by Thom Rainer
My research for Autopsy of a Deceased Church indicates one of the factors that leads to the decline of a healthy church is its refusal to look like the community. If you compare the faces of a dying church with the faces of the people who live in the community where the church is located, you’ll often notice a significant difference.
In many of my consultations with dying churches I heard the same thing: In the “good old days,” the church was booming as residents in the community flocked to the church. The church reflected the community.
Then the community began to change. In some cases the change was ethnic or racial. In other cases it was age-related or socioeconomic. The change was real and the members of the church felt it. One by one, families in the church began to move to other areas of town. And the church failed to transition with the neighborhood.
Occasionally the church made faint attempts to reach out and ask the community to come to them. There was almost never any effort to go into the community. And often people in the community did not feel welcome in the church. Those in the church were more concerned about protecting the way they did church than reaching the residents of the community.
When a church ceases to have a heart and ministry for its community, it is on the path toward death. But it doesn’t have to end that way. Here are five steps your church can take to make sure it reflects your community.
1. Pray God will open the eyes of the leadership and members for opportunities to reach into the community where the church is located.
2. Make specific plans to minister to and to evangelize those who live in your community. Your church must have a presence in the community beyond the facility itself.
3. Immerse yourself in the community. Join the PTO or other civic organizations. Attend local sports events or community concerts. Participate in the lives of the people in your community in whatever way you can. Not only will you begin to establish relationships with those outside your church, but you will learn your community’s specific needs.
4. Demonstrate respect for all people. Learn the culture and customs of those moving into your community. The pastor should lead in taking an interest in those who attend the church and those you are trying to reach.
5. Make sure your church is welcoming to all people. Choose your words and sermon illustrations carefully. Don’t assume everyone who attends your church will understand references to American culture. It’s important to understand the cultural context of the people who live near the church, especially if the cultural context has shifted. Consider incorporating different styles of music on Sunday morning. Seek diversity in leadership roles—from volunteers to paid staff.
We are beginning to see more churches adopt a multiethnic approach to ministry. Part of the good news in this story is the Millennial factor. Because this generation was raised in multiethnic and multiracial environments, these are no longer barriers for them. Their integration into the multiethnic church seems to be more natural than previous generations. I see them leading the way.
Vibrant and growing churches look after the interests of others. They are concerned for their communities. They open the door for others (Philippians 2:1-4). Is your church reflecting its community?
Thom S. Rainer (@ThomRainer) is president of Lifeway Christian Resources. For more visit ThomRainer.com.