The Greatest Mistake of
C. Michael Johnson
I'm going to make a bold promise: the approach described in this article can revolutionize your ministry. During this opportune season you can begin a progression toward a movement that will transform your church and eventually, your community!
Incredible as it sounds there is one pervasive practice in our outreach that is so widespread, yet so devastating to the impact we want, it makes all other shortcomings pale in significance.
Christmas, more than any other time, provides a unique opportunity to connect deeply into every community. Unfortunately, those wonderful opportunities for connection are hardly ever realized. In fact, in a postmodern America, where traditional church connections grow ever tenuous, conventional Christmas outreach is having even less impact than before. But, the great potential for deep connection remains.
I believe the greatest mistake we can make during this most special time of the year is not entering our world the way Jesus did that first Christmas: incarnationally. Christ's first invasion of planet earth is the model of a highly effective mission.
A basic shift towards incarnational ministry can unleash enormous potential in every area of ministry and mission. It can transform...
• Evangelism and pre-evangelism
• Discipleship and spiritual formation
• Parenting and mentoring
• Leadership development
• Children and youth ministry
• Community ministry and partnerships
• Community image and awareness
• Ministry Funding and Resourcing
The greatest mistake of all is this: ignoring God's dreams and purpose in those we are reaching.
But what exactly does living incarnationally mean in our day, and how can it transform how we connect with our community during Christmas? Well, let's unpack it. But first let's look at a few key aspects of Jesus' model.
Incarnational mission has a clear target.
Don't miss this key. The object of an incarnational mission is purpose. Purpose is everything. It goes far beyond best-selling books and 40-day campaigns. Incarnational mission is inseparable from its objective, which is purpose.
Everything has a unique design and purpose: individuals do, families do, organizations do, even whole communities carry the seeds of a divine destiny. Think of it this way: In God's design, people and things could be viewed as a vacancy of purpose, a specific place that is designed for and waiting to be filled with God's purpose. God wants to incarnate himself and his perfect will through us into those vacancies, that like the stable in Bethlehem, await their fulfilling purpose.
For a mission to become incarnational, the focus has to be on redeeming purpose. So the first question in every incarnational strategy is what purpose are we trying to fulfill. It could be the God-dreams of individuals, the destiny of a family or group, or God's purposes for a neighborhood or culture. Simply being active in ministry and mission is not sufficient. It's like simply being out for a drive, which though it may be fun and kills time, is not good enough and may even be counter-productive, when there's a destiny to be reached. And boy, do we have destinies!
It's important to understand that community service alone is not incarnational. We cannot serve God without serving His specific purposes in people and communities, incarnational ministry pushes all the way through to empower purpose. This is why church growth as a goal is incomplete, and community transformation (according to God's purposes) is. It is not enough to attract visitors and grow a membership without redeeming God's purposes in people and communities. Without a focus on purpose, an attractional strategy is a myopic focus on the door, which we know all too well, swings both ways.
Wouldn't it be nice if we had a Global Positioning System for purpose? Knowing we can't redeem purpose unless we find it, we need to know where spiritual and community intelligence is found and what leads to purpose. Here are two foundational principles of spiritual intelligence:
The first locating principle to get firmly fixed in our mind is that the Spirit of God is already there. He is already more active in your city than you could ever know. Our posture is to ask Him what he is already doing and come along side to co-labor in what He is doing. For all the obvious (and not so obvious) reasons, it's the smart thing to do. It's hard to remember this because, for the most part, the Holy Spirit's activity is invisible to us.
Without going into detail here there are three basic ways we can find out what God is doing and what he wants done: 1) ask him, 2) ask others, and 3) nose around. But the starting point is to humbly ask God and ask him to lead you to the purposes he wants to redeem.
The heart is where the action is.
The second thing to understand is that purpose is located in the human heart. It is the place where the Spirit works. We go to the Bible to see God's overarching principles, but we have to ask the Holy Spirit in the context of a person's heart to find His purposes there. But obviously we can also ask the person, which in effect opens up a whole new world of possibilities as we develop skills to go there.
It's facinating when you see how God has planted and interwoven His dreams for an individual within their own spirit and identity. Purpose is revealed in how God designed them: their gifts and abilities, what gives them purest joy, the kind of goals they pursue, lifelong dreams and aspirations, even traumatic events and key life experiences all work together to paint the composite picture. Clearly, it is presumptuous to attempt to reach, guide, parent, counsel, pastor, recruit, or lead people in any way without placing this spiritual intelligence in its rightful place at the center of spiritual formation.
The heart contains much more than we know. It's a mystery but both scripture and experience seem to indicate that like a kind of spiritual DNA, a person is born with the seeds of purpose encoded within. From conception and early childhood the Holy Spirit nurtures this purpose in deep conversations and life experiences. And when we meet a person mid-journey, it should be with a certain amount of awe that we treasure what has gone before and lock arms with the Spirit who has some very definite plans for where He wants to go. It's like following a guide to lost treasure, we have the honor and pleasure of helping another child of God mine the rich purposes and high calling of God in their heart. Whether it's a casual encounter, an online conversation, a new visitor, a lifelong friend, or even your own child, the heart is more open to a dream conversation than we imagine.
It's an inside job.
The point is, this is where the action is, and where the opportunities abound. Think of Jesus' encounter with the woman at the communal well in John 4. The scene was beautifully metaphoric, for Jesus taught his prejudiced, conventional disciples how to draw living purpose from a different kind of well: a human heart. And the results were quite viral, for in a single day the whole town came to believe! He told the disciples, (to paraphrase) "Open your eyes man, the fields are ripe for harvest, the opportunities are everywhere, right in front of your nose and you don't see them!" Furthermore, he told them the harvest was 90% worked, that they entered a field worked by others (the Holy Spirit in life experiences) and all their job entailed was a kind of gathering process. Now that puts our job description in clear and simple terms. It's "going in"...into the field, into hearts, co-laboring with, but following the Spirit, drawing out God's dreams and gathering them into the kingdom. Which means into active obedience and alignment with purpose, and in so doing redeeming God's dreams in the earth. We can keep hammering away with confrontations, apologetics, and lectures in our attempts to break through and convert minds (which few Christians are willing to do anyway), but it's so much easier and fruitful to awaken hearts. It's an inside-out, not an outside-in process.
A Holistic Plan for Incarnational Mission
How do you begin to create a workable incarnational plan? You begin with some soul searching followed with a resolute commitment. Prayerfully do this as a leadership team and be committed also to God's true purposes for each other. Resolve to really get to know the dreams and callings of your members and align your spiritual formation efforts to a clear track for purpose discovery, development, and empowerment. Ultimately, you want to turn members into partners...partners in purpose. The purpose is transformation, and the path to transformation goes through dreams.
Now that you have the big picture, let's create a framework for your plan. Most business and organizational plans today have a 90% emphasis on marketing simply because the definition of marketing has been expanded to include all activities that affect an organization's success or failure in its relationships with the full range of its audiences, internal and external. But marketing is more commonly thought of as selling. It has become acceptable to talk about church marketing, and in the early 1980's I was one of its first advocates. But lately I've come to realize that the tension some felt then was not wholly unfounded and that selling Jesus or his church is a little off track. A more accurate paradigm for marketing is not selling, its alignment... alignment with purpose. All creation (including people) groan for their fulfilling alignment with the Creator's intended purpose. So the focus is not on selling, not on an exchange (like money for food), it's on awakening something within, something welling up from deep within their innermost being (like living water). This is a 'marketing' power no enterprise but the kingdom of God can touch, let alone use effectively. When we do, all Hell will break loose, and Heaven will smile.
Dream Connections and Conversations
Everything is in place for a new awakening. Over the last few decades, we've experienced a worldwide movement restoring prayer to its central role. Incarnational mission requires incarnational prayer to flesh out God's heart. This is a powerful part of your plan, if prayer is integrated into every activity. It's counterproductive to let prayer become isolated as a segmented ministry. For mission activity and human interaction informs and drives prayer, and in so many ways God speaks through other people and experiences, confirming at times what we hear in secret. Integrate all prayer activity strategically with mission plans and actions.
Like the Roman roads that made way for the spread of the Gospel in the first century, a new media highway is paved and primed in our day, ready for a new great harvest. The internet was born and achieved a modest level of public use just about a decade ago (hard to believe), but only in the last few years has its total integration with all media forms become possible. Combined strategically with traditional media, the Internet becomes a key link and channels the full range of human media: electronic, print, and most important, conversation. We've become a connected society.
In planning you only get what you measure, and the key measurements in an incarnational cityreaching plan are:
1. Community Awareness (you can't reach people who are unaware of you)
2. Accurate and Appreciated Image (you have to become identified with what people deeply seek, what awakens God's purpose in them)
3. Awaken Dreams. (by awakening God-dreams we create self-initiated movement toward God and connection with his people)
4. Community Connections (in business this is called leads, you have to plan ways how to generate a high level of meaningful connections, through media directly, and indirectly through relationships)
5. Meaningful Conversations. (you have to find ways to engage in dream conversations)
6. Meaningful Friendships. (translation: friendships that empower purpose)
7. Partners in Purpose (equipped and walking in the true dreams and purposes of God in their life).
Over the years I have coached hundreds of pastors in marketing their church. After they see the full picture of what they want to do, many times it begins to overwhelm them. That's when I usually suggest planning tracks. Take the broad areas you want to pursue (awareness, image, community intelligence, connections, dream discovery and equipping, incarnational mission ventures, etc) and then separate them in planning tracks. Then prioritize what is needed in each track and look for what things early on can dovetail with the other tracks. But even in areas that will take a while to fully develop, determine how you could "micro the macro," to take one step or express in a small way (weekly or monthly) the larger long term goal.
I feel like I've just scratched the surface, but I trust I've painted a picture of the potential for incarnational mission (known to us as withreach). I will list some planning guides below that can help you go further. You are welcome to call one of us any time to brainstorm specific withreach strategies. You can also explore all the articles and helps on our web site: Breakthroughchurch.com, or our partner site www.withreach.com.
I sincerely believe your best days are ahead. If you determine to be incarnational in every facet of your ministry and mission. If you see people in your community as dreams of God. If you purge out any tendency toward church-centric thinking and develop a mindset for a community-centric, dream-centric planning. And if you begin now, to connect deeply and incarnationally into your community during the upcoming Christmas season I believe you will catapult your church forward into a new level of cityreaching effectiveness. The fields are ripe for harvest! I can't wait to hear your stories.
Have a great Christmas!
Planning Guides and Documents:
• Community of Dreams Overview
• New Church Launch Marketing Plan
• Strategy Articles
2006, Breakthrough Media Group
Want to get specific?
you’d like to explore this in an email dialog, please feel free
to drop the author a note at email@example.com.
The Community of Dreams National Cityreaching Partnership is launching innovative pilot projects with a local churches in 200 U.S. cities in 2007 through 2010. The focus is on using Withreach
and Community of Dreams positioning strategies to support one church
as an effective catalyst in each of those cities, using innovative
cityreaching strategies, comprehensive marketing plans, and an integrated,
branded identity package.
If you would like to learn more about this initiative,
please send a short backgrounder on your church with complete information
on how to contact you. Email to:
you know of another church in another city who may be a good candidate
for their city, please feel free to forward this document.
Want to share this report? Permission granted to share this document for non-commercial purposes*
For coaching and strategic outreach questions contact
C. Michael Johnson
All other inquiries contact:
*This entire report copyright © 2006 by
Breakthrough Media Group. All rights reserved. Permission is granted
to forward, copy or share single copies of this document in the
context of local church outreach planning, provided entire document
is kept intact. Small portions can be freely quoted. For permission
to excerpt, or to make multiple copies (more than five), or to reprint
in a publication or post online, contact: