 60 verses on the sick, 47 verses on the oppressed, 6 verses on orphans, 55 verses on the needy, etc.) and the role of God’s people in doing good, a thorough exegesis of each passage would prove impossible in the confines of this brief article.

Instead I’ll focus on just three big ideas—church history, the ministry of Jesus, and the reason God saved us. (For a more thorough explanation of the biblical and theological foundations of externally focused ministry, go to the Externally Focused Network Web site,, and click on Library.)

The Historical DNA of the Church

Theologian and Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo (ad 354-430) argued for an externally focused church when he “insisted that the church was not a refuge from the world but existed for the sake of a world that was hurting.”1 Through its clear thinking and practice, the early church set the pattern for what the church could be and should be in relation to the community. This DNA was what historian Thomas Cahill calls “the substance of the original gospel,” and it was essential for the survival and replication of the gospel. Cahill writes,

Through the history of the West since the time of Jesus, there has remained just enough of the substance of the original Gospel, a residuum, for it to be passed, as it were, from hand to hand and used, like stock to strengthen, flavor, and invigorate new movements that have succeeded again and again—if only for a time—in producing . . . in the oddest circumstances, the loving-kindness of the first Christians.2

In every age Christ-followers have lived out the life and teachings of Jesus in the community. Witness the care of widows and orphans in the early church, the transformation of Ireland by Patrick, the establishment of hospitals by the church in the 13th century, and Wesley’s reform of England. These are only a few examples of those whose external focus helped change the world.

The Life and Ministry of Jesus

The first public words of Jesus recorded by Luke are found in the fourth chapter. Jesus was invited to read from the book of Isaiah, and he chose Isaiah 61:1-3, some of which is recorded in Luke 4:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18, 19).

This passage outlined the missio dei of Jesus. He would preach the good news through the dynamic, attractive, and authoritative blending of proclaiming and releasing. He combined good news and good deeds. He coupled words of love with works of love.

Jesus wed compassionate service to passionate proclamation. One without the other would be inadequate. So on the afternoon when he forgave the paralytic’s sin, he also healed him so he could walk (Mark 2:1-11). Both things were part of his agenda that day, and it mattered little which he would do first. As Bryant Myers says, “Words clarify the meaning of deeds. Deeds verify the meaning of words.”3

In John 14:12, Jesus reminds us that our ministry is to be an extension of the same things he did while on earth. “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing.” This is our mission dei.

Saved for Good Works

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Understanding this passage, in its totality, has proved critical and foundational in motivating believers toward external engagement. This passage is divided into two logical sections: how one is saved (Ephesians 2:8, 9) and why one is saved (Ephesians 2:10).

One is saved by God’s grace (unmerited favor) appropriated “through faith” that is, trusting Jesus for salvation. This transaction is totally apart from any work or good thing one does to merit salvation. But the second part of the paragraph (v. 10) tells us that each believer is God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for a purpose—to do good works, which were prepared by God in advance for every individual to engage in.

Two vacuums—When we put our faith in Christ, as expressed in Ephesians 2:8, 9, the “God-shaped vacuum” that Blaise Pascal wrote about is filled.

But there is another vacuum in our lives that is just as real. Paul suggests a “purpose-shaped” vacuum: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” By preparing these good works in advance, God created a vacuum for believers to step into and discover.

Unlike the God-shaped vacuum where “one size fits all,” the purpose-shaped vacuum is individual and is found at the intersection of the way God has made a person and what God wants to accomplish in this world through him or her. God has designed Christ followers with a predisposed passion to co-labor with him in doing what he wants done.

God’s gifts are for a purpose—Every major resource God has given us directs us to do something new as well as be something new. God gives us leaders to prepare us for good works (Ephesians 4:11, 12), his Word to equip us for good works (2 Timothy 3:16, 17), spiritual gifts to enable us to do good works (1 Peter 4:10), one another to spur us on toward good works (Hebrews 10:24), and even wealth to finance good works (1 Timothy 6:17, 18).

More good news—Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-10 apply to every believer. Without a revealed exception, everyone who has been saved by grace through faith should also be engaged in the “good works” God has prepared in advance for him or her to do. There is something God wants each Christ follower to do in the world where his or her passion intersects with God’s purpose. This is the place where he or she can feel fully “alive.” It’s that place of service where we feel God’s pleasure.

Fulfillment should be the normative, not exceptional, experience for every believer. Part of every leader’s challenge, then, is to help Christ followers discover that place of love, service, and ministry where their passion intersects with God’s purpose.

And there’s more good news. Here’s the evangelistic discovery we’re making. As more believers joyfully claim their Ephesians 2:10 calling, more unbelievers discover their Ephesians 2:8, 9 calling. Good deeds create goodwill, and this goodwill is a marvelous platform for sharing the good news with others.


1David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Mary Knoll: Orbis Books, 1991), 218.

2Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (New York: Random House, 2001), 304, 305.

3Bryant L. Myers, Walking With the Poor (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999), 10.

Eric Swanson works with Leadership Network as leadership community director for externally focused churches. He is also the cofounder of the Externally Focused Network.

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