I took my dog to a boarding facility near my travel destination the other week. I could tell by the website and the reviews that this was a great place for dogs. And it was. Chester was welcomed, cared for, played with, and loved. We were invited to drop in anytime to check on him, and to take him on field trips if we’d like.
One day, after we’d checked out our dog for a hike and then checked him back in to their care, I wound up having a long talk with the owner of the kennel. I learned that she had bought the place a few years back, and frankly, the kennel had a bad reputation. A really bad reputation.
And her immediate task was to turn that around.
How to make the change:
There were certainly a few things she needed to change in the physical facility. But the real work wasn’t about the physical plant at all. First, she had to change the culture of the care in the kennel. She and her husband were committed to loving, nurturing, even rescuing animals, and they lived that out in the way they treated their clients, which were few and far between early on.
But the gamechanger in the reputation of the kennel was when the owner got out and began connecting with the community in any way she could. She would attend community events and meet people. She joined a local community organization, and volunteered to help plan community events. She was enthusiastic, reliable, and positive. And as people got to know her, they began to change their opinion about the business she represented.
I was struck by this conversation because, if we are honest, the church and the Christians who represent it often have a bad reputation in our culture. Christ not so much. But the church? It has a pretty bad reputation. Which has made it increasingly hard for those of us who ambassadors of Christ to navigate the deep waters of negativity surrounding anything that smacks of church.
Often, our first instinct is to argue with people about how “wrong” they are about their view of church. Or to develop a marketing campaign to sway people’s perception of church. Or to make our church programs spiffier or the church facility more inviting.
But what if what actually shifts people’s perception of the church is the way we relate with the community? The way we love? What if building relationships with people and serving the community is the real gamechanger for many who have written off the church? What if we truly became a sign and foretaste of the kingdom of God in the everyday rhythms and networks in our communities?
That’s why fresh expressions of church start with listening, loving and serving, and building relationships. To start new forms of church with those who are not connecting with church, we first have to change the reputation that precedes us. In the way we treat people. In the way we enthusiastically participate in initiatives that are good for the larger community. In the way we encourage those who are discouraged, comfort those who are struggling, and foster reconciliation where there has been division.
Just like that kennel’s reputation shifted, we have the opportunity to shift people’s opinion of what church can be. But it’s going to require us to put ourselves out there relationally. And get more involved in our communities.
Shannon serves as Director of Training, leading our team of mission strategists and trainers in the development and implementation of the Mission Shaped Ministry course through Pioneer Learning Communities. She is also a pastor on staff with Riverside Church in Sterling, VA, a Church that worships in two languages and engages in several Fresh Expressions of Church. In the last several years, Shannon has been involved with the Presbyterian Church’s New Worshiping Communities initiative, and has directed the coaching network that supports pioneer leaders. Shannon lives in Springfield, VA with her husband Patrick and teenage daughters Catherine and Suzanne.