In 1999, on a drive home to Atlanta from Jacksonville, the consultant in me wondered whether the burgeoning Internet could provide answers to a question I had asked our church a few weeks earlier. “How could my skills and experiences be used to bless others in our city?” It was their hesitation and eventual referral to a local charity that got me thinking…
- “Is this the only church that doesn’t know the needs in its community or assets in its pews?”
- “Wasn’t Jesus’ model to feed and heal to demonstrate His love before telling them who He is?”
- “When did the body of Christ become so fragmented, disconnecting ‘church’ from ‘parachurch’?”
As a strategic planner for aspiring dot-com executives, I was developing business plans leveraging the Web to sell products and connect channel partners. On that long drive home, the Lord put a thought in my head – “If you can shop online for something to buy, why can’t you ‘shop’ for someone who needs the skills and resources you have to offer?” That light bulb moment nearly made me swerve off the road, but I managed to get to the next exit and began writing the business plan for Meet The Need.
Back then, there were no technologies that showed needs to those who could help. It didn’t take long to recognize the incredible opportunity to (re)unite and mobilize churches and ministries around critical causes like hunger, homelessness, and child neglect. So 20 years ago, at a time when the Internet was better known for the harm it was doing than the good it could do, we launched Meet The Need and built the first collaborative Volunteer Management, Case Management, Event Management, and Drive Scheduling tools – rallying the body of Christ around families desperately in need of help and hope.
While the passion I felt in the car that day remains two decades later, there were discoveries and realizations along the way I never anticipated. Yet our heavenly Father is never caught by surprise and can use all things for good. As Meet The Need celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s worth taking inventory of lessons learned from our work with thousands of churches across the country. Thinking back on my transition from for-profit business to non-profit ministry reminds me of all the preconceived, flawed notions I had about church, discipleship, and poverty. However, the disillusionment that normally accompanies unmet, unrealistic expectations didn’t squelch my enthusiasm because it soon became clear the Lord had prepared us “for such a time as this”.
Meet The Need’s mission has always been, “To mobilize and equip the Church to lead millions more to Christ by following Jesus’ example of meeting those in need exactly where they are.” Since we wrote that mission statement our ministry’s objectives have never changed, but our understanding of what a church is certainly has.
- I didn’t realize church is not a place – Like most Americans, I naively saw “church” primarily as a weekend activity where choirs sang and pastors preached. I misspoke often, saying I’m “going to church” or “look at that church” when no one was in the building. The Bible never referred to “church” in terms of events, experiences, staff, or structures, but Christians gathered anywhere for worship, teaching, fellowship, and discipleship.
- I didn’t realize churchgoers were “employees” – Businesses can’t require customers learn corporate manuals, make referrals, and conduct trainings. However, church members are vastly underutilized because most pastors treat them as customers, not Kingdom workers, afraid to push them too hard to study, obey, witness, serve, and disciple.
- I didn’t realize pastors had assumed most responsibilities of members – Pastors are burning out in record numbers because “consumers” have largely outsourced the Great Commission to church staff. To reach those who wouldn’t darken the door of a church, we should decentralize, empower and deploy members to serve as “pastors” of their neighborhoods and workplaces.
- I didn’t realize worship services were intended for believers – Church is a holy gathering of the faithful, not designed for (or around) those who don’t worship Jesus. Members should be (re)assigned accountability for leading people to Christ and defer invitations to church until after they’ve become Christ-followers.
- I didn’t realize giving shouldn’t be spent just on the givers – Watchdogs rate charities based on the proportion of donations that reach those they serve. Churches historically plowed 40%+ back into their communities, following Jesus’ example of demonstrating His love and seeing the “lost” as “customers”. It’s no wonder per capita giving has declined to match the average church’s investment in serving those who don’t know the Lord (< 2%).
It wasn’t until recently that I understood Jesus concluded Scripture with revelations calling for church reform and repentance. Once again, it’s time for reform to stem the decline of the Church in growth, impact, influence, and perception. The issue is essentially a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) problem – churches have defined the wrong “customer”. My years spent as a CRM consultant were not wasted, but all part of the Lord’s providential plan.
Without church reform, outsourcing discipleship (to pastors) and compassion (to parachurch ministries) are likely to continue. It took years of work with churches of all sizes across the nation to understand discipleship was the key to church growth – that multiplication is the Lord’s math.
- I didn’t realize what the Great Commission really meant and who it was commissioning – Making disciples who make disciples is the Church’s mission, and each of us is the personification of “church”, expected to carry out that objective all week long, not leaving it to “professionals” on Sundays.
- I didn’t realize most churches were doing addition – When churches are asked how they disciple, most reference small groups, which involve far less personal responsibility, commitment, and accountability than 1-on-1 or triads but don’t foster multiplication.
- I didn’t realize discipleship largely boils down to obedience – Walking in Jesus’ footsteps requires studying, internalizing and following His ways by the power of the Holy Spirit, but in many churches “tolerance” trumps obedience to appear welcoming and “accepting”.
- I didn’t realize how critical church discipline is to God – Discipleship connotes discipline, which is explicitly expected in Scripture but not practiced often in America’s churches.
- I didn’t realize most churches had stopped evangelism training – Few churchgoers are taught effective ways to share the Gospel and answers to typical questions. That was evident during Covid when fields were ripe for harvest but church buildings were closed.
Not surprisingly, the root cause behind those dramatic shifts is also a CRM issue. The commitment needed to become a disciple and to make disciples are both too time consuming to demand of believers conditioned to feel like “customers” and too presumptuous to propose to non-believers that pastors have asked members to invite to church.
When I asked my church in 1999 what I could do to serve the poor, I didn’t understand what poverty was or how to address it. Nor did I have any idea of the inextricable connection between compassion and discipleship – it’s impossible to do one (well) without doing the other.
- I didn’t realize churches had played such a key role in compassion – It didn’t take much studying to discover that churches were where people traditionally looked first for help, whereas they now turn to government, parachurch ministries, and secular charities.
- I didn’t realize most poverty alleviation efforts perpetuate it – Transactional handouts and occasional events may make volunteers feel good but create dependence and shame. Walking alongside families as they work through challenges involves more time and effort, but is far more dignifying and effective.
- I didn’t realize we are all in some form of poverty – A lack of material goods does not define anyone. Our goal should never be to make the “poor” like us when in God’s economy the (materially) poor are often (spiritually) wealthier than those who are rich.
- I didn’t realize how significant the challenges faced by the poor can be – Broken relationships and destructive formative practices make it difficult to overcome generational cycles of poverty and complicate efforts to help (progress is rarely linear).
- I didn’t realize why the Church’s role in helping the poor was so critical – Government cannot provide what struggling families need most, a supportive community where Jesus and not politicians are positioned as Savior.
After leaving my final business consulting client to go full-time with Meet The Need, I was caught off guard in my first few meetings with churches. It was hard to reconcile the limited resources most churches dedicated to poverty alleviation with the high priority Jesus placed on it, until I discovered that my consulting background in CRM largely explained that disconnect.
It’s Your Turn
Have you had other realizations or revelations from your experience with churches that could provide options and opportunities for reform at this critical time in the history of the Church?