Meghan Hatcher says planning for Advent is the perfect time to assess whether a ministry tradition is still serving its intended purpose. She suggests seven questions to help determine if a long-standing ministry is still offering people a transformative encounter with the Gospel, or if it’s time for a change.
At the United Methodist church where I grew up, the season of Advent can’t happen without the annual live nativity. Every year the same wooden frame, with last year’s hay still clinging to it, is set up in a field next to the parking lot. Whichever family welcomed a new baby in the last year is elected to represent the Holy Family and other church members are cast in the minor roles. The church has maintained this tradition for decades, but I’m curious about its purpose in 2023.
The two most important words for ministry
In their book, Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results, veteran ministry leaders Rev. Dr. Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Bishop Tom Berlin write that the two most important words for ministry are “so that.” “Using the two important words ‘so that’ has the power to change the way leaders work with their congregations so that everything that God’s people do is shaped toward mission and results in fruitfulness.”
Planning for Advent is the perfect time to assess whether a ministry tradition is still serving its intended purpose and leading to transformation in people’s lives. But this is hard work at a time of year when nostalgia is at an all-time high. Every ministry, event, program, and traditional way of engaging people in this season can feel too sacred to let go. We can become attached to the form of a ministry, rather than its function.
Yet God is not calling us as leaders or as the church to create ministries and traditions that continue into perpetuity simply because they always have been continued. The work of the body of Christ is to develop ministries the Holy Spirit can use to transform people’s lives. This means that we aren’t in ministry alone (praise God) and that we should hold loosely to our traditions, always open to whether they need to shift as time passes.
Seven key questions
Ask these seven questions to help you determine if a long-standing ministry is still offering people a transformative encounter with the Gospel, or if it’s time for a change:
- Who was this ministry originally intended to engage? Be as specific as possible!
- Are these people still present in your church and wider community?
- How have people’s needs and thoughts about church potentially changed since this ministry was originally developed?
- Are you making any assumptions about the people you hope will attend and participate?
- How might attending or participating in this ministry feel to someone entirely unfamiliar with scripture or your church’s traditions and rituals?
- What do you hope people will do in response to participating in this ministry? Note: If the answer is “join our church” take a moment to go deeper and ask yourself, “why?”
- With questions 1–6 in mind, fill in this prompt: “Our church is hosting/offering this ministry SO THAT _________________ happens.” Note: What you write in the blank space should be about transformation in people’s lives, not simply your church’s growth!
Advent is a time to mark new beginnings and welcome new people into the community of faith. Yet it often becomes a season of going through the motions and unintentionally excluding. As you plan for Advent this year, getting clear on a ministry’s “so that” will spark new life into old traditions and inspire innovative ideas so that more people have a transformative encounter with the radical love of the incarnate Christ.
This article is adapted a from post on Under the Microscope, the monthly blog and newsletter produced by the Innovation Lab at the Center for Youth Ministry Training. Their Community Discovery Package can help your faith community get to know people in your context, move beyond assumptions, and explore your community as you develop new ministries.