“If your church closed its doors today,” pondered the speaker during a church planting/revitalizing conference, “would anyone outside of your members really notice?”
If we take a moment to be honest with ourselves — really honest with ourselves — the answer for many of our churches just might be “no.”
Many of our churches are in survival mode, barely hanging on. And when we are in such a season, our gaze and focus always turns inward. We make decisions that’ll keep us afloat for the next few months or seasons.
We look at ways to keep our members content. We spend all time ensuring that we stay existing.
When we’re that inwardly focus, we start losing touch with our community, with our neighbors, and, really, with reality. We become so focused on keeping the past alive that we’re oblivious to the present and woefully out of touch with what the near future may bring. Then we start asking, “Why isn’t anyone coming to our church?” as if filling the building with warm bodies is the sole purpose of our existence. When we’re thinking about survival and inwardly focused, we stop making connections with the community we are part of. Instead of making connections, we make assumptions.
We’ll sit in our committee meetings and wonder what’s the best way to reach “those” people without ever having a conversation with anyone who’s not a member of our church.
A church planter once told me that ministry is a “contact sport.” Ministry, especially church planting, is all about making contact with others; making connections with anyone and everyone; it’s about getting to know people and the community.
This can’t be done by a pastor alone.
How do we meet the community?
It’s funny, some churches will ask for a young clergy person to be sent to their church so that young clergy can start making connections with other young people in the community. Yet, that same church will want that young clergy to keep office hours all the time.
And still yet, that same church will expect the pastor to be the representative of their church in the community.
Office hours is an antiquated pastoral model (obviously, my opinion).
99% of people who come visit the pastor in the pastor’s study are church members (Fine, I made up the statistic but it sounds true). It’s also a form of control (and lack of trust) to ensure that the pastor is actually “working.”
Get your pastor to be immersed in the community. Encourage them to work at the public library; at the local coffee shops (or, dare I say, bars). If you have the resources, sign your pastor up for membership in the Chamber of Commerce or other local clubs.
Even better, you take the initiative and invite the pastor to come with you, with the understanding they might decline because they have other community members to connect with. Your pastor may be the local residential theologian, but your pastor does not have to be the sole representative of your church.
Willie Jennings, in his Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, asked, “Where is the Holy Spirit leading us? And into whose lives?” That question has haunted me since I came across it. It reveals how the Spirit moves us (... me) towards connecting with others and how it always goes against my desires to be... insulated. Jennings’s question also implies activeness; the spirit moving us to connect with people.
One of the reasons we lose connection with our community is because we forget the “Go, therefore” command and adopt the more comfortable “wait and see.” We put the onus on our community to come reach out to us. We want them to participate in the things that we are already doing. We want them to join in the conversations we are having. We want them to come on the journey that we are on.
But to really be part of the community; to really help transform the community, we need to participate in the things they are already doing. We need to join the conversations they are having. We need to find ways to be part of their journeys. And truthfully, that will never happen when we take the wait-and-see-what-the-community-needs approach.
How do we transform our communities?
Community transformation will not happen if we just assume what the community may need. That leads us to treat our community as a project and gives us a false sense of a savior-complex.
Real transformation comes through relationships. Relationships come through connections. Connections come through us being immersed in our community. It all comes from us embodying Jesus Christ and becoming an incarnational presence in the community that we serve.
Joseph Yoo is a West Coaster at heart contently living in Houston, Texas with his wife and son. He serves at Mosaic Church in Houston. Find more of his writing at josephyoo.com.