Outside-In vs. Inside-Out Thinking in Churches

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Since my last blog post, “The Savannah House—A Missional Experiment in Plano, TX,” I’ve received several comments about my thoughts on “Inside-Out vs. Outside-In Thinking.” In that post, I wrote these words:

Far too many churches suffer from an addiction to outside-in thinking. They look at what other churches have found successful and they try to mirror those same practices in their own context. Often, when the practices fail, they are left scratching their heads, asking, “Why did it work for them, but not for us?”

Outside-in thinking leads to burnout. Rarely will your church live up to the success that another church had with its own program.

Inside-out thinking, however, asks, “How is God calling us to uniquely live out the gospel in our particular context?” Like missionaries in foreign cultures, each ministry approach is most effective when it is organically shaped by the context in which it exists.

I have to give credit to Dr. Ryan Bolger, at Fuller Theological Seminary, for introducing me to this concept, particularly as it pertains to ministry in the church. I’d like to briefly expand on the impact this concept should have on the way we strategize and shape our ministries.

Many churches today begin to see decline in their weekly attendance and they think, “Uh oh, we’ve got a problem.” They desire to find a “miracle solution” that will fix it. The truth is, ministry in the 21st century is a lot messier than just a set of problem/solution formulas. There are no “one-size-fits-all” answers to reverse the changing realities of religion in the United States (which is why every “How to Really Bring Millennials Back to Church” article drives me crazy).

When we do look for those outside answers to our inside problems, we find ourselves trying to put on clothes that just don’t fit. Then we get frustrated that a church in a completely different context “looks so good” wearing the clothes that we think should fit us the same way.

It’s not that easy.

But here’s the good news: Your church is God’s church.

There is a reason God has gathered the particular people who make up your community of faith. I believe that any gathering of God’s people is one of the greatest gifts of God’s love we will experience in this life.

If that’s the case, then, God cares about your church. God is alive and active in your church. God has a purpose for your church—and that purpose is unique.

This is where inside-out thinking needs to replace outside-in thinking. Rather than borrowing strategies and goals from the outside and trying to make them fit your church, the first step should be an internal examination of the gifts and resources that God has placed in your lap.

Maybe your church thinks it should start a contemporary service, but you have absolutely no one in your congregation who enjoys contemporary worship music. Then it’s probably not a good fit.

Maybe your church thinks it should purchase a larger pipe organ to attract people who are impressed by that type of thing, but you don’t have the funds to make the purchase and your only organist is that lady who plays like a 3rd grader trying to learn to type with one finger at a time. Then it’s probably not a good fit.

Maybe your church thinks it should continue doing the same exact outreach events it has been doing for the past 20 years, even though they attract only 20% of the people they used to engage. Then it’s probably no longer a good fit.

In the same way churches tend toward outside-in thinking with other churches’ strategies and programs, churches can also get stuck participating in outside-in thinking with their own pasts.

Inside-out thinking, on the other hand, recognizes that our church—today—looks different than it ever has, and exists in a context that it never has. When we begin with the unique gifts that God has given us today in the context in which we exist today, then we open ourselves to the unique ways that God is stirring within us—and only us—to live faithfully as God’s people in our unique situation.

It’s time to stop wearing someone else’s clothes, and instead, ask God to clothe you with the wardrobe that God has designed specifically for your community of faith. When you do, you’ll find yourself with more life and energy than you ever knew you had. Instead of failing at being something that you aren’t—or failing at being something that you used to be—you’ll find yourself thriving because it just seems so natural. That’s when you know it’s the right fit.

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