THE EXTERNALLY FOCUSED QUEST: Becoming the Best Church FOR the Community. By Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw. Foreword by Alan Hirsch. Jossey Bass, 2010. xv + 248 pages.
Missional churches are, by the usual definition, externally focused entities. That is, their ministries inside the church are designed to support and empower the ministry that occurs outside the walls of the church. In The Externally Focused Quest, which is a Leadership Network publication, Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw expand on that definition. As with many similar books, the authors begin this book by distinguishing between attractional and missional churches. They remind us that in this new age, ministry seldom occurs because people come to a church building. Most ministry, especially ministry that will touch the lives of large portions of the community will happen outside the walls. To engage the world as it stands, the church must, following the categories developed by Jeff Waldo and other futurists, be attentive to society, technology, economics, environment, and religion. As for religion, its role is increasingly different from what it once was. No longer is the church considered the primary form of religious life in the western world. Spirituality, however, is definitely in! We are in a state of liminality, living between paradigms. What was once true no longer is, and as for the future, that’s not clear. Since these transitional ages can last for some time, we might as well get used to it.
The authors of this book hope to provide some tools for the church to not only weather this age, but to do effective ministry and mission within this changing context. Swanson and Rusaw come to this task as cofounders of the aptly named “Externally Focused Network.” Both are active in the missional movement – especially its more conservative forms – and have written this particular book as a followup to two previously published books, which they’ve coauthored: The Externally Focused Church and the Externally Focused Life. Swanson is a consultant who works with the Leadership Network, while Rusaw is pastor of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado. LifeBridge is confessionally rooted in the portion of the Stone-Campbell Movement that is usually described as the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Before going to LifeBridge, Rusaw was an administrator at Cincinnati Christian Seminary.
After setting the contextual stage, the authors move on to try to focus the attention of the reader on the transition from the “aisle seat” to the “window seat,” from the inside to the outside (I must confess I never really understood the analogy). But the point they want to make is that the church must discern why it’s not engaged missionally and then begin looking outward. From there they move on to a question of purpose, making a distinction between weight training and body building. This analogy is quite apt, because the purpose of weight training is very different from that of body building. Weight training is preparatory for doing something else – to engage in an athletic endeavor, but body building is an end in itself – looking good. Too often churches engage in endeavors that build the body so that they can look good. They have nice programs, nice buildings, and nice reputations, but they don’t do much for the community. On the other hand, churches that are “working out” for the purpose of engaging the broader community so that transformation might happen are the missional or externally focused churches. If the purpose of the church is externally focused, the church’s broader narrative is that of the kingdom of God and not just that of the church. Missions, which we so often see as engaged in by the chosen few is now something that the many are engaged with.
Much of what is found in the first half of the book is similar to what is found elsewhere in the literature. Much of it is helpful and even original. The chapter that caught my eye focused on partnering. The chapter begins with an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” (p.111). Being that the authors come from a rather conservative context it was heartening to read this chapter, which encourages the church to partner with others, even if they don’t agree on every matter. They point to Paul Hiebert’s discussion of centered and bounded sets, where in the one focuses on beliefs (and thus boundaries) whereas the other focuses on the things one cares about (the center). They also use the analogy of sinking wells. That is, instead of building walls and fences, the church is called to sink wells, and in their definition that well is Jesus. You sink a well, and you don’t have to worry about fences because people (or livestock) will come to where the water can be found. With this in mind they suggest that there really is only one church in town, but it meets in a lot of different locations (this is very much a Stone-Campbell idea).
If the church is going to engage in ministry that is going to change communities, they’re going to have to partner – with other churches, non-profits, and even local governments. These partnerships can focus on food programs, emergency assistance, prisons, medical programs, and much more. The key to success in all of this – so that we don’t simply engage in this “ministry” so as to look good – is that we not worry about who gets credit, which means you don’t have to wear the church T-shirt in order to do the work. It also means recognizing the need to let people free to get involved in the community – don’t be jealous of work outside the church, and be sure to understand the rules. They note that very often the church is simply partnering with a community group, helping that group meet an existing need – so follow their rules. If you go to a school to tutor, then use their materials, don’t try to proselytize.
If partnering is a key, then creating systems to support and achieve this is necessary. It’s not programs, but models and paradigms that are important. As they point out, “a program has a beginning and an end. A paradigm is a pattern or model from which many programs and initiatives will flow, . . .” (p. 133). In order to create these models or paradigms, there will be the need to provide a strong scriptural foundation and then preach about this model on a regular basis – “Build God’s heart into the rhythms of your preaching and teaching regarding those on the margins of society and the absolute need for service and ministry as it pertains to our own spiritual growth” (p. 139). Make it part of the church’s plans and bring service into the small groups that exist in the church. The whole idea is to make sure that an external focus permeates everything the church does. Being that the authors are evangelicals, it shouldn’t be surprising that while service to the community is key they believe that the capstone of this ministry is evangelism. Service to the community provides a basis upon which effective evangelism is built. Thus, church people aren’t just community volunteers, they’re kingdom laborers who have been deployed by the church. Successful externally-focused ministries that engage the community in service and evangelism, will be creative. Innovation and entrepreneurship is key. Everything in the church, from prayer to technology is leveraged for creative work in the world.
Ultimately, this is about outcomes. The church isn’t just about preparing for the game, it is about playing the game, and in this game everyone, they say, plays. As churches, we should be focused on equipping and sending out people to do ministry – in creative ways, of course. And since outcomes matter – that is, winning matters – then the church should measure its effectiveness, to discern what is working and what is not, what should be started and what should be abandoned – so as to make good use of resources. As they end the book, they ask the reader – what is your measure of success?
The authors write with passion and with an entrepreneurial spirit. They are observant of trends and possibilities. They’re good at telling stories – the book is full of anecdotes of churches that are effectively living out this model of being externally focused. All of this is good and instructive. It is well written and engaging. But questions linger. I was struck by several things. First the entrepreneurial/business language. Second was the subtle but ever-present sense that the churches that are most likely to engage in such ministry are quite large. Almost all of the examples stem from churches that are over 1000 members. Finally, and perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising considering the religious location of the authors, but with a few exceptions every example is male. Every pastor who is mentioned in this book is male. Considering the dependence of the authors on narrative, by the end of the book you almost wonder if women even exist in their world. Again, this shouldn’t be surprising, considering that the tradition out of which Rusaw comes, one that puts major limits on the role of women, but for those who come to this book from outside this understanding, it would be helpful to know what you’re about to encounter.
So, the message is a good one. Many of the suggestions will be of great help, even for those like me, who don’t share the theological positions of the authors.