Perhaps the most common question I get in church revitalization goes something like this inquiry: “What do I do to get people in the community to come to our church when our members don’t live in or near the community?”
My response is usually not well received. Simply stated, you can’t expect the community to come to your church if your members don’t live in the community. The most common reason someone attends and eventually connects with a church is relationships. Those relationships are unlikely to develop when church members and community members live in two different places.
Further, community members will often feel like you don’t care about them if members live elsewhere. It’s really an untenable situation.
Is it an impossible situation? To call any situation impossible is to deny the power of God. But it is a very difficult situation, one that rarely ends well. A few radical decisions have to be made:
- Someone must become a missional presence in the community. You can’t be on the mission field in absentia. You must live there. If the church does not have one or more families living in the community, it does not qualify to be a gospel presence there. In fact, the church should have several families willing to live in the community.
- The church must begin to look like the community. If the community is 90 percent non-white and all the church members are white, the church obviously does not reflect the community. Until the demographics of the community and the church are more similar than not, the church in the example will look more like a white country club than a gospel-centered congregation.
- The church must yield its leadership to members of the community. A church cannot merely say members of the community are welcome to join us. The church must say we desire to follow you. The congregation must seek to move community members to places of leadership as soon as possible.
- The church should be willing to contextualize its ministry for the community. Among other contextual issues, this change may very well mean changes in the worship style.
- The members of the church should be intentional about praying for the community. If a church is to make a difference in the community, it must love the members of the community. If the church is serious about loving the community, it must be praying for the residents of the community regularly.
Churches that do not reflect the community are called ex-neighborhood churches. The nomenclature is telling. The church is really not in the neighborhood; only the building is.
There are no silver bullet solutions. The church is confronted with the decision to change or die. And the change the church must be willing to make is both sacrificial and radical.
Posted on August 12, 2019
With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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This is the ex-neighborhood church described by Lyle Schaller during the 1970’s (in his book “Hey, That’s Our Church”). The pattern appears evident across the nation (many examples online and in real life; e.g., cf. here: http://www.sbclife.net/article/2070/multiethnic-revitalization-at-rehoboth-baptist-church). Congregations seeming able to exist longer as ex-neighborhood churches are “First ones”–First Baptist, First Methodist, First Whatever–which got their starts at the center of the community when it was established historically but away from whose neighborhood members moved as opportunities to do so became available with the passing of time. Members drive back to the buildings each weekend–until they don’t; hard times may fall upon the congregation unless it has continued to reach the neighborhood with its changing demographics. Managed well under the Lord’s leadership, the situation can be a very good thing for different groups of people; not managed well, the situation can become something people don’t like to remember or talk about.
A few years ago my husband was interviewing as a prospective pastor for a church. When we went to meet with the search committee, the chairman specifically told us that we would not want to live in the neighborhood surrounding the church, nor should we send our children to the school that was right across the street. (None of the members lived in that neighborhood anymore.) Then he proceeded to talk about all the outreach ministries they had to that same school. You know, the one none of them would be caught dead sending their kids to? Needless to say, we did not accept a call to that church.
We live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which, like so many metropolitan areas in the country, has extremely expensive housing, which requires two incomes, even to rent, much less to buy. 50% of our members live in the town, or adjacent to it. The rest live as far as 30 miles away – common for churches in this area. People live in one town, work in another, and worship in a third. This makes evangelism, fellowship, and getting people to church more than Sunday morning challenging. Most people attend a church because of what that church believes (theology) and its atmosphere (conservative or otherwise). We must develop constantly new and responsive methods to “do church”.
It’s really interesting our church is over a hundred years old and in a small town of 300 and the church size is over 300. We have members from 11 minutes away to 30 minutes away in various towns. We also have 9 different school districts represented in our congregation. This is my second church in a rural mid-western context. It honestly seems like there are very few healthy and bible preaching churches in the rural mid-west. In my old town of 5,000 we had 14 churches and only 4 were bible preaching and we were the only healthy one upon my arrival. That changed once I left the others were getting stronger which we cheered on. Anyway what I’m seeing in the mid-west is a lack of good neighborhood churches in small towns. The options are drive to a big town with a different culture or drive to another small town with a healthy church of the same culture. I see rural regional churches becoming a thing in the fly over states. It allows resources to be pooled together to be more effective. So instead of 6 neighborhood churches having 0 youth programs because of church size and resources. They come to a church like ours resources get pooled together and now these kids have a youth pastor to lead them. Just curious if anyone else is seeing this in rural areas.
Well. For some reason our church building has been standing on the same ground for over 100 years, and the immediate neighborhood is always in flux. It once was the downtown, the place where most white people would live, in a big house, if they could afford it. Currently it is mostly:
2. Drug addicted
And sometimes, both. It is not going to be a place where an elderly white person would prefer to live, anymore. It is extremely dangerous living there.
However the neighbors do attend. Not in droves, but they know they are welcome and they do attend. We’ve had to adapt, such as changing our locks, fixing the back door so no one can deal drugs out the back door, making rules about who can and cannot serve in the nursery, and acquiring help from the local police on how better to arm our members and be prepared with more medical equipment than a mere first aid kit, in case of an attack. (We do have medical professionals among our members.)
Our members do work within the community, though, and regularly witness while on the job, creating probably the main door through which the visitors and new members enter. As pastor and wife, we live only a few blocks from the neighborhood, and are ministering at the local jail, which houses our neighbors when they cannot be found elsewhere. The local jail is in revival (140 baptisms this year) and those who complete the jail program usually end up living within our church’s neighborhood. So far, we’ve had two share their testimonies of salvation with our congregation, and very well-received. One prominent “out-mate” (as we affectionately call them) will be free from his half-way work situation at the end of the year, and plans to begin co-pastoring, preaching a nighttime service and, himself, personally knowing most of our neighbors, will begin sharing what God has given to him, with anyone who will listen. We shall see if God preserves his bodily life.
Do pray for us!
So thankful for what God is doing through you and the church, Katharine.
Wow! You are so ON it is true! Just leaving a church family after 6 years attempting Revitalization.
3 families out of 200
lived within a mile of church, 1 out of 7 staff lived in community!!!
Pray they will accept reality! Thanks Thom
Many churches are “destination churches”. What you are describing is a neighborhood church. A church should have members in the immediate community but the draw to attend church is not just geographical. Sometimes its theology and program and worship style. This is were small group ministry works to establish bridgeheads throughout the broader area.
You’re right about destination churches. However, destination churches are often synonymous with consumer driven churches, kind of like Walmart vs a mom-and-pop neighborhood grocery store. The neighborhood market is based on relationships while Walmart is all about get in, take what you want, leave the rest, and get out, and that’s how many large churches are. But, keeping with the analogy, if you don’t do everything the way mom and pop want it in a neighborhood church there’s going to be trouble. Either way the church is so far from true discipleship that connecting with the community is almost a moot point.
“If the community is 90 percent non-white and all the church members are white, the church obviously does not reflect the community. Until the demographics of the community and the church are more similar than not, the church in the example will look more like a white country club than a gospel-centered congregation.”
Do you get rid of the whites? Do you target non-whites (sort of a religious version of the government affirmative action program)?
Maybe the right thing to do is to continue being a Bible centered church reaching out to whoever (white or nonwhite) will listen and respond.
The answer isn’t get rid of or target others (per se). An example: an Episcopal church was built in a neighborhood that was in the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. Over the years the suburbs moved farther out and the predominately white congregation moved residences to the new suburbs but still attended in their old neighborhood. Fast forward, the demographics of the community where the church is is dominated by Hispanic, Caribbean, or Vietnamese and the worship style has to change to be relevant to the makeup of the community.
Doing things “the same way they’ve always been done” will, more or less, cement the death of the church in its present form. Adaptation to practice and fidelity to message are what’s important.
Fidelity to message is what usually suffers as practices are adapted.
Fidelity to message is what usually suffers as practices are adapted.
Exactly my thoughts.
After retirement, my wife and I attended a “church club.” Of course, we did not “fit in” the club. Nobody who thinks and doesn’t want to “play church” fits in.
It is one of those “churches” where only 1 or 2 people who attend actually live in the community.
The rest are people who were angry with the sponsoring church or followed the preacher there who, by the way, has been there over 20 years. The church has gone from about 100 in attendance to about 25.
All the people in the “club” drive in from distant neighborhoods.
The surrounding community is primarily occupied by African Americans. None attend the church. It is all “white.”
The sense of community has changed. There is geographical community—the neighborhood. Even geographical neighborhoods are not defined solely by zip code. Our children are often bused to schools in distant neighborhoods. They make friends far and wide. Adults have a sense of community in their neighborhoods and where they work, which could be an hour away. Often the people who have nurtured their spiritual lives and are still important to them are in the neighborhoods they left behind. Also, the internet stretches the sense of community. It is imperative to connect with neighborhood and to invest in whatever will make that happen. The problem many congregations face is that the only tools and strategies for making this happen after decades of complacent neglect depend on a church structure that is out-dated and ineffective.
Our church is in a rural, non-incorporated area. We have made connection through the school system which has about 1200 students pK-12. The school is the biggest business in “town.” Approximately one-half of our membership (400) has some direct tie to the school. God has blessed with this situation.
What do you have in mind when you refer to the “community”? Do you mean the geographical area around the church building?
The geographical area around the church building sometimes has no community at all because people don’t talk to their neighbours, but have relationships based on networks rather than geography. At other times there will be many communities rather than just one community.
Sometimes churches fail in their mission to reach the “community” doesn’t actually exist.
We just resigned from a church in just this very situation. None of the leadership and few of the regular attenders live in the community. It is a small, working-class, very low-income area. There are people living in the community who are potential leaders but they attend church elsewhere! We had a big back-to-school outreach at the city park, but most of the people we engaged were visiting from outside the area! We ministered in that area 5 1/2 years. Sigh!!
My prayers for this next phase of ministry for you, James.