The Barrier of Community: The Breakthrough of Connection
Pastor Dave sat at the deacon meeting listening to the latest report from the food pantry coordinator, but his mind was somewhere else – he was daydreaming of what their church was like five years ago.
Five years ago their church was busting at the seams. Momentum was on their side. Young families were joining the church at record speed, and mature adults were reaching out to the community in strategic ways. In fact, Dave gave a report to the congregation at one meeting that said that of the 200 people who joined the church in the previous two years, they represented different age-brackets equally! People of all ages were coming in the church and making commitments to Christ and to membership. Their church was truly intergenerational, and everyone loved it.
The mission team did a study of their local community of 600,000 and found out some strategic needs that county social services knew about but were not yet funded to impact. New need-based ministries were started up and thrived. Young families learned the importance of a Christ-centered marriage and family, and children were taught the gospel from an early age. The church was buzzing with activity and you could feel the energy on a Sunday morning when you walked around.
Unfortunately, Pastor Dave snapped out of his daydream and sat around wondering what had gone wrong. In actuality, nothing had “gone wrong” and the church was still poised for impact – but they were poised to impact a different community – for theirs had changed under their noses!
Both Air Force bases within 35 miles had closed in the last five years, and only a small percentage of the workforce remained behind as the bases transitioned to civilian industries. Furthermore, four years ago a brand new retirement-village community was built 45 miles south of their church. Positioned on 3 golf courses, this housing behemoth (with houses, apartments, partial care and total-care facilities) was becoming famous in the tri-county area and was attracting a huge number of mature adults from the surrounding communities. Many young families liked the school district there, and moved as well. Six months previously that community even incorporated and became its own municipality.
All in all, Dave could list out 176 people who had left his church because of the base closures and the people moving south to join this brand new sprawling community. And that didn’t count the stream of people lost who would have been potential members from the Air Force. However, people had not stopped visiting their church, and their steady stream of visitors was still in place. It was the visitors themselves that were different!
The city was not dwindling by any means. Even though some industries were moving out, there were several new large companies relocating there. The population had actually gown substantially in the last year, and the church could have a dramatic impact –if they understood their “new” community where they were located. How would the church thrive and grow in the next five years? What should they do?
Some members and even leaders of churches do not have clue number one about the communities in which they live, work, and serve. Sometimes this is due to a “Christian Bubble” they live in, seldom interacting with the unchurched around them. But other times this cluelessness is simply a lack of homework: to know your community, you must study it. Who lives near your church?
For example, imagine that your ministry is located in a community where the annual household income (an easily obtained figure) is $80,000 and one in six households has an income that exceeds $140,000. How would your outreach focus be different than a church that is located in the heart of a college community with thousands of people who are single? The heart of the gospel would never change, but he way that you advertise, the way you perform music and the style of speaking would all be vastly different.
Growing churches break through growth barriers because they are effective students of their community culture. If the local McDonald's owner knows more about your community than you do as a pastor, then your church is in trouble. Breaking through growth barriers means you understand how to reach your community. Robert Schuller said it best when he proclaimed that churches must “find a need and fill it, find a hurt and heal it". Barrier busting ministry always finds a way to connect with the community and meet needs in the name of Christ.
Churches are confronting various evils and negative patterns in the lives of those they touch. Consider this truth:
“Effective churches have specific ministries designed to help people break down the walls of confrontation, isolation, stagnation, and fragmentation. These ministries make the people accountable to one another and urge the people to continue to move forward in their growth” (Finding Them, Keeping Them, p.132).
In order to break down these walls, churches must be relevant. And before a church becomes relevant it must know what to be relevant to! Consider the example of one church.
A friend of mine pastors a church in a changing area. Previously, the workforce would commute for up to an hour away. This meant coming home late at night and made midweek activities very difficult. Now, the workforce has shifted (due to business relocations) to being able to work in their own communities. While they are now closer to home and church, the tone of their own community has changed into a more fast paced and heterogeneous population. What was previously simple to understand about their little town being a “get-away” from the fast paced city life has now come home to their own neighborhood.
Changes in the workforce have produced dramatic changes in the community. People who were once wrapped up in their commute time now live in the midst of their workplaces. The nature of what their community means to them has changed. Family activities have shifted and school security concerns have heightened. A sleepy little town is now a bustling city. My friend’s church now offers a menu of parent and family activities centered around neighborhoods and providing learning and connecting opportunities for strangers to become friends in safe places. All the while, the ministry of 95% of the churches has not changed in two decades. The implications for ministry of social change are HUGE, but tragically few churches recognize the need or opportunity when it presents itself.
Jesus, the master-teacher, laced his teaching with metaphors and illustrations, which the crowds would understand. It’s a basic tenet of Christianity, but one that is so often overlooked. Because the gospel and so many central truths will never change, churches tend to do the same things the same way as well. And suddenly, after forty years of the same thing, they realize that their community has changed completely from what it was! When you keep the church the same and change the community, the church almost always declines. And a declining church is giving up ground in the war for people’s souls.
Growing churches are effective students of their community culture. They identify their sphere of local outreach, recognize concerns and meet needs in Jesus’ name.
Community changes bring about changes in ministry strategies. The message is constant, but the media and focus are constantly updated.
Understand your community:
1. Schedule a day off where you run errands throughout the 30 mile radius from your church. Who lives there? Where do they shop? What do they look like? What are they talking about? What do they enjoy doing? Bring your family or friends along and talk about it with them.
2. Study your community’s Census data and research from the Chamber of Commerce. Who is moving into your area, and why?
3. Which community events achieve the most success? What types of events are they? How are they advertised? Attend a few community events and meet people who are there.
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