“We try to be missional. We try to be externally focused,” the young pastor told me. “But nothing seems to work.”

This church, in a metropolitan area, has invested in numerous efforts to reach into the community and address various needs. But nothing has resulted in really connecting those who are served with the church or its members.

The pastor described a recent dinner the members provided for low-income people in the neighborhood. “We filled the hall with hungry people,” he said. “And our members turned out to cook the dinner. It was very nice. But I noticed that while the people from the community ate, all of our people huddled in the kitchen. It was a like a total separation of the haves and the have-nots.”

For many churches, the local missions budget line funds one-shot meals and other seasonal handouts. It seems every local parade or community event sees churches handing out chotskies–fly swatters, hand fans, novelty currency, bottled water, microwave popcorn, etc.–bearing a sticker with the church name.

All of this may be an attempt at church branding. But it rarely produces any lasting effect for the cause of Christ. Some call it drive-by outreach.

What’s missing? Relationship.

If the mission of the church has something to do with helping people come to know, love and follow Jesus, that rarely happens outside of relationship. In fact, our faith in Christ is a relationship. It is not a brand. It is not a drive-by.

Faith is a relationship. And our efforts to help people grow in faith and to feel God’s love are best pursued in the context of relationship.

Rather than spending time and money on one-shot encounters, other churches are mobilizing their people into ongoing relationship-rich ministries with significant impact. For example, hundreds of churches work with Kids Hope USA. It facilitates one-on-one mentoring relationships between adult church members and at-risk elementary school children in their communities who need loving, caring adults in their lives.

Kids Hope pairs one church with one school. Church members receive training and spend one hour with one child each week–befriending, mentoring and tutoring.

Another national program, Buddy Break, equips churches to provide a recurring time of respite for caregivers. Kids with special needs spend a few hours with trained church members while caregivers get a break.

Jay Crouch devotes his time to Buddy Break once a month at his church, First Presbyterian, in Eustis, Florida. Last month he greeted the thankful but exhausted mother of a severely disabled child. He asked her what she does with her three-hour Buddy Break. She told Jay she goes to her car, turns on the air conditioner, and sleeps. “It’s the only real rest I get,” she said.

Churches that effectively reach into their communities empower their people to glow the love of Jesus–through authentic relationships with members of the community. That kind of love is downright contagious.