Six Catalytic Service Approaches

Krista Petty, Leadership Network

22 February 2009


“Everybody can be great, because everybody
can serve.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


This article is an extract of a longer article by the same name. The full article can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking here. This article is used by kind permission of the author.



Churches across the country are talking about ways to expand their involvement in local community service. But they also know that it takes more than talk to become externally focused. “We aren't interested in keeping people busy with church stuff,” says Glen Brechner, adult ministry team leader of Fellowship Bible Church North in Richardson, TX ( ). Leaders want people to go beyond busy and beyond church walls into a meaningful, lifechanging, active faith described in James 2:17 “…faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
How do churches reach the goal of exercising a living faith in all their members? Many are orchestrating all-church, one-day service events. Through these bursts of activity, they are sparking a positive change that shifts their church culture from an internal to an external focus. They are seeing hundreds and even thousands of people put away the golf clubs and pick up a hammer, just like Jesus picked up a basin and towel (John 13:2-5).
According to Leadership Network's Eric Swanson, director of Externally Focused Churches Leadership Communities, “Organizing and programming a large service day or event creates great momentum and gives people an easy first-step opportunity toward loving and serving in their community.”
Why are large community service events a key agent for change? The answer is most likely found in what are commonly known as “tipping points.” W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne outline this theory in their article Tipping Point Leadership , “The theory of tipping points is well known; it hinges on the insight that in any organization, once the beliefs and energies of a critical mass of people are engaged, conversion to a new idea will spread like an epidemic, bringing about fundamental change very quickly.” Thus, planning a large service event can move people towards a new idea quickly and enthusiastically.
Kim and Mauborgne suggest that there are three critical components to tipping points that unleash a movement: (1) making unforgettable and unarguable calls for change, (2) concentrating resources on what really matters, and (3) mobilizing the commitment of the organization's key players.
Churches that have successful catalytic service events do all three actions and more. They make calls for service through directed, focused and memorable communication to the congregation. They invest resources of time, money, and people to the service event. They also engage the commitment of leaders—from small group volunteer leadership to church senior leadership staff.
Helping People Move to the Unfamiliar
While the goal of serving outside the walls of the church is to meet needs and be of value to others, service can also help the congregation move from their familiar and comfortable spaces to unfamiliar and challenging places of spiritual growth. Just as good nutrition alone cannot make a person healthy, good Bible teaching alone is insufficient for spiritual maturity.
“People need exercise for physical health and service for spiritual health. We learn from the Scriptures, but we grow by serving others,” says Eric Swanson. Coordinating a service event helps move people from an unsupportive attitude toward service to one supportive of change and expanding ministry. When people become supportive of things that they were once unfamiliar with, great creative synergy and blessing emerges and there is foundation for new, externally focused church cultures to begin.
Ideal Learning Environment
Why is critical mass so critical ? According to the USA Freedom Corps, research shows that one of the primary reasonsIdeal_learning_environment.jpg people give for not volunteering or serving their community is that they simply don't know where to start. When the service event is one of the primary messages your church communicates, more people will sign up because they are well informed and they clearly see the path to involvement. More often than not, a positive experience during first-time community service can lead to long-term engagement for both the individuals serving and church and community partnerships.
The following six catalytic service approaches have served as springboards to changing church culture and helped remove the guesswork for first-time servers. Seven examples of specific events and budgeting needs are presented, followed by the essential components necessary for success based on engaging a significant percentage of your church in service.

Six Catalytic Service Approaches

1. Strategic Service Alongside Local Businesses and Schools

dave_white.jpgPantano Christian Church
in Tucson, AZ ( ) develops two large-scale service events annually called Serve Tucson and Make a Difference Day .
Serve Tucson is a quick two hours of service on a Saturday morning. According to Dave White, pastor of “glocal” outreach and community empowerment, 600-700 people are involved in creating goodwill through their simple good deeds. Projects completed during this short burst of free services include:
  • Offering free car washes
  • Handing out bottled water at major intersections
  • Delivering Hershey's Kisses in bowls as a thank you to local businesses
  • Feeding quarters into washers and dryers at local Laundromats
  • Giving donuts to police and fire fighters
  • Handing out popsicles at parks and recreation events
  • Nursing home visits
  • Performing a targeted neighborhood clean up
“We work with businesses and neighborhood associations in targeted areas as well as with the police department,” says Dave. When Serve Tucson first got off the ground, it was mainly coordinated by staff, but Dave now has a volunteer leadership structure in place. “Events are organized by project with a project manager overseeing up to ten locations,” says Dave. “Each location is headed by a team captain who takes responsibility over that project location.”
The start-up budget for Serve Tucson was $2,500. “We rarely spend more than $1,200 now that we have plenty of safety vests and other reusable resources.” Donations are also key components to involving the church and community and saving on the budget. “We take donations of 10,000 water bottles, 200 pounds of Hershey's Kisses, and several businesses donate towels for the car washes.” Just as grace is a free gift, these simple gestures of kindness serve as illustrations of grace.
Make a Difference Day uses a slightly different tactic for Pantano Christian Church than Serve Day , with more manual labor, and a longer day. In 2005, Pantano saw about 400 people involved from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. on this day of service. Partnership with area schools is a critical component. Dave explains, “ Make a Difference Day is organized by the church with the participation of schools. Each school has a project manager who appoints team captains for each activity they will be doing on the campus.” Once again, the key is to give responsibility and authority to the team captains. Pantano budgets about $10,000 for Make a Difference Day annually.
In 2005, the church worked with local schools to accomplish the following:
  • Room painting
  • Landscaping
  • Minor remodeling of the teachers' lounge and principal's office
  • Room decorating with teachers
  • Parking lot re-striping
  • Safety painting and general clean up
  • Decorative rock spreading and sandbox building
  • Pouring a concrete sidewalk specifically for handicapped kids
“Both events have been optimized for our Life Groups to take primary ownership of projects. This helps them develop a mission in addition to their other activity,” says Dave.
Dave cites three main reasons they put so much effort into both Serve Tucson and Make a Difference Day annually, “First, they are powerful in developing an outwardly focused culture. Second, they bring a wonderful 'God flavor' to the community every time we do them. Third, they are a lot of fun !”
2. Empowering Small Groups for Service
Fellowship Bible Church North in Richardson, TX, ( ) operates as a church of many small groups. To integrate an external focus into church life, the church designed their service event, Love Collin County , totally through their strong small groups culture.
Glen Brechner says, “Each project had a point person and a number of small groups at that project.”   During the one-day service event in 2005, almost 800 people were involved in multiple projects around the county—that's 40% of the congregation. To coordinate this event, the church surfaced opportunities through current agency partnerships along with city partnerships. Some projects completed via small groups included:
  • Cleaning up a city park
  • Re-roofing a church which serves an underprivileged area
  • Providing land clean-up
  • Filing and volunteering at a local medical clinic
  • Painting and remodeling at a local Boys and Girls Club
  • Participating in a local museum renovation
  • Performing house repairs for elderly
  • Volunteering at Real Options, an abortion alternative clinic
  • Cleaning and organizing the Assistance Center of Collin County
  • Serving at the City House Shelter
Love Collin County is a joint effort that begins with the pastor of outreach and his community outreach volunteer team. The small groups ministry then helps get the word out and engages a “Reach” person in each small group. The annual budget for this event is roughly $10,000 for various supplies and the money is well spent.
“This one day of service is an opportunity to build momentum for bridge-building and launching our small groups into community service. It is also an opportunity to let more people in the church get a taste of community service,” says Glen.
3. Serving Continually Throughout the Year
theresa_wisda.jpgCentennial Community Church in Littleton, CO ( ) chooses various service opportunities throughout the year as a catalyst for their external focus. “We have monthly vision assignments that encourage service outside the walls and begin to reshape our culture,” says Theresa Wisda, mobilization pastor. Assignments change from month to month to give variety and different levels of commitment.
Involvement in the monthly vision assignments fluctuates each month. “Our smallest turnout has been 30
individuals and our largest participation was 90 families!” says Theresa. Both staff and volunteers coordinate projects through local schools, nonprofit ministry partnerships and the neighborhoods in the community. The following is a sampling of vision assignments:
  • Community Fun Day – free party in alocal park for surroundingneighborhoods. Church families attended only to serve or work.
  • Serving Our Schools – a three-hour workday to help three local schools with painting, weeding, and raking. Kids were able to help with the outside work.
  • Inner City Work Day – home renovation work with a local organization called Open Door Ministries.
  • $100 Multiplication Challenge – 25 people were given $100 and asked to multiply the money and give it away to bless the community. Some involved direct serving, some just passed on cash and/or goods donations. “Some people shared with me that they are going to continue being involved in the ministry they made the donations to!” notes Theresa.
Centennial has kept the cost of their vision assignments to a minimum. “Both Community Fun Day and the $100 Multiplication Challenge cost about $2,500 each,” she says. But Theresa also notes that the original $2,500 invested in the $100 Multiplication Challenge has been multiplied to over $25,000 with results still coming in at the time of this publication. Theresa believes that the assignments pay off not only in the short term for completing projects, but for the church culture.
“We are trying to really create an ethos of serving. Vision assignments are a catalyst to people taking initial steps to serving, making community connections and sparking an interest for serving over the long haul.”
4. 40 Days of Service
Parkcrest Christian Church in Long Beach, CA ( ) finds best success through a 40-days model, similar to 40 Days of Purpose launched by Saddleback Church following the release of The Purpose Driven Life . For their external focus to get a jumpstart, Parkcrest staff wrote curriculum for small groups on the topic of serving that were supported through the weekend message series. Each staff member, including custodians and receptionists, wrote a daily devotional that was also provided. At the conclusion of the series and the study, numerous service projects were promoted with a challenge to sign up. They estimate that 65-70% of the total congregation was involved in serving during this event.
Cathy Taylor, volunteer ministries pastor, came up with the project list, which included:
  • Serving meals through a partnershipwith an agency
  • Offering a picnic in the park with local nonprofits
  • Playing games at a convalescent home
  • Creating special “bags of love” for people standing in line at the local soup kitchen
“We find it easier to get people to sign up for outreach service than our internal opportunities like greeters and ushers,” notes Cathy. One unexpected benefit was the interpersonal relationships that developed among church members. “We had some women's ministry groups serving with women from the church who volunteered with the local substance abuse shelter. These two groups of women came from very different places in life— economically and socially. By serving together, they began to build bridges. They have gained an acceptance and understanding of one another.”
5. Churches Partnering with Other Churches for Big Impact
eric_marsh.jpg“Partnering with other churches is an effective way to maximize your efforts,” says Eric Swanson. That is exactly the model Grace Brethren Church , in Long Beach, CA ( ) used to implement their external focus. Realizing that mobilizing the church to serve the city was essential to the church's vision to make disciples of Christ, Pastor Eric Marsh was redeployed to give clarity and action to the externally focused vision by starting Hope for Long Beach ( ). Hope for Long Beach is dedicated to serving the city with community partners as well as church partners. “Each year Hope for Long Beach coordinates four large events to serve our city. These are church-wide and/or community-wide opportunities for service to the community.
  • Inside-Out – designed for Grace Brethren church only, serving their tightly connected community partnerships. Approximately 300 people from Grace participate.
  • Serve Day – where they serve together with other L.A. and Orange County churches. Approximately 5,000 individuals participate through 30 churches.
  • Carnival – an alternative Halloween event designed for families in the community
  • A Time to Serve – various serving opportunities in December
“These events, while serving the community,are also a catalyst to church members becoming involved in serving on a regular basis,” says Eric.
Serve Day , begun by RockHarbor Church in Costa Mesa, CA ( ), is an annual event empowering local churches to get involved in community service that clearly demonstrates the power of God's love through acts of empowered kindness and meeting real needs. Growing every year, churches from Orange and Los Angeles Counties join together to plan and implement over 250 service projects that transpire at organizations, businesses, and other locations in practical and tangible ways. How does a multi-church service event get coordinated?
The organizational structure for pulling together 5,000 people in one day is impressive. Each church involved recruits liaisons to work with and be trained by the Serve Day oversight team, which is staffed by leaders from six local churches. The liaisons from each church also engage a project leader for each project developed. The oversight team provides the participating churches with the following items:
  • Clearly defined job descriptions for the roles needed from each church
  • Quality training manuals—which were mainly written at RockHarbor
  • Hosting and planning of training events and rallies for liaisons and leaders
  • Staff support and advice
  • A project development timeline
  • Communication tools (including logo,promotional timeline, website and DVD's)
  • Hosting of for easy registration and project management
For Grace Brethren's part of the endeavor, they develop projects with nonprofit partners. “Last year, all our projects were with organizations that we work with throughout the year. Rather than doing 'one-hit' type of projects (which can also be good) we want to continue to work with organizations that we can serve with in the future. These are the organizations that are leading the compassion efforts in our city. We learn from them. It also gives our members an easy opportunity to learn about the organizations we work with and the many opportunities to get involved,” says Eric Marsh.
Some examples of projects completed include:
  • Carnival for 150 inner city kids
  • Rehabbing a home in Long Beach with Rebuilding Together Long Beach (
  • Revamping a thrift store which funds a shelter for homeless pregnant women
  • Making and delivering bouquets to a multiple sclerosis convalescent home
  • Ultimate Logo Makeover where 25 of our most creative volunteers compete to design a new logo for a local nonprofit
Developing strategic partnerships with local nonprofit organizations is a key value for Hope for Long Beach. How does the church determine what agencies they have partnerships with? “Pretty simple; they are organizations that people from our church volunteer at on a regular basis, and organizations that share our values, whose vision we hope to see spread in the city,” says Eric.
Budgeting for this multi-church project takes on an innovative approach with each participating church paying for the amount of participants they project on a sliding scale. The cost break down is as follows:
0-500 participants at $5 each
501-1,000 participants at $4 each
1,001 & up participants at $3 each
Additional expenses are picked up by the teams at individual churches.
According to the Serve Day training manual, the budget for this event is shared. “In previous years, one or two churches have funded  Serve Day , and we believe it is only fair to ask each church partner to fund the event based on their expected number of participants.” The money collected per person goes to cover the costs associated with administrating and promoting Serve Day . The Serve Day 2005 overall budget was broken down and shows that 70% went to sign-up brochures, 10% for website, 7% for rally, 5% for appreciation, 5% for training meetings, and 3% for media kits and public relations materials.
With a complex structure, budget and intricate communication between the partnering churches, what makes Serve Day worth the work? Eric Marsh passionately believes, “that as the body of Christ we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the world. The mission of our church is that we exist to represent and extend the reign of God by making disciples in our city, and through our city—the world. Hope for Long Beach and the Serve Day project exist to extend this vision in very tangible ways. The reason I put so much time and effort into it is because it is the calling of all Christians to be on mission in their communities through word and deed.”
6. The Spontaneous Service Event
While there is great power in the planned service event, Blackhawk Church , Madison, WI ) has learned to also take advantage of spontaneous community service opportunities.
“Every year since the 1960s, Mifflin Street in Madison has been host to a huge college beer fest on one block,” says Matt Metzger, young adults minister at Blackhawk. The day before the Friday night block party, a simple conversation led to a spontaneous response to the Mifflin Street clean up problem. Through multiple emails going out to the young adults at Blackhawk Church, Matt's team mobilized a cleaning crew for the Saturday morning following the party. “I thought 15 people would show up. Almost 70 people arrived at 6 a.m. to clean up before the partiers even got up.”
The entire block was cleaned up within two hours, and several interesting street conversations took place. “Over and over again, people were asking who we were and why we were doing this,” says Matt. From men who make their living from recycling to the groggy partygoers, there was a strange sense of amazement to their service. “Hung-over students started to emerge as we were cleaning up. Out of guilt, they began to clean up with us. When we told them they could go back to bed—that we were taking care of it— they had no box to put this into. They were amazed,” laughs Matt.
When the local news crew showed up at 9:30 a.m. to do their annual filming of the Mifflin Street carnage, they found nothing left to film. “By 10:00 a.m. every major news agency was at Blackhawk Church looking for the clean-up story,” says Matt. According to Rich Henderson, the Mifflin Street party has been a catalyst for more community engagement. “We had tried working with a couple of community groups in the past but had very little success. After Mifflin Street, one community agency director said, 'I think something like this clean up can open up conversation for partnership.'”
Though the group of young adults was looking to be stealthy with their clean-up, everyone in the community heard about it. “I began to immediately receive emails that our project changed people's perspectives and broke down some negative Christian stereotypes,” says Matt. The young adults continue to look for service opportunities, both planned and unplanned.