By Rez Gopez-Sindac
At a conference hosted by the North American Christian Convention last summer in Kentucky, Rick Rusaw stood on stage before thousands of church leaders and posed this question: “If your church disappeared today, would your community miss it?” Then he echoed a disturbing finding by a national research firm: 66 percent of Americans agree that churches have little or no value in helping them find meaning or direction for their lives.
“We are really good at talking to each other,” Rusaw told the audience, “but somehow we’ve lost our ability to speak into the fabric of our community.”
Rusaw, the senior minister of the 3,000-strong LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, CO, is on a mission to help churches in America turn the tide — and transform communities for Christ. To do that, he says churches must be externally focused.
Over the past few years, churches around the world have been catching this vision with more intentionality and riding what Rusaw calls a “wave of God.” More and more churches are finding innovative ways to do good deeds that help them earn a seat at the society’s table and create opportunities to advance God’s work.
LifeBridge, for example, has more than 1,000 volunteers engaged in community service, partnering with public schools, nonprofits and city government agencies. Today, the church lends a strong voice in the affairs of its community. But their credibility did not grow overnight. It happened after 17 years of raking leaves across town (which the church still does) as a way to show God’s practical love to the local people.
What inspired you to encourage churches to be more externally focused?
I think what happened was we had a sense that even though our church was growing and we were doing a lot of good things inside the church, we were not really making much of a difference in the community.
We realized that we weren’t engaged at the root level of a lot of issues. So we got asked to start a school, and I said maybe we shouldn’t start a school, maybe we should just get more involved with public schools. So we started volunteering and helping out. For years we just did service projects, such as raking leaves, and we looked for ways to connect. We raked a lot of leaves first before we got invited to do bigger things.
So you started developing relationships with people in the community.
Yes, with public schools, nonprofits and government agencies, and over the years our involvement grew. Now we are involved in 54 partnerships in town. I think one of the things that happens is that a church feels they want to help the homeless and they start a homeless ministry, but those who are already doing that see the church as a competition. So what we did was find out who were working with the disenfranchised kids or single moms and we came alongside them. We create relationships, and the more relationships we have, the more we can speak into how they do what they do.
Building relationships takes years, definitely not the easiest route to reaching people for Christ.
My advice to churches is if you’re going to be externally focused only for a day, maybe you shouldn’t do anything. Don’t just show up for one day and say you want to be helpful, but then you’re not there the rest of the time. At our church we look for ongoing ways with which we could serve. We have teams of people who help the facility staff at various schools, and what we find is they open the doors for more opportunities. They say, “We have this problem, will you help us?” But it takes some time for people to trust that you’re really going to be there and keep doing what you’re doing. So again back to that line, you rake a lot of leaves and eventually you get more opportunities.
Were people in the public schools and community agencies suspicious or resistant at first?
Yes, very much so. We went to the school district and asked if there was anything we could do to help, and they said they couldn’t really see what that would be — the whole church thing — they were not sure. But now they meet with us and give us a list of things to help them, and not just to fix broken things or paint walls, but they give us opportunities to help them with programming, resourcing, tutoring and after-school programs. I think if we do service for the sake of growing our church, we’ll miss out on its real value and power. What we create are relationships. Eventually, we get asked why we do what we do, then we get to talk about God’s grace and why we care.
Sometimes people in the church are not encouraged to do things for the community unless what they want to do aligns with the “vision” of the church.
One of the things we do is encourage all of our ministry areas to do something that’s externally focused. We don’t want to have a Department of Externally Focused. We want community service to be a part of who we are and what we value. We encourage people to find a place where God can use them to make a difference. Of course we can’t do everything, and in those cases we redirect them to similar kinds of things. And a lot of times people come with great ideas about what we ought to do, but they don’t really want to get involved. I’ve actually gotten better at saying “why don’t you make that happen and let us know how we can help you.” Whatever vision gets set for a local church, unless the leaders care about becoming connected to their community and becoming a part of the solution, the church is not going to have an impact.
Was there a time when American churches were so internally focused that when the externally focused movement came, it came as a surprise?
We’ve always had missional-minded churches and people, but somewhere along the way, we kind of split them between conservative and liberal. The liberals are supposedly good on social values and maybe not as strong on biblical values. The conservatives are supposedly strong on biblical values but not on social values. If I read the Gospels right, it’s not an either/or deal. Jesus went about meeting needs and then speaking about who he was. We read about the early church exploding with proclamation and demonstration — show and tell, truth and grace, salt and light. I think that for a while it seemed that we’ve shifted more on proclamation. But if we simply stand on the bank shouting at the dirty stream that flows in front of our church door, we’re just one of the many voices that bombard the people in our community. What we need to do is jump into the stream and create relationship connections that give us a chance to share our faith. Service opens that door. Good deeds create good will that creates opportunities to share the good news. Truth is, being missional has always been a part of us, but I think that right now there is a stronger sense of wanting to make a difference in our community.
What can keep a church from serving the community and demonstrating God’s love outside their walls?
I think we all have things that matter most to us and that we hang on to them. Sometimes we get too busy trying to take care of our own that we lose sight of the opportunity to connect with others. For me, I know that I can be a self-absorbed jerk, that’s why I need to get outside my self. I care about the truth and I want to see our church grow, but sometimes I get so focused on those things that I could miss out on what God called us to be. God calls us to be salt and light, He called us to speak grace and truth, He invited us to demonstrate His love and care.
Do you ever measure the effectiveness of the church by how it impacts the community?
That’s a really good question. We’ve never measured this area because if we measured it by what’s the return to the church, I’m afraid we would only do the things that benefitted the church. But we also recognize as we talk to churches all over the country that are doing this, that there is a multiplier. For example, our school district believes we save them a couple of million dollars a year.
We also have an opportunity with foster care adoption that meets a huge need in our community. In December 2008, for the first time in almost three decades, Boulder County had enough homes and families for all their kids. Eric Swanson, who co-authored Externally Focused Church and Life on Loan with me also did a study to measure the worth of volunteer hours rendered by 62 Leadership Network churches, and I think the total came up to $210 million worth of volunteered time. The truth is it’s really difficult to measure these things other than you know that as these doors open, more and more churches have the opportunity to speak into what’s going on in the life of the community.
If churches continue to do serve their communities, what do you think the future might look like?
In our culture, the church seems to have less and less influence. Service can change that. Service opens the doors for churches to demonstrate God’s grace and let people know why we do what we do.
The Externally Focused Network (a ministry of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, CO,) helps churches who are beginning to think differently about what the church could be — and should be — ‘for’ their community. This 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, providing encouragement and aiding in theology.
• Externally focused churches believe a community can’t be healthy with out the church.
• Externally focused churches believe there is power in service.
• Externally focused churches embrace the power of partnership.
• Externally focused churches believe that good deeds and good news can’t and shouldn’t be separated.
• Externally focused churches are evangelistically effective.
Can ordinary people live extraordinary lives? Yes — when those lives are externally focused! That’s the message Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson deliver in this timely, Bible-based book. Using a memorable acrostic for LIFE — Love, Intersections, Fortune, Eternity — the authors challenge us to find more than purpose — to uncover the joy in a lifestyle of authentic Christian service. [Group Publishing, 2009][www.externallyfocusednetwork.com