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Rethinking Church-Centric Outreach

Rethinking Church-Centric Outreach

Adventist churches need to transition away from the Old Testament model of outreach and ministry and adopt the New Testament model.

Old Testament Model

In the Old Testament, the physical temple in Jerusalem was the center of religious life. That was where all the sacred activities were located. The priests, who had a special connection to God, were the key players. The Jewish leader’s mantra was “come to the center of worship,” “come to us.” The average Jew participated by leaving their secular job on certain holy days and traveling to Jerusalem with an offering. Israelites invited fellow Jews to join for the journey. Gentiles who wanted to worship with Israel were also directed to the Temple as the heart of Yahweh’s religion. [1]

Unfortunately, as a pastor, I used this outdated model for far too long. The church building was the center of sacred activities and ministry. The church board would appoint an official Outreach Committee who thought up outreach ideas for the upcoming year. We then announced the decision and tried to get the members of the congregation to participate. In those days the list might include a 5-day plan, a cooking school seminar, a vacation Bible school, giving care packages to the homeless, and a Revelation seminar.

The key role that members played was to invite their friends and neighbors to attend. The measure of success was how many people showed up. It was considered a mega-success if some non-Seventh-day Adventists did, in fact, arrive.  

When congregations rely on such a “come to us” model from the Old Testament, they are following a “church-centric” strategy. What happens in and around the church becomes most important. Outreach plans that church leadership and church committees choose gets top priority.  

New Testament Model

The New Testament turns the Old Testament model on its head and ministry becomes very intentionally decentralized. The highest priority is given to the ministry of each member within their own sphere of influence.

In the New Testament, each member of the congregation is now a spiritual temple wherever they go. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.” (1Cor 6:9 NIV)

Each member of the congregation is now a priest (minister) to their world. “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1Peter 2:9 NIV)

Our offering is ourselves, our God-given talents and abilities utilized to God’s glory. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Rom 12:1 NIV)

In the New Testament model, the focus is now on the places where the members spend the vast majority of their time – at home and at work. Rather than ministry being localized in the church’s zip code, it is distributed everywhere the church members live and labor. The priority is no longer “come to us.” It is now for the members to “go” and become incarnated into the world of the people around them. It is about being light at home and salt in society at large.

Ministry occurs not just during the hours that the church programs are functioning. Ministry happens in the many interactions the members have all day, every day, in various towns and communities. Each member’s home or apartment becomes a base of operations for outreach into the surrounding neighborhood. Church families who live near each other can team up to meet needs in their area.

One group of church members who lived near each other decided to have a bread making party at one of their homes and invite the neighbors. Bread-shaped, hand-printed, invites were distributed. Five non-Adventists attended. The one-and-a-half-hour program included a door prize, group games, a short video about breadmaking and whole grains, and a live demonstration, followed by refreshments and baby loafs to take home. When the party ended, two of the non-Adventists asked if the ladies could put on the same party at their homes and they’d invite their friends. From then on, the members kept being asked and did one bread party a month for an entire year making lots of new friends along the way that they’d never have met otherwise.  

How many more innovative, tailor-made, ministries could emerge if the church truly unleashed the creativity of the members!

In the New Testament model, the main role of the pastor and staff is no longer to think up events for the members to invite people to or ministries for them to participate in. The primary role of church leadership is to equip the members to be effective priests at home and the workplace.

The City to City director of global strategic services, Missy Wallace, states:

The church doesn't need to know all about [the job of] finance; they don't need to know all about advertising or all about plumbing or all about manufacturing or all about mowing lawns, but they do need to know how to help and disciple the people that attend their church to take frameworks back into their own world to help them think through what being a Christian means in those spaces. That is the role of the church if they really want to be missional. It needs to take the 80 or 200 or 1,000 people that it sends out five to six days a week and teach them what it means to love people…right where they are. [2]

In the New Testament model, husbands and wives are taught how to be priests to each other in a mutual exploration of what Christian flourishing could mean for them and their offspring. Church members are also taught about a theology of work and how to live their faith in the workplace. They realize that the home and the workplace are the primary venues where they themselves are discipled and grow in Christ. They understand that the home and the workplace are also the primary domains where they fulfill Jesus’ 2nd great commandment to love others.

As an important aspect of their self-understanding as priests, the members are taught about the sacred/secular dichotomy. They recognize that their daily duties are just as sacred as those of the pastor. It is explained to them that what takes place in their office or living room is just as sacred as what happens inside the church building. They understand that a Christian plumber fixing a leaky pipe or a Christian spouse fixing supper is just as sacred an activity as a pastor delivering a sermon. They are clear minded about the profound implications of the apostle’s Paul’s statement, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1Cor 10:31 NIV)

If members are truly functioning as priests, the congregation will regularly contain many people with stories to tell. I’m not talking about cobwebby testimonies from the time last year when Aunt Betty finally overcame her addiction to jelly donuts. I’m talking about vibrant, up-to-date accounts born of the dynamic partnership between members and the Holy Spirit.

There would be stories about members being instrumental in building bridges across racial barriers, stories of how God used church families to push back against injustice and other wrongs in society, of the Savior’s uncanny timing in bringing a member into someone’s life at just the right moment, how God used a member to change the culture of their workplace, of the transformation of a colleague who accepted Christ as their personal Savior, of a co-worker who was overwhelmed by the over-the-top kindness of an Adventist employee, of breakthroughs at work by a member who had received training at the church about creative problem solving.

To get to the place where these various dynamics become a reality will require a lengthy, intentional investment in educating and coaching members to fulfil their God-given role as New Testament priests. But it is a goal that congregations need to plan for and pursue.

Some volunteers will always be needed to help run church programs such as children’s Sabbath school and VBS. Periodically planning an outreach activity for the entire church to do together can help develop a sense of comradery and spirit of service. It is also appropriate to encourage the members to invite non-Adventists to some special program at the church. The key point, however, is to make sure that none of these activities is misinterpreted as the principal locus of ministry. It needs to be consistently made clear that the decentralized New Testament model is at the heart of the church’s strategic planning and activity,

R. Paul Stevens provides an important reminder when he writes:

Perhaps a non-clergy person reading this might think, “I’m really quite happy to come to church and to be fed by the pastor. I appreciate his ministry, and I’m glad to assist him in any way I can.” But, Mr., Ms., or Mrs. church member, I ask on the authority of the New Testament, “Have you forgotten who you are? You are a minister of Jesus Christ, a holy priest, an ambassador for Christ, an agent of reconciliation in the world.” [3]


Notes and References:

[1] “Strangers and Gentiles,” Jewish Virtual Library, 2008,

“Who Were the Gentiles In the Old Testament,” Brandon Showalter, The Christian Post, November 25, 2018.

[2] “A Holistic Understanding of Creative Goodness in the Workplace,” Missy Wallace, December 9, 2021, Redeemer City to City.

[3] R. Paul Stephens, Equipper’s Guide to Every-Member Ministry (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 1992) 10

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Photo by Skull Kat on Unsplash

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