Is Your Ministry Too Isolated? How Churches Create Barriers for Their Community
Just recently, we were talking with one of our ministry partners about some common themes we see in the churches we have the opportunity to work with. We shared a lot of different things back and forth: A lack of a clear mission and vision, struggles with communications, generational divides, leading change, leadership, and the list went on.
But when we broke it down, every issue on the list we made really all came down to one issue: An insider-focus. Or what I'm referring to today as isolation.
Plain and simple, we see it all the time.
We see churches who either intentionally or unintentionally create barriers for their community in how they're structured and how they "do" church. More commonly, it's unintentional as leadership teams and congregations naturally drift their focus inward as time goes on.
But there's no excuse to let our ministries stay that way. Difficult people. Tradition. Size. Poor leadership structure. None of these things are valid reasons to let our ministries remain isolated from our community.
So today, I want to dig deeper into what we see in a lot of churches. I want to talk about how churches become isolated from their community. And I also want to unpack what I mean when I talk about the barriers we create in our ministries that result from an insider focus.
Let's jump in:
1) A lot of churches resent changes in their community rather than leverage them.
Just recently, a church reached out to our team and they were "in crisis." Quite frankly, they were. But not for the reasons they thought.
When they started their church decades before they called us, their surrounding community was rather affluent. As the community grew and changed, so did the demographics surrounding their church. So when they called us "in crisis," the majority of their leadership team wanted to move locations because they didn't know how to reach the people surrounding them (and as we got deeper into the issues, they had no desire to have them in their church building).
Honestly, that's not that uncommon.
For a lot of churches with a long and rich history, the surrounding community looks a lot different today than it did when the church was founded. But to quote a pastor I worked with named Gavin Adams, "Culture is like gravity. You can spend your whole life fighting against it, you can ignore it, or you can learn how to leverage it."
Don't fight how the surrounding demographics and culture has changed in your immediate community. Don't ignore it either. The purpose of your church mandates that you take seriously what it would look like to hold your ministry methods with loose hands and leverage those changes to reach more people for Jesus.
Let's stop playing games with the mission Jesus gave us.
2) When most churches think about "communications," they only think about how to better communicate with the people already in their church.
As someone who is passionate about communications in the church, this one gets to me a lot. And even if the word "communications" isn't in your regular vocabulary, don't skip this point because it matters a lot.
Not too long ago, a church reached out to me because they were looking for recommendations on modern communications tools. After we talked back and forth, I discovered they weren't actually looking to adjust their strategy to reach their community, they were just looking for a tool that would adjust how they communicate to their congregation. After gently suggesting they reconsider their strategy, they decided not to because it would be a difficult shift for the people in their congregation.
I'm not trying to put down this specific church. I get it. And it honestly isn't about their decisions on where they choose to invest their efforts.
But here's the deal: As church leaders, we focus too much on the people who are already part of our church. Heck, we focus too much on people who are already part of THE Church. We put nearly 100% of our energy towards things only those in our church will see. We put nearly 100% of our energy towards a service we've prepared with only our congregation in mind. And we put nearly 100% of our energy towards events and programs that only people in our church will attend.
That's called an insider focus.
3) Many churches lose sight of why they exist and don't notice.
Here at 95Network, we talk a lot about mission and vision. We believe they are the foundation for everything you do as a ministry. Knowing the specific purpose for why you exist at this time in your community and where you're headed over the next few years allows you to focus and direct your efforts to plans and programs that will actually help you accomplish your goals.
If you don't have those things defined, you struggle to say "no" to any ministry idea because you don't have a filter for what fits into the actual mission you're trying to accomplish.
Each month, we get to work with churches who honestly aren't sure why they have church each Sunday. And it's one of our favorite things to watch a team discuss and find unity around a renewed mission and vision for their church. There's nothing like it.
But there are also times that break our hearts, like when we talk with churches who have lost sight of why they exist and don't really notice or desire to change.
Jesus left us with one mission:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We all know that verse. But how does that play into the everyday life of your church? How are you maintaining that focus outward of going and making and fighting the pull towards maintaining?
4) Leaders often struggle to name the actual issues people in their community care about.
This is something I personally am passionate about. In our one-day events, I talk a lot about the importance of developing trust with the people in your community before they've ever come to your church. This creates a mutual relationship and even a subconscious respect that helps someone feel comfortable taking the step of attending an event or a Sunday worship service.
There are many ways to accomplish that. Service projects are probably what popped in mind for you. But even the way we use our social media and develop outward-focused content can drastically shift how our community perceives us over time.
In order to build trust effectively, we need to know our community. We need to know what is important to them. Who are they? What are their immediate needs? What are their struggles? What issues/topics do they actually care about right now?
This plays out in two ways:
Local. A lot of churches talk about being "for their community." How does your community see that take place? What are the challenges your local community faces? What shapes the culture of your area? Strategically thinking about how to address real needs and show your support for the culture of your area are key ways to start building trust.
Personal. In addition to showing your ministry's support at the local level, it's also important to support your community on a personal level. Do you know the people your church is trying to reach? How are you talking about the issues they face everyday in their real life? How are you meeting them where they're at instead of asking them to "come and see"? (To truly leverage this often requires an intentional shift in ministry methods.)
5) Many churches only think of their ministry in terms of programs and events.
Finally, churches become isolated when they only think of their ministry strategy in terms of the programs and events they offer. Tony Morgan has written about this quite a bit. I also hinted at this in the second point, but organizing your ministry around the programs you offer (rather than a discipleship path) is an ineffective and uncompelling way to do ministry.
Program-driven ministries are driven by need, not mission. In connection with the 3rd point, when churches don't know why they exist, they scatter their efforts to wherever the biggest felt need is in the moment. When churches are driven by mission, their strategic vision and direction is where they intentionally direct their efforts.
Program-driven ministries are typically insider-focused. When we develop a bunch of programs to organize our church around, our ministry gets complex and inevitably becomes more about maintenance than mission. Satisfying the saints. This competes with the actual mission Jesus left for us.
Program-driven ministries struggle to leverage new ways to reach their community. Programs that have been going on for years are often a barrier to connecting with new people. They take up more of our time with what we label "discipleship" and leaves us less time to brainstorm ways we can better connect with the people outside the four walls of our building (disciple-making). There has to be a balance. And shifting our ministry focus to be more external is an effort we need to take seriously.
Every church has to be intentional about fighting the pull to overly focus inward. If we aren't careful, we'll find ourselves isolated from our community and barriers will be built that keep those outside the four walls from ever connecting into the life of the ministry. Let's refocus on the mission our Savior gave us and purposefully structure our ministries to accomplish that goal.