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.
More from Thom
What if the pastors won’t even live in the community?
My family and I were members of a church 32 miles away due to denominational allegiance. Once our kids all moved on in their lives, and church laity power shifted, changes ensued. We were no longer embraced but tolerated by the new underground ultra conservatives. I was even falsly accused of bringing in a known predatory man to the congregation. (Another person actually brought this person in.) We are still welcomed ny some, but barely tolerated by the quiet power core. Sad but the way it is. Not being there for every event as we once did allowed us to become the ‘other’. Community definitions are quite fluid.
I believe that then this situation occurs, it is primarily because church leaders do not understand, recognize, or choose to be obedient to God’s call to our Jerusalem – our immediate community. Decades ago I was an Elder in such a church and I now look back with regret that I then did not recognize that situation for what it really was.
The matter is one congregations must become effective at addressing, as the demographics of neighborhoods will change over time. Addressing those situations can be a normal part of the prayerful strategic planning of local churches; the result can be two or more very effective ministry sites, rather than only one.
I agree with this statement for the most part. I spent the last six years trying to revitalize a church that did not accurately reflect its closest community. The nearest community was about quarter of a mile away. It seemed like miles away. It was mostly lower income/blue collar/factory workers. Our members were mostly upperward, mobile, middle class. Most of our members came from other neighborhoods. We tried several outreach events, movie nights, trunk-or-treats, community dinners, etc. However, there still was a disconnect. We couldn’t get them to harken the church doors on Sunday morning. It was very frustrating. I still posed this question to the church almost every week, “If we closed our doors, would the community noticed our church was gone?” I am still pondering that question.
I am very appreciative that the real church Jesus established is universal and not tied to a community or street address. So regardless rural, suburb, or downtown, I remember an old country gospel hymn that said ” Take the Lord with you wherever you go” Lastly Jesus was always found among those whom he was trying to save from the clutches of Satin. So take the church (YOU) among those you are trying to win for the kingdom. Lets call it Church on Wheels….(SMILE)
Our church building, 100 years old, is situated downtown. 95% of our members have always come from neigbouring suburbs, some travelling 20 minutes to come to worship. Our immediate neigbourhood are mainly immigrants from other countries, many of whom do not speak English.
Our problem is that our congregation is aging, the youngest of whom is now in their 60’s. As a result, these pensioners do not have the resources to keep the church going. At the moment we are living on reserves. Within 3 years these reserves will have dried up and the church will close. Any suggestions?