Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

Expert advice that will help you refine your church's mission and develop winning strategies to transform your community.
When it comes to meeting the needs in your community--spiritual, physical and societal--how does the theological rubber of your ministry grip those tough roads of your neighborhood? Holistic ministry will just be an abstract concept, an impossible ideal, unless you can give it "feet" in your own context. It helps to study models of holistic ministry, but you shouldn't simply copy them--because then your church won't become what God is calling it to be.

There are three key steps in the process of developing a plan for your church's holistic mission: (1) identifying your church's unique character, potential and hurdles related to holistic ministry; (2) studying the community to understand your context for ministry; and (3) cultivating a ministry vision to guide your next steps forward.

The principles outlined below will take you through these steps and help you refine your church's vision. Use them as a guide for discussion with your leadership team. By following the Lord's direction and strategically planning, you will be better positioned to meet the spiritual and natural needs in your city.


Your congregation's first step is to take a careful look at where it is now. A congregational study recognizes that holistic ministry is not just something your church does; it flows from the essence of who you are as the body of Christ.

We suggest that the church commission a small group to gather church documents, talk to representative attendees and reflect on your congregational life together. The group should reflect the diverse makeup of the congregation and include laypeople as well as staff. This group's task is to write a brief overview of key discoveries. A "working first draft" report of reasonable length completed by church members in three to four months is far more useful than an extensive, yearlong study undertaken by professionals.

The study process. Below is an overview of five areas of congregational study most relevant to outreach. The questions cover a broad range of topics, because the health of the church's outreach is dependent on the health of the church as a whole:

1. Who are we? Examine your congregational identity and history. How would your congregation describe itself and its ministries? What traditions and characteristics make you unique? What major changes or upheavals has the church experienced?

Who makes up the congregation? Describe the members and regular attendees of your church in terms of key demographic factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, family status, income, education and occupation. Who is "our kind of people"? Who is most- and least-welcome?

2. What do we believe? Examine key areas of your church's theology relevant to outreach: What does it mean to be saved? How is the church to be a witness to Christ: by telling people about the gospel and/or by demonstrating the gospel (for example, through lifestyle and service)? In what sense do God's plans for redemption include communities and the world as a whole? What Scripture passages are most central to your church's mission?

3. What do we do? This question has three components. First, examine your church's ministries of congregational nurture. How does your church help members deepen and apply their spiritual lives? How does your church meet material, personal and relational needs within the congregation? What programs does your church offer?

Second, describe your church's outreach. What social ministries are in place? Are these primarily aimed at providing goods and services, developing skills, promoting economic or community development, and/or reforming politics and social structures? What programs of evangelism are in place?

Third, assess your church's ministry priorities in terms of staff and volunteer time, resources, attention from the pulpit, and so on. What is the balance between ministries of internal congregational nurture and external outreach to others? Between evangelism and social outreach? What is the balance between local and global mission?

4. How do we do what we do? Examine your church's leadership. How would you describe the style of pastor(s) and key ministry leaders: hands-on types or delegators; orderly or spontaneous; independent or team workers; entrepreneurial or managerial; down-to-earth or visionary? What activities take up most of the leaders' time?

5. What are our relationships like? Examine the congregation's relationship with God. What is the role of the Bible, prayer and the Holy Spirit in decision-making, outreach activities and other aspects of congregational life? Are people growing spiritually? How are members' spiritual gifts recognized and used to build up the church? Describe a typical service. In what ways is a theology of holistic mission or the church's mission/vision statement referred to in worship services?

What are the characteristics of relationships within the congregation? Do members of the congregation live within the same neighborhood or see one another outside of church activities? Also look at your church's relationships beyond the congregation. How would you describe your church's relationship with and reputation in its community of ministry?

Dissecting the study. After the self-study committee turns in its report, the church should appoint a group (not necessarily the same group that created the report) to process its implications for ministry development. The purpose of this group is to explore how your congregation's unique characteristics may affect the shape of its ministry, to assess your church's readiness for holistic ministry, and to discover areas of church life needing to be strengthened, clarified or changed in order to move forward in ministry.

These questions can help the group focus the analysis of your church:

1. How holistic is your church? Identify the areas in which growth is most needed, such as integration of spiritual and social ministry or the amount of outreach. In particular, look for areas where your church's beliefs and practices are inconsistent. Many churches agree with holistic mission in principle, but their actual ministries say something quite different.

2. What does your church's identity tell you about the future? What does your congregation's current identity and history reveal about the likely direction and shape your outreach mission might take? Every church should do something, but no church can do everything. Nor can a church work on everything at once. Holistic mission is a journey that unfolds one step at a time.

Does your history cast any light on the direction for your next steps? What stages of the journey have you passed through thus far? What past problems have been resolved, and what themes keep reoccurring? This reflection on your church's unique story is a critical ingredient in strategic planning.

3. What are the church's strengths and weaknesses for holistic ministry? Most congregational characteristics can be an asset or an obstacle. For example, a large building opens up space for ministry programs, but building maintenance can siphon off funds and energy. Having a strong sense of church as family is healing to people within the church body, but it can also give outsiders the impression that the congregation is a closed circle.

4. Are there areas of conflict or confusion related to ministry? Sometimes church leaders have one set of beliefs and priorities, while the congregation has another. Sometimes different groups within the congregation pull the church's mission in different directions. Congregants may only have a vague sense of what the church's mission is and why they should support it.

5. What might hold back the church from moving forward? Barriers to change may include a sense of inadequacy related to church size, skills, leadership or resources; an overly bureaucratic structure that resists change or an overly loose structure that provides no foothold for change; prejudiced attitudes about people in need; objections from the denomination or from key financial supporters; internal struggles that drain energy from outreach or negative past experiences with outreach mission.

A careful, honest look at the strengths and weaknesses of your congregation will help you avoid fatal mistakes later in the process. A church should take its past and present seriously enough to recognize that its uniqueness is an important clue to what God wants it to do, but not so seriously that it refuses to change.


After or alongside the congregational study, your church should also study its community context. Evangelical theology has traditionally focused on individuals while forgetting that individuals are created to live in community. You can't love the whole person without paying attention to his or her context.

A thorough community assessment has five main goals:

1. To guide strategic planning and the development of new ministries. Without a community assessment, ministry designs may be flawed. Effective ministry depends on an accurate diagnosis of the need. While some "target groups" are obvious (homeless persons, nursing home residents, prisoners), some needs lie below the surface. Since communities are always in flux, a community study also helps anticipate a future trajectory for outreach.

2. To help understand the forces that affect people's lives. Individuals are profoundly influenced by the demographic, cultural and organizational dynamics of their communities. Some community dynamics responsible for creating human need are obvious: a shortage of jobs, for example, or neglectful slumlords. Other forces can be subtler, such as slowly declining wages. The community's history can also provide important clues about the roots of human need throughout the area.

3. To help understand community factors that influence the effectiveness of church ministries. There are many ways that a community can influence a church's effectiveness and opportunities for ministry. Demographic changes, factory closings, new housing construction, political battles, overly zealous building inspectors, zoning laws--all these can affect (for better or for worse) a church's outreach. Researching community assets (both secular and faith-based) allows a church to connect with other resources, to prevent the duplication of services and to identify potential allies.

If a church is not aware of external influences in the community, it may too quickly become discouraged or fight the wrong battles. On the flip side, failing to note the contribution of contextual factors to a program's success may leave church members wondering why a program that has succeeded elsewhere does not work when it is replicated.

4. To help understand how the church itself is affected by the community. We often think about the church as salt and light, as an agent of change in a community. That is, after all, the point of outreach ministry. But the surroundings also affect the church.

The relationship between church and community is what sociologists call an "open system," with reciprocal lines of influence. That is why it is important to understand how your church's specific geographic and cultural setting has helped to shape its identity.

5. To discern how your church is perceived by the community. Churches are sometimes woefully unaware of, or misled about, their reputations in their communities. The community's point of view can represent a steppingstone, or a barrier, to building effective ministries. Moreover, hearing what people think about your church and the role of churches in the community in general can make your evangelistic efforts more sensitive to people's hopes and concerns.

Community perspectives. To appreciate the marvelously complex realities of a community, a church has to learn to see it from several different perspectives:

1. The social science perspective. Community analysis from a social science perspective has three layers: demographic (including aspects such as ethnicity and income), culture (including aspects such as religion and social class) and organization (including schools, businesses and infrastructure).

2. The political perspective. Consider how decisions are made that affect people's quality of life. Positions of decision-making power within a community are both formal and informal. Who holds power in the community, and who benefits from their decisions? What are the channels of access to those in power?

3. The historical perspective. As you consider a community's character, needs and issues, ask: How did the community get to be the way it is today? How have changes in the community affected residents' lives?

4. The spiritual perspective. What is unseen here? In Daniel 10:13 (NKJV), an angel refers to a struggle with "'the prince of the kingdom of Persia'" that hindered a response to Daniel's prayer for the restoration of his people. Much about this text is mysterious, but it and other texts, such as Paul's reference to principalities and powers (see Eph. 6:12), show that evil spiritual powers are intertwined with personal brokenness, societal decay and unjust systems.

On the positive side, "lighthouses" of prayer and faithful Christian service can quietly leaven the loaf. By the Spirit we can discern the spiritual realities that lie behind the tangible, visible attributes of our communities.

Processing the community study. Many churches conduct the study, write the report, talk about the report, file the report and then forget about the report. But a community study is not information for information's sake; it is data to help you reap a harvest. Three questions can guide your church as it processes the community study report:

1. What aspects of community life need to be transformed? What about the community grieves you, fills you with a yearning to see things change? Who in the community is crying out for God's healing touch?

Address these questions from a holistic perspective, tuning in to both spiritual and material needs. Ask God to help you see the community through His eyes, looking past the outward appearance of things to the heart of the matter.

2. How is God already at work in the community? Often churches assume God is only "in here" and is waiting for us Christians to reach out. But God is also "out there" in the community working ahead of us, preparing hearts, cultivating the soil of relationships, planting seeds of common grace. To be effective in the community, we need to get onboard with what God is already doing.

Look for the people who demonstrate God's love and build up the community through the rhythms of ordinary life--people such as teachers, homemakers and Little League coaches. And don't limit your search to Christians.

Remember, God called the idolatrous King Nebuchadnezzar "my servant" (see Jer. 27:6). God can work through any person or institution to accomplish His aims.

3. What does God desire for this community? Draw on the hopes and dreams of the community residents you have talked to, as well as the extravagant stock of biblical promises. What could this community be like if people embraced God's transforming redemption; if neighbors loved one another; if the natural environment was flourishing; if social institutions treated people as responsible, valued creations made in the image of God?

These three questions should naturally lead your church to a fourth: So, what are we going to do about it? How is your church, as Christ's hands and feet in this community, called to participate in God's redemptive plan? This brings us to the process of crystalizing the church's holistic ministry vision.


To make the process collaborative, form a group with a cross section of clergy and laypeople (including representation from major church ministries and from the groups that conducted the church and community studies). Everyone in the group should have read the reports from the church and community studies. The process should include much time spent in free, creative brainstorming. Most important, the group should strive to discern the Lord's direction in all matters--the process must be bathed in prayer.

Whether or not a pastor chairs the vision-path committee, pastors should be deeply involved in this process to ensure that the developing vision meets several criteria:

Is the vision consistent with holistic ministry theology? Will it be truly holistic when put into practice?

Is it born out of love for the community, or does it primarily serve the interests of the congregation?

Does it take input from the community into account, or is it based on the church's assumptions about what the community needs?

Does it take the church's specific identity and context into account, without being a slave to "the way we've always done things around here"?

Holistic ministry is God's plan and promise for every church and every community. Whatever the challenges in your community, whatever your church's portrait looks like now, the Lord has promised "the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry" (Eph. 4:12). In God's eyes, "we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10).

Embrace this assurance as you seek to catch a vision of the wonderful works of ministry God has already ordained for your church. Every church starts in a different place and goes through a different process of working toward the goal. So, it is important to know the lay of your unique "land." But the most important question is whether your church trusts the Spirit to be its guide and to bring down the walls.

Tools for Community Study

Methods your church can use to get to know its community better

Census data and other published reports. The census (available at provides a wealth of demographic information and tracks changing trends. Other kinds of studies of the community may also be available from a local university, the school board, the chamber of commerce or another church.

Maps. Get or make a detailed map of your community. Fill in symbols for the key components of community life: owner-occupied homes, rental properties, businesses, schools, nonprofit institutions, government agencies, youth-oriented organizations, hangout spots and churches. Color-code the symbols to indicate which represent key assets, needs and potential partners.

Surveys. Ask residents to identify local needs, issues and assets via written or oral questionnaires. Surveys are best conducted door-to-door by church members, creating opportunities to develop relationships and name recognition in the process.

Interviews. Identify leaders and insiders in the community (elected officials, business leaders, other pastors, longtime residents) to interview. Ask questions about their experiences and perceptions of the community, their perceptions of your church, and their suggestions for how the church could contribute to the community's well-being.

Focus groups. Gather a group of community residents to share their insights. Groups can either reflect the diversity of the community or share a common key characteristic (such as being seniors or parents of teenagers).

Observation. Conduct visual surveys by foot and car. Soak in community life: shop, eat and take public transportation in the community; hang out in public places such as parks, libraries and welfare offices; listen in (inconspicuously) on conversations at public events such as T-ball games; volunteer for local nonprofit agencies.

How to Get Your Congregation Onboard

A common dilemma pastors face is rallying support for their ministry visions. Here's the best way to inspire your members to actively pursue holistic ministry.

If your vision for holistic ministry is to be realized, you must first--with the support of your leadership team--cultivate your congregation's ownership of the vision. "Ownership" means the congregation understands the vision, identifies with it, is excited about it and acts according to it.

How can leaders help the congregation become aware of its calling to share the gospel in word and deed, embrace the church's vision for its community and move forward in active holistic ministry? Here are three ways:

1. Cultivate the theology of holistic ministry. Church leaders need to help the congregation become unified regarding the theological foundations for holistic ministry. This is done through "explicit theology"--what is taught. Sunday school classes and Bible studies are important vehicles for sharing the biblical basis for holistic mission.

But just as important are your church's "implicit theologies"--messages that are communicated in church rituals (such as fellowship meals or the way the church collects tithes and offerings), in songs, in congregational prayers and in the example set by church leaders. From these aspects of church life, people learn informally about God's character and what God expects of them.

2. Build support for holistic ministry. A holistic theology is an essential foundation, but it is too general to rally the congregation's active support. Theology must be made specific to your context through a congregational sense of mission that conveys the church's purpose, calling and values. The church needs an answer to the question, "What is unique about our way of fulfilling God's plan?"

Key components of building support for holistic ministry are: (1) through a well-defined mission and outreach statement that is clearly and regularly set before the congregation; (2) through special events, such as a conference, retreat, concert or drama; and (3) through getting the congregation involved in ministry.

3. Rally people behind specific ministry programs. A congregational vision bears fruit in specific ministry projects that put feet to the vision. The process of developing a holistic ministry vision may lead your church to start a new program, change an existing program to make it more holistic (such as adding a relational evangelism component to a job training program), or partner with an outside program of another church or agency.

How do you recruit and equip members to connect to this new venture in holistic outreach? The task of rallying the congregation's support for a ministry includes five basic components:

Inform. Give the congregation the facts as to what kind of program the church is sponsoring and why, who will lead it, and what it will accomplish.

Motivate. Draw from a palette of motivations for ministry involvement, such as compassion for those in need, people's yearning for a just society, longing to see people come to Christ, desire to experience God in a deeper way and obedience to a sense of personal calling.

Empower. Equip your people for service. A "spiritual gifts inventory" is an essential tool in awakening ministry potential. Discover people's skills, and connect the right people with the right gifts to the right ministries.

Ask. As every salesperson and fund-raiser knows, all the elements of a pitch build up to the "ask." Asking directly not only produces more volunteers, but it also builds people's confidence. An "ask" is more likely to be successful if you provide options for varying tasks, skill levels and time commitment.

Reward. Sustain volunteer motivation and give glory to God the Father by recognizing the good work done in Jesus' name by your congregation (see 2 Cor. 9:12). Faithful ministry calls for celebration! This can be done by something as simple as holding an annual banquet that celebrates the contributions of volunteers.

Ronald J. Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA); Philip N. Olson is vice president for church relations at ESA; and Heidi Rolland Unruh is associate director of the Congregations, Communities and Leadership Development Project at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Together these experts in holistic ministry are authors of Churches That Make a Difference (Baker Book House).

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