Vital churches find new and creative ways to engage their neighbors. But that doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning the best of what your church has always been. Paul Nixon explains how churches can adapt their strengths to engage their neighbors in authentic ways.
Prioritizing community needs in your ministry plan does not always mean letting go of the life-giving practices your fellowship has historically embraced. There’s nothing gained in trying to be something we are not. But there is sometimes much to be gained in discovering constructive ways to share pieces of our tradition with new folks.
Sharing your traditions constructively
If your church has a long tradition of work in the world of social justice and civil rights, by all means, invite a new generation to come alongside you in that work. Some of their instincts will be different, but you can nonetheless mentor them.
If your church has a long tradition of powerful music in worship, consider creating a new service with equally powerful but very different music. Expand your church’s range of music with an eye on the musical language of the community around you. You could sponsor an occasional gospel music night where musicians from varied styles and worship venues come together to share.
If your church members excel in Korean barbecue, this is something to be savored, literally, with a new generation. Consider passing on the recipes and the tradition to younger church participants and community friends, even if you do not always gather in the same room for worship.
If biblical literacy has been a historic value in your Christian education ministry across many years, work with rising leaders to keep this a priority in the years to come. Just understand that the structures and programs for Bible teaching will likely change if this value from the host culture is to be passed along.
If your church once had the largest youth group in town, you might decide to do a deep rethink on how you can resource large numbers of youth in the current situation. It likely will no longer be a ministry focused on the children of church members. I work with a church in England that uses a community drama and theater program as their platform for engaging hundreds of young people in constructive relationships and faith formation. Almost none of their parents are members of that church.
If your church building is adjacent to a university with a heritage of asking questions and thinking deeply about faith, look for ways to pass along this piece of your DNA and ministry, even if it does not happen in church study groups or even in worship.
Authenticity is key
On the other hand, there will be some places where you and your church friends cannot just appear out of nowhere without seeming really out of place, because those places are simply not your places. If you don’t ever go to bars, you will be a poor team member for the pub theology ministry. If you don’t share the lifestyle of the target audience of a particular venue (underemployed young people in one place or old Marines who love to play pool and drink Lone Star in another place), please spare yourself and everyone else the awkwardness. If you don’t enjoy reading books to kids, you probably can pass on the children’s summer reading ministry. If you really don’t have a passion for a group’s cause, then you could find yourself using the group for a purpose totally unrelated to why the group exists, which is recruiting for another cause. If you are not already online and active in multiple platforms, it never hurts to become more technologically savvy — but TikTok may just not be your thing.
Don’t force it. There are people who are cut out perfectly to build relationships and even develop influence in each of these places. You may want to strategically partner with folks who can authentically go where you cannot.
Authenticity is essential. Don’t try to be something (or somebody) that you are not. God wants us to be ourselves.
Adapted from Cultural Competency: Partnering with Your Neighbors in Your Ministry Expedition (Market Square Books, 2021) by Paul Nixon. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
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