The other night, I met with a new church plant’s core leadership for a planning session. Each member of the leadership core has served the church literally for years and are all excited about making a difference in their community. The new church is using a cell group model for their church plant and have a commitment to reaching families with children and youth who are unchurched. During the conversation a question about evangelism arose (which is a good conversation to have with any church, but especially with a new church). As I listened, I became more and more aware that they were mired in what I call “Mirror Dynamics.” I’ve discovered that Mirror Dynamics are at the heart of many, if not most, church’s discussions about local mission, evangelism, and reaching out to the community.
Here’s the conversation.
“To reach our community, we have got to find out what they need from a church and find a way to meet that need.”
“What kind of needs do they have?”
The next five minutes included suggestions about ministries to out-of-wedlock teenagers, the homeless, tent cities, and a variety of poverty-stricken folks.
So, what’s wrong with that conversation?
Mirror Dynamics. First, as worthy as those ministries would be, not one of them would help this church reach “the community” they have a passion for reaching. And second, every single suggestion came from well-churched people who have few, if any, close friends in the unchurched community. In other words, they were looking into a mirror and projecting their own accumulated ignorance about what the community needed.
If you want to get serious about reaching your community, there are some ways you can get beyond the mirror.
1. Be Real About Your Target-Ability. Most churches try to reach everybody, and by trying to do so they reach virtually nobody. Yes, Jesus and salvation is open to all, but even Jesus was focused on his target audience. Indeed, he told his disciples, “Do not go among the Gentiles … go only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Mt 10:5-6). Now, almost every church I’ve ever consulted with says they want to reach unchurched families, most especially unchurched young families. So be it, but according to recent studies, only 40 percent (or less) of this sub-population is reachable using typical church growth/attractional methods (see Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways). In any event, the question is, what does your church have to offer this target? My suggestion would be to send a delegation of your leaders to the biggest, fastest growing church in your county for a Sunday morning service. Have them get a taste of what that church is providing for children, youth, and young families. Then get real honest. You don’t have to mimic what they’re doing, but if you’re seriously going to try and reach that target audience, what kind of upgrades are you going to have to make? Flannel boards and story time, pizza and Coca-Cola just isn’t reaching children and youth anymore, let alone their parents.
2. Get to Know Your Target. Here’s the first step in breaking through the mirror. Regardless of your target, you don’t really know what’s on their minds (unless you’re targeting people “just like you,” in which case, you’ve already reached all of them in your community). You can only speculate, and as I pointed out above, you’ll probably speculate badly, on what they are concerned about. The only way around this is to go and “be” with your target. We’ve discovered one of the best ways to do this is to get your congregation’s core leadership to set aside a couple of evenings to spend in listening triads out in the community where your target is “hanging out.”
Here’s how it works. Divide into groups of three. Have each person in the triad take a pad of paper and a pen and send the triads to different locations in your ministry area to gently “eavesdrop” on the conversations of your target. Here are the rules: (a) No talking to one another when on site; (b) Silently pray for those around you; (3) Listen; (4) Take general notes that include what you hear as concerns, needs, fears, issues, etc. When thirty minutes have passed, return to a central meeting place with all the triads to compare notes.
Where should you go? It depends on your target. Where are they going? Again, if you’re target is young families, one triad may decide to go sit at a local park where parents and children play at the “Big Toy.” Another triad may go to the mall. Another may go to a sports bar where the dads go to get away for the evening. You may have to think out-of-the-box the first time you try this, but if you’re listening, you’ll pick up on where else your target may be hanging out.
We suggest you repeat this exercise at least three times. Each time you’ll hear and observe more than the previous time. Shuffle the triads if you want to, switch locations, etc. The point is to get a valid sampling of what people are thinking. Once you’re done, you’ll probably already have some ideas on what kind of ministry offerings you can offer.
3. When All Else Fails, Ask. Going to the community and asking what people would look for in a church is one of those things that pastors and churches “used to do,” but the times changed and they stopped. It seems the tide is turning once again … sorta. It’s still pretty difficult to get people to answer their doors when an unknown couple knock on their door, but when they do, there’s often much to be gleaned.
A couple of reminders for those who may be too young to have cut their teeth doing this kind of ministry. First, go two-by-two. Different communities respond differently, so you may want to experiment with the combination of men and women in the couples. Second, go before it gets dark and quit before it gets dark. Third, canvass a street at a time with several couples so they can keep track of each other. Fourth, don’t go inside. Period. Fifth, keep it short. Don’t ask lots of questions … people don’t have either the time or patience. Sixth, have something to leave with the family if they ask for something. Last, thank the family profusely when you’re done—they’ve given you a greater gift than you can imagine.
4. Get a Heart for Your Target. Once you’ve got all this good information and have a good idea about who your target is, what they’re concerned about, etc., there’s a huge temptation to get out there and start something. Refrain from the temptation. Instead, begin a prayer vigil for at least a couple of weeks, and forty days seems like a better option. Pray for your target. Have your triads meet to pray for the people they listened to. Pray over the lists of information you have. Prayer walk the neighborhoods you canvassed. Prayer walk neighborhoods where your target lives. Pray in concert with the whole congregation. And personally pray.
This isn’t even the time to pray for guidance or direction or for great ideas. Pray only for the people. Pray for spiritual protection. Pray for blessings. Pray for their needs. Pray for their desires. The key here is to pray for them, not to pray for you (or what you want/need to do, etc.). The focus needs to be completely on them. As the congregation prays for them, many hearts will begin to turn. They’ll begin to be more concerned about the people they’re praying for than they are for their own needs and desires. When this happens, and not one moment before, the mirror will shatter and then it will be time for making plans.
5. Go Ye Therefore. One last thing. Remember what I said back in Point 1 about the low percentage of those who respond to typical church growth/attractional methods? One of the obvious solutions to that problem is to refocus ministry from “Y’all Come!” to “Go Ye Therefore.” Effective missional churches are forsaking their building-based focus to get out into the community to do ministry. Again, what those ministries are will become apparent after practicing the previous four steps, but it will all pretty much be for naught if the end results of your listening, asking, and praying is to add just another program to the church calendar and put an ad in the paper. Jesus’ ministry was the antitheses of the y’all come temple. He went to where the people were. Paul followed his lead and you could find him down by the river where he knew he could find spiritually hungry people. The only question remains, after you break the mirror, where will you go?