Many churches in North America are completely disconnected from the people around them.
They are waiting for people to come to their church, and less and less people are finding their way to their doors. If this describes your church, then you may be unaware of some of the barriers that exist between you and the community around you.
1. You are an enigma.
People outside your church have no idea who you are or what you are about.
A handful of people enter your building and leave your building periodically. But what happens there or what you care about is a complete mystery to those outside the church.
2. You live your life in a Christian bubble.
The people in your church are really involved with things connected to your church.
Sports leagues, social events, friendships are all internal. People are so involved in church stuff, that they don’t have relationships with neighbors or others in the broader community.
3. You are busied up with too many programs.
Your church is committed to good programs. Great. But those programs require a lot of time, energy, and resources. You are so busy managing programs that you don’t have time or energy to volunteer in the community or get involved relationally with people in the community.
4. Your community rhythms are disconnected from the daily reality of the people
You may run a great weekday morning preschool, but if the majority of people in the community are dual income working families needing full-day daycare, can they actually connect?
You may have a fantastic youth hangout space, but if it is only open on Sunday evenings and latchkey kids are roaming the streets after school, there may be a disconnect. As cultural patterns and economic realities change, is your church still running ministry according to the cultural rhythms of the 1950’s?
6. You’re not focusing energy on anything compelling
I know of churches that spent endless energy on the color to paint the bathroom, or the rules against moving furniture in the parlor.
These things may seem important to those inside the church for whom the building is sacred, but they are of no interest to the broader community.
If what you talk about and pour energy into is not compelling, people in the community will have no interest in participating with you.
7. You seem out of place in the neighborhood
People sense it when they don’t fit.
Perhaps the community is quite diverse, but your church is all white. Perhaps the community is diverse in age, and your congregation is all 65 and older. Perhaps your congregation is full of upper management, and the neighborhood is full of hourly laborers. Where no natural connections exist, and where no attempts are made to acknowledge and cross these barriers, the disconnect is hard to overcome.
8. You don’t know the community
You think you do. But you only know who you already know. You know the places you like to go. You are familiar with your supermarket and your favorite restaurants.
But do you know how the community is changing, the struggles it faces, needs that exist? Do you know anything about the lives of people that are not in your immediate circles? Many churches have assumptions about the community that may or may not even be true.
9. You’re not involved in the larger community
Perhaps your church makes some charitable donations to organizations that serve the community. Or the pastor is involved in a local clergy group. But your church is not investing time or energy relationally with people or initiatives in the community. No one knows you care. So no one seeks you out.
10. You are afraid to take risks
It’s easier to continue with the status quo than to rock the boat. It’s easier to go along with the desires of insiders than risk upsetting anyone. It’s safer to do what you know than to put yourself out there.
But here’s the good news: it doesn’t have to be this way.
Breaking Out Into Your Community
Churches who have a recent history of being disconnected from the community can make shifts that have potential to remove these barriers. Churches are finding new energy as they engage in mission with people who are not coming to their doors.
Many church leaders are finding support and training in focusing ministry outward through Fresh Expressions. Clergy and lay leaders are learning how to be attentive to their community, and discovering how to love and serve their neighbors. They are learning to foster a new church culture that takes seriously participation in God’s mission beyond the church walls.
New pioneer learning communities will be forming this fall and winter, and could be just the kickstart your church needs to push through these barriers and start connecting.
Meanwhile, you can take a first step by spending at least one hour a week walking your local community and praying for it, meeting people along the way and getting to know some things about them. You may be surprised what you discover, and what God is already up to in your local community.
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.