For a long time, the congregation had been praying for new people to come into their church. They laid the groundwork by becoming a Kids Hope church 8 years ago, where they learned about tutoring children in the local elementary school through prayer, support, training and resources. They also decided several years ago to finally change the original 1976 carpet in the sanctuary and declare to the community that they were, indeed, living in the 21st century! The congregation was now feeling better about itself and was prepared for growth.
For years, children in the community had been playing on The Ark, the church playground. The children were noticed and appreciated, but no one thought to invite them to church. At the same time, some church members grumbled when neighborhood kids played on church property because sometimes they messed up the yard and moved things from their proper places.
One day this past summer, a few people from the church finally “saw” 2 boys playing on The Ark and invited them to Vacation Bible School: and they came! The boys (5th and 8th grade) liked VBS so much that they asked if they could come to church: and they came! But guess what? They couldn’t sit still because they thought church would be like VBS, with lots of fun activities.
The church folks were thrilled and began to ask, “How do we need to adjust our worship to minister to these boys?” There had always been a children’s time during worship, but now they planned “junior church” for the rest of the service, where the kids went to the fellowship hall for a take-away object lesson. But guess what? The kids were hungry! Now church members prepare a bag lunch every Sunday for anyone who needs or wants lunch.
Two weeks after the boys’ first worship visit, the church had a potluck. When the 2 boys brought brownies, the hearts of the church members melted. They realized how hungry these boys were to learn about the love of Jesus and just how hungry church members were to reach out to kids in the community.
Last winter someone emailed the pastor about starting an after school program for kids in this rather poor community, and the pastor thought no one would come. Guess what? Today the church has an active after school program with supper on Tuesday for the 2 boys, children from Kids Hope, and other youth in the community. The church even completely paid for several of the kids to go to camp this summer. And guess what? These kids are now bringing their parents to church.
“We have no money,” people used to complain. Guess what? Now the church pays 100% of its ministry shares, has no trouble finding volunteers for the kids program, has run out of Sunday school space, and is thinking about building.
Marne UMC, under the leadership of pastor Pat Brook, has come to life. All it took was a congregation spiritually preparing itself to grow and someone walking outside the church to notice 2 boys playing on The Ark and invite them in.
How do we engage people in our communities? For several decades, we’ve been told that the primary entry point for people is worship. We open the doors of the church so that people can find us on Sunday morning. This might be called the attractional model of church growth. Worship becomes the driver of church growth and has to be excellent in order to retain visitors. We attract people by the bells and whistles of worship and then create effective programs of follow-up through spiritual growth, education and small groups. The danger of this model is that worship can easily become “me-centered” rather than “God-centered,” resulting in attenders who are interested in entertainment rather than discipleship.
There’s another way in which we engage people, however, and that is the missional model. We open the doors of the church not only so that people can come in but so that we can move out in outreach and service. The doors swing both ways. In this model, our primary contact point with the community is by meeting people where they are, not expecting them to come to us.
Unchurched people connect with the church as a result of the care and of congregation members, who minister to their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. This can be done in a myriad of ways, from working in soup kitchens, to servant evangelism, to tutoring in a local school or offering an after school program, to an immigration ministry, to simply hanging out in the local coffee shop. By engaging the surrounding culture, the church offers compassion and a sense of belonging, which eventually leads people to choose to become a part of this community of grace and hope. The danger of the missional model is that once people choose to come to church as a result of our outreach, we will not have effective programs of education and spiritual growth to nurture their faith.
I believe that the attractional model and the missional model of evangelism are both important and necessary components of a church’s strategy for wholistic growth. Engaging people through vital and creative worship can be a powerful way to recognize and respond to their deep hunger for God. Engaging people through outreach that ministers to the hopes and dreams of people where they are also has a profound effect on their deep longing to be whole persons. The difference is that the missional model takes the initiative to reach out and does not wait until unchurched people take the first step.
Of course, there are implications for adopting a missional model as well as an attractional model as entry points for new people.
- Will the next staff member you hire be working in outreach or worship?
- How much of the pastor’s time will be spent out in the community as opposed to in the study?
- Is there a balance between money budgeted for external ministries and internal ministries?
- Do the strategic goals of the church reflect the importance of mission as well as worship?
- How are you training and equipping members to reach out into the community?
Worship and mission are not ends in themselves. They simply point toward God’s grace and the desire for all people in our world to experience the fullness of God’s shalom. Where are the 2 boys in your community who are just waiting for you to meet them on the playground and invite them to be a part of your faith community?
P.S. Has your congregation registered for the Dan Dick workshop yet?