Episode 47: “The New Face of Missional Ministry” featuring Tom Berlin

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 47: "The New Face of Missional Ministry" featuring Tom Berlin

How can a congregation be more effective in developing a missional presence? In this episode we speak with Tom Berlin, lead pastor at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, about how being adaptive can help churches live into a more fruitful missional sensibility.

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How can a congregation be more effective in developing a missional presence? In this episode we speak with Tom Berlin, lead pastor at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, about how being adaptive can help churches live into a more fruitful missional sensibility.

Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I am Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this talk. Joining me is the lead pastor of Floris United Methodist Church, the Reverend Tom Berlin. Tom is the author of several books. His most recent is Reckless Love: Jesus’ Call to Love our Neighbor. Our focus for this conversation is being a missional congregation. Tom, thank you for taking time to join us today.

Tom Berlin: Great to be here. Thank you.

Doug Powe: Tom, many of our listeners are familiar with Floris, but not all of them. Can you share a brief description of the congregation and the satellites that you currently are running?

Tom Berlin: Certainly. Floris United Methodist Church is located in Herndon, Virginia. We are in Western Fairfax county. We’re about five minutes from Dulles Airport. That tends to be the way that most people can place us. So, we are in a suburb of Washington, DC. It’s a suburban area and it is a high-tech corridor. It is a place where the government and contractors that work with the US government, some of those operations since 9/11, have moved out into our area. So a lot of our population here in the community works for the US government, especially the defense and intelligence community. But also, high-tech jobs as well. We also have a very vibrant immigrant community here. So it’s a diverse area. Right around the church we have a high concentration of people from South Asia. People from India and Pakistan. The church was founded in 1861. So, we are one of the oldest congregations in our community and one of the oldest non-profits in our community. We have been here longer than most people. But of course, over time the church has changed. We’re in our third location. This congregation has moved three times. All of those moves have been within about a quarter of a mile from the original location. Each time the church has moved, it’s been to a larger location. And then, about five years ago, six years ago, we made a decision that our evangelism and our design for reaching more people was no longer going to be buying more land or building bigger buildings. That our desire would be to send people out into the community. And to do so, we sent clergy and laity first into Reston, Virginia, into an elementary school that’s within probably eight miles of where our church is located. And then we realized about a year ago that a lot of our members had moved out to Loudoun County, which is, think of an airport, how large a major airport is. And that creates a really interesting dynamic in our church because we have what is called a 180-degree development. We’d back up to the airport, so there’s no population center where the airport sits. And to get to us, people had to drive around all the land that is owned by the airport. So, rather than waiting for that to happen, we sent people out, to a certain traffic corridor into Loudoun County because we have a number of members who are living there. And we realized they’re far more likely to invite their neighbors to come to church with them if we went to them, rather than waiting for them to come to this campus. So, that’s been a big shift over the past years. But there’s a historic desire here in Floris, when you look at the founding work of our church and what it’s been over the years. We had this historic desire to reach people for Christ and a historic desire to be the church in our community that is a blessing to the community. And holding those two things, the question for us has been, as our community has changed from a rural farming community into this high-tech suburban community, how do we have to change to meet the time that we’re in and the people that we’re trying to reach? So we’ve done both things, we’ve held onto the past but we’ve stepped into our future.

Doug Powe: Tom, thank you, that was a very helpful description. Before I get into the missional conversation, I want to pick up a little bit, particularly on moving to Loudoun county and thinking in terms of trying to go where the people are. In doing that move, do you believe, Tom, that those individuals would not invite their friends to what I’m going to call, the home location? Or do you believe that it’s just more likely if they can stay closer to their home that they would be more willing to invite? So how did you process the idea that it would be more invitational to actually go to where the individuals were living?

Tom Berlin: You know, I think there are two dynamics that you’re touching on, Doug. The first is a very practical dynamic of asking “how far will anyone drive to experience anything related to a church?” Now, that might be the worship service. But it also might be, whether your son or your daughter is going to a group of other students that are in a Bible study or are in a, you know, student program of some sort. How far will people drive? In the community I live in, people really do gauge activity based on drive time and we’re in the second or third worst traffic environment in the nation, here in the Washington, DC area. And especially in the suburbs because people are driving into the District and then driving out. Well after they make that commitment to their job every day, there’s only so much margin of their life left over to give to any other activity. So, it’s not just church, it’s really anything. They want it convenient because they’ve already spent — many of us who live here — have already spent a lot of time on the road every day. And, so, even on the Sunday, as that driving issue has become more severe, the practical question of how many minutes does it take to my door to where I’m trying to get to? So when we took a group of our folks and put them in a middle school out in Loudoun County for instance, that’s only about 10-15 miles at the most, but it could measure up to 20 minutes in drive time. Now, 20 minutes may not seem like a lot. But during the weekday, let’s say that they want to come to something on a Wednesday night. It’s no longer 20 minutes. That’s the Sunday morning time. That could be now 40 minutes, or even an hour, depending on what traffic is doing on that very heavily trafficked corridor. So. you first had the practical thing. But here’s what I think is actually the bigger issue. When you say to a group of people, “Would you be willing to go into a middle school and start another location for this church?” So, we call ourselves one church in many locations. When you do that, they suddenly have a new missional presence in their life. They have a mission. They’re on a mission and their mission is “hey, we’re building a church together. And it’s not a bricks and mortar church, it’s a community. We’re going to build a community together of people, of relationships, of activities, of worship, of just all of these things that we do as church.” And because they are — you know the phrase people often use — because they have skin in the game, suddenly their likelihood of inviting a neighbor is more on the radar of their mind. So, they’re sort of thinking, “Wow, how can I build this community? How can I get people to be a part of what I’m doing out here?” And by leaving the church that was, at one time their mother church, and by going out into that new space, they’re in a risk that they haven’t been in in a while. And that mission, I think, drives them to be more invitational. So they are more likely to invite a neighbor who doesn’t go to church. More likely to reach out to a student who doesn’t have a group, perhaps. Or to children in the community who might want to come to a Vacation Bible School, who perhaps have no church home at all. And I think what’s really exciting is when you combine convenience with mission, that’s a pretty powerful combination. Now, a lot of this, there’s a lot more going on than that, but those are two of the most basic elements that we’re trying to unlock.

Doug Powe: Thank you, that’s helpful and it leads into the next question on getting your understanding of missional — how you try to define missional and how you try to share that with your team and congregation.

Tom Berlin: Well, you know, before I say anything, I would just remind folks that whole books have been written on this, and a podcast of this duration, this will not be in depth analysis.

Doug Powe: Very good point!

Tom Berlin: But I think your question is really pivotal. So let me just give some basic categories. In my training, I was really trained in what could be called “the attractional model.” And the attractional model is, if you build it, and if you make the church experience really great, they will come. They will be attracted. And if you have the best worship service, whether it’s traditional or whether it’s more modern and with a band, whatever the model is, just make it really great and then people will come. And that’s not a bad model, as long as most people in your society believe that church is something they should do. The difficulty is in the time that I have been in ministry, that assumption is no longer true. And the Pew Studies are verifying this. Every time they recently updated the Pew Study, the rise of those who have no religious preference and just call themselves “nones.” That group is on the rise, as we all know. And so, now is the time, I think, where this missional church is really exciting. Because when you have people who really don’t value Christianity, or religious experience of any sort, you’ve got to be on a mission. And the missional church is the one who thinks “Wow, it’s not about them coming to us, it’s about us going to them. It’s about our invitations. It’s about our presence in the community.” Now, at the same time that we think about those two broad categories of attracting them to us, or us going to them, I would also add that I think the missional church is saying “What people are willing to join today has to have a very high degree of authenticity.” So that, if we’re on a mission for Christ, people are going to hold us accountable for that. So now, in the past, what we’ve done with varying degrees of success in the church is we’ve thought, okay, we’ve got a mission of evangelism. We want to reach people for Christ, share the good news of the gospel, and the good news of salvation with them. And, in the United Methodist context, we’ve always been good at compassion. You know, if your home is ruined by a hurricane, we Methodists, we’re a good phone number to have. Because we will show up and we will help you rebuild and we’re great at that. And we’re also good about having partnerships of compassion with other countries. Here at Floris, we’ve done a lot of those things, sincerely, in Africa. And we’ve got missional partnerships. But the other element that now is required, is for the church to be a voice for justice. Because we’re living in a time, and frankly, I don’t know when we’ve not lived in this time in America, where we the church just needs, if it’s going to be valid, it has to look at justice issues. And those issues in our time tend to focus around communities of people who are vulnerable. Quite often this is with race and historic inequities and injustices related to the racial experience in America, which has not been, as we all know, is not a positive narrative. And the question people are asking, especially people who don’t go to church and people who are evaluating whether church might be something relevant to them, I think they want to know what we feel about those issues. They want to know whether we’re willing to act in those situations. So, we have to do so many things as we go into the community. We’re offering relationships. We’re building relationships. We’re inviting them into some level of the worship experience, if that’s a setting that we’re creating. We’re also thinking about what’s the compassion we show, and that people can see the love of Christ in our lives. And then what’s the voice of justice we carry as we do all that. And that has to have some tangibility. It can’t just be a message. People want to know what are the issues you’re actually involved with and why did you choose those? So, I think the missional church is a church that’s considering those issues. But it sees itself as a sent group of people — sent out by Christ into the world. And so, it’s far more like the church in the Book of Acts than like the church that was post reformation, where even Protestants were building, you know, large buildings. And I’ve got nothing against buildings. I’ve built some myself — with a congregation. I didn’t build them. But I’ve lead those sort of things. So I’m not anti-church building. But I think in Methodism our most vital space was our first hundred years. And that was because Methodists in those days saw themselves as a sent people.

Doug Powe: So, Tom, picking up on that idea of sent people, and I agree with you 100%. How then do we avoid some of the trappings that the early missionaries fell into when they were sent. And, a part of it, I think you’ve already touched upon, is taking seriously justice issues. But are there other things we can do to make sure that we’re not simply repeating some of those same trappings? And that we actually, as we go into communities, really are partnering with people in the community and not dictating to people in the community?

Tom Berlin: You know, I think there are a couple of things there Doug. One of them is, on our pastoral staff, we have two – no three church planters, essentially. One is working with our online community. The other two are in the two locations I’ve described. We also, through our online presence, our missional presence online, we have people that use our online service and they’re starting, we had a guy that was leading a house church in Ghana, while posted there with the US government. We have a person who’s a former member who’s in North Carolina, who now leads a service and a Bible study in a nursing home and is building community with the residents there. So, I’ve got these church planters and I’ll tell you what they do for me. They are my conscience. And as someone who’s served established churches his whole career, his whole vocational space, I love the fact that they look at me regularly and say “yes, but how is Floris reaching unchurched people?” So I think part of what the pastor has to do is to be a prophet into the lives of laity, the same way those church planters are prophets to me. I have to raise that voice into the life of my congregation and say “hey, who are reaching for Christ in the community?” Now, it’s very different now because now that’s often members of their own family. How can we reach your kids for Christ? What changes do we have to make to do that? What changes do we have to make to reach your neighbors? Why aren’t your neighbors willing to come to what we’re doing right now? What’s the different thing and the new thing? Now, related to missional presence in our ministry, one of the best experiences I’ve had in that regard, the learning experience, has been our work that we have done in Sierra Leone Africa. We, with the United Methodist Church there and with the bishop and his staff, in Sierra Leone, we have developed a ministry for children that now reaches 600 children a day. And our goal is to provide education and medical care to those children so they are never involved in child labor. That’s our goal is to keep them out of child labor. We, in the past, have had a children’s home there called the Child Rescue Center. It was a residential home that was developed right after the Sierra Leonean War. But we’ve changed that over time because the United Nation, UNICEF, has said that is not a best practice for children around the world. Institutional living is not the best way. So we’ve shifted our model to foster care now. And through the United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, children are finding foster care placements in people’s homes and in the homes of Christians there where they’re finding an identity in a home rather than an identity in an institution. When you do missional work, you have to be highly adaptive. So you’ll notice I’ve just talked about a number of ways that change is in my life. Change is in my leadership space. Because if you’re missional, you have to listen to what people are telling you and then actually follow up on it. And once you get into that environment, it helps you to not slip back into doing church in a way that is attractional in nature, and expects the world to come to you.

Doug Powe: Yeah. That’s helpful.

Tom Berlin: Yeah, once you start thinking missionally, it’ll just drive you. And that doesn’t mean everything is changing every day. It’s not a feeling of being on a foundationless space. Can I give you one more example?

Doug Powe: Absolutely!

 Tom Berlin: We’re starting a new worship service once a month on Sunday evenings. We’ve had a Sunday night worship service here for two decades. But recently, I just, I don’t know. We’re getting bored with it. We felt like it was stale. It was the same deal, every time. And it didn’t feel like good tradition. It felt like stale things. And we thought “how can we change this up a little bit?” And, again, we didn’t want to change it up every single week, but we thought “what can we introduce that might bring some new vitality into this?” So we started, once a month, something called Story Church. Story Church is, I don’t know if you, I’m sure your listeners have heard the Moth Radio Hour. Moth Radio Hour invites people to tell, in five minutes, a pivotal story in their life. It’s usually run on a theme. So this past week at Story Church, our theme was gratitude. We had a woman who’s an immigrant, and when she came here from India, her husband died. And he died of a disease, of cancer, and he died very quickly from the time he discovered it, leaving her on her own, feeling totally lost. And she talked about what that experience was like and how Christ was present for her and how, as it turned out, our church was present for her. We had a man who has ALS. So he has a new disability that he’s facing and he talked about his gratitude for his wife as a whole and how that gratitude affects him as he deals with this disease. The third person was a woman who is, she’s married to her wife. They have two children together. They’re in our congregation. She talked about her gratitude of all things for the General Conference in 2019 because it was through that experience and how our church reacted to that experience that she discovered that she was loved in her church. So we had these three stories of gratitude. And I have to tell you, when people walked out of that, one woman came up to me and she said, “as they talked and told their stories, I thought to myself, that is the church I want to be a part of.” So, we’re going to start this about once a month. Now notice that I didn’t use the word “testimony.” Testimony is a word that we used to use. I think testimonies are great. But I think that they’re attractional church language. I tell a testimony and then you see how great it is, and now you want to come and join me. I think story is a space where we open up the possibilities of compassion. We open up the possibilities of identification, empathy, and suddenly, we experience community together. Testimony has almost become superstar moments. Like here’s what God did for me and God can do it for you. Stories are saying “so here’s what I’m noticing about how God’s working in my life” and now that allows me to think “how is God working in my life?” And there’s the contact point for community. So, I share that example to say, Story Church arose, primarily, because our church planters, they, our church planters are not doing story church. But they’re doing a lot of creative innovative things. And we started to think at this campus, we really feel the 1861 heritage. We’re not as nimble. But we can still do nimble things. And the encouragement from the creativity from the sites is pushing this site to be more creative as well. But the missional mindset is all about “how do we create spaces where we can invite people to come?” So the three people who did the testimonies, guess what they all did? They all invited their friends. Some of whom were in the church and some of whom were not.

Doug Powe: Excellent! Let me stick with what you just shared and have you take a step back. Because what you’re talking about really is doing an experiment. That you’re taking a risk and saying, “Let’s experiment with this idea of Story Church.” How do you, as a leader think through what experiments make sense and what experiments may not make sense within your context?

Tom Berlin: Wow! I wish I had like five criteria to offer. So let me just say, this may just be my personality type, we trust our instincts. You know, years ago we had someone who came to our church council with their proposal for a ministry. And there was nothing wrong with it. We just couldn’t figure out how it would bring people to Christ. It was an attempt to help children who may not have all the advantages that other children have. And it utilized helping them have certain resources. So, again, who can argue to giving resources to children who don’t have the advantages of those who have? That’s a wonderful thing. But, it didn’t make sense for us. I couldn’t figure out how it would link people to our congregation. I couldn’t see how it’s sustainable financially. I didn’t think we could build the momentum for it. So, how do we evaluate? One of the issues is, will it create momentum? Do I think people will buy into it? And that’s not just my view as the lead pastor. I’m asking staff members. I’m asking leaders in our congregation. I’m especially asking the laity. And, you know, I tend to just talk to people and test ideas. “Hey, what would you think if we would do this? Do you think people would come to that? Would you find that adventurous? Would that motivate you?” If you can’t create a spark of excitement in somebody, it’s probably, the idea, it’s probably not formed up yet. So I’m not saying it’s a bad idea. It’s just that the idea may not be formed up. So, if the idea is helping children who have less advantage in a received resource, what we did, eventually, is we went down the street to an elementary school, 20 years ago, and we’ve developed a partnership, which the principle says, is powerful. And they’ve got data behind why it’s powerful. Well, again, that was a good idea to help the children. It’s just the methodology being offered by the person that brought the first idea just didn’t resonate, just didn’t build momentum. So we’re looking at things that are sustainable. We’re looking for things that will attract numbers of people into service or into the experience itself. We’re looking for things that serve our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to transform the world. And transform is an important word because there’s a lot of good thing, there are many good things that are not transformational things. So, we want to do good well here. So I think, when you start thinking with that criteria, those might be some of the elements. And, you know, what I said at the beginning is a lot of this is instinct, but notice how I’ve moved from instinct to metrics.

Doug Powe: Yes, I was going to say, you actually name some pretty clear criteria for doing this, even though you sort of said, I haven’t really thought about it in that manner.

Tom Berlin: Yeah, so I may say that I trust my gut, but the truth is, what I’m really trusting is a set of criteria that at this point is more internal into my nature and to the nature of the work of our church council here at Floris. Our laity here, we have expectations and we don’t, well, let me just say, we’ve done a lot of spontaneous things that were truly bad ideas. And, what happens is, when you don’t think them through ahead of time and you don’t really calculate them, they’re expensive. They can be very disappointing to people because you start supporting them, but later you start back, you know, treading backwards. And then people are really disappointed. They feel like they’re not supported. They feel like you made a promise but you didn’t deliver it. So we try to proceed with these things in a careful way, in a very organized way. Because we want to excite people on the journey, not disappoint them.

Doug Powe: And, just one other small follow up. How do you — because I can imagine you can get people bringing many ideas to you or other leaders in the congregation — how do you have a process where the ideas sort of float upwards to where you can even discuss them. Or is it that people continue to talk about it, so then it captures your attention. Or is it something more formal for actually where you start thinking “well this might be an experiment worth looking into.”

Tom Berlin: You know, when one is made, it’s a long process, right? It’s a long process from I want to plant some grapes to here’s a bottle of wine. And if you’ve ever looked at how wine is made, you just realize the processes necessary. So when someone comes to me with an idea and – I love church people because they’re creative. We’re all creative. Humans are creative. But somebody will come up to me after a Sunday and they’ll say “Hey, I’ve got this idea.” My first step is this. I’ll say, “Do me a favor write that idea out in an email to me. No more than a page.” Well, I would argue that about 70% of those conversations die right there. Because, often, what people have is not a great idea. They have a job they want me to do. And that’s not my role as the lead pastor. My role is not to take a congregational to-do list and then execute on it. So my first step is “hey, write that up.” Now, if they write it up, that’s great. The second thing I’ll do if they write it up, if it seems reasonable, I’ll push it to the right person. So I’m in a larger congregation, and that means I’ve got staff. I’ve got somebody who works in the area of outreach. And so, if it’s an outreach, if it’s a compassion-justice type thing, I want that to go through them. I want that staff member to work with it. Or, the volunteers who are the key leaders. So we haven’t always had staff. We used to have key leaders that were laity who volunteered. Well, we sent it up to them to let them work with it for a while. And I’m doing that because when you’re the pastor, some people think that you have the magic wand. So if they can get something straight to you, it’ll just happen. I know that’s not true and I know it’s going to be a disappointment. So, what I want to do is put it through the process that, if it’s going to move from grape to the bottle of wine. I can’t believe I’m giving an alcoholic example in a Methodist context! But nonetheless, I think the metaphor works. I think the metaphor works nonetheless. But the point is, it’s going to have to go through this process anyways. So why not start it on that process from the very beginning. And I tell people, “Hey, we’re just cultivating an idea right now. So we’re going to send it there and see what they think. I don’t want you to get too excited about this idea yet. This may happen, this may not happen.” So, a lot of that type of thing because I don’t want to build, I want to build excitement and mission. So as we evaluate ideas, we’re evaluating those in a missional way. Does it reach people? Is this an issue of justice, compassion, evangelism? Could it bring people into a life with Christ through this church? That’s our responsibility. That’s what we’re about. So the great commission is a big evaluator, and so’s the great commandment. The great commission is go into all the world and make disciples. The great commandment is love God, love your neighbor. Those are really important criteria for us. So, as it goes through there, then we’re asking, what does it cost? What does it take to sustain this? Is it going to have to impact our budget or is it something that’s just a time issue? How does it affect our building? You’ve got to work through all these criteria, but the big thing we’re looking for is the fresh idea that will reach people for Christ or bless the vulnerable. That’s the space, those are the two primary spaces where a lot of our ideas are found. Or we try to locate them there. So I think if you do the work, eventually, for us, that will come as a proposal to our church council. By the time it gets to our church council, we’ve really talked about it. We’ve thought about where the resource allocation is going to come from. So when our church council receives a proposal, it’s not the email. It’s a structured concept that now I want those key leaders to consider because they’re looking at ways that that idea is going to affect our entire ministry. How’s it going to affect our facility? How is it going to affect our staffing? How’s it going to affect our laity? How’s it going to call out volunteers? You know, they’re thinking about the total resource allocation of the church. And whether it’s wise to apply it to that concept. Does that make sense?

Doug Powe: It makes a lot of sense and I think you’ve done a tremendous service to a lot of pastors and congregations. And the first thing you said about having them write it up and send it to you in an email is something I hope people really will take note of because I think what happens is what you just said, is that, someone comes and shares it and then the pastor feels like “now I have to do something with this.” And, even in small congregations, you may get one or two of those every Sunday,

 Tom Berlin: Oh, absolutely!

Doug Powe: And you’re going to just drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to make this work.

Tom Berlin: Well, when I was new in ministry and I was serving a two-point charge, I used to feel personally responsible for every idea that anybody offered.

Doug Powe: Yeah.

Tom Berlin: And truthfully, sometimes you’re not getting a well-articulated concept. You’re getting a spark of an idea that happened on a Sunday morning. It comes from the best of places. But there’s a big difference between, now, in my own life, there’s a giant difference between Tom Berlin’s latest big idea and a concept the Holy Spirit has laid properly on my heart and mind so that it can be a blessing to the church. I’m looking for the second and I’m filtering the first.

Doug Powe: Yeah, that’s great. Let me, as we get ready to close, talk about where you first started. There are a lot of individuals who, of course, pastor smaller congregations. What advice, out of everything we’ve talked about today, would you give to them in trying to apply some of these ideas of being missional. Because, of course, you have the advantage of having staff, but I think you did mention, you have to have key leaders. So, in those small congregations, how do you develop having those key leaders so that you can still do some of the same concepts you’ve discussed?

Tom Berlin: Well, you know, one thing I would remind people is that small is beautiful. It is just not the case that large is good and small is bad. Some people use an odd framework around church size that has never made sense to me. I have served every size United Methodist church, from 40 in worship, up to a multi-site church that I’m at today. And I’ve loved every one of those locations. And our plants, our church plants, one of those currently has about 150 or so on a Sunday, and the other has about 65 on a Sunday. So they’re varying sizes. But there is so much excitement and enthusiasm in those two locations, that is different from the large church I serve. We’ve got enthusiasm as well. We don’t do a lot of comparison about who’s in or who’s out. Here’s the advantage of small. With the advantage of small, you can be really nimble, if you choose to. I know some people are serving small churches where they haven’t changed anything in the last 100 years. So, what you have to do in a small setting is you don’t have all that staff. So I remember having – I did a lot of breakfasts and lunches in the small church because I felt that my job was to inspire laity around key ideas, build momentum, build consensus, until the point where the church council meeting happened and I wanted to walk into church council meeting knowing that the vote had already been taken at the breakfast table. Does that make sense?

 Doug Powe: That makes a lot of sense.

Tom Berlin: And, the great thing for pastors, especially if you’re new. You can sort of build your leadership capacity with these conversations. Like your ability to inspire, your ability to see things that other people don’t see, describe it and lead them into a space of stepping into that mission with you. That is a pivotal leadership quality that you must develop. And, frankly, the gift of the small church to me, as a leader, is that I didn’t have any other choice! I didn’t have anybody else to assign that to. It was sink or swim out there. You know, I was in a two-point charge for three years. One church grew by 10 people in worship. The other church grew by about 13 people. Notice how I still know those numbers, Doug, after all those years.

 Doug Powe: I do notice!

 Tom Berlin: And you know what? I was proud of that. Like we grew in those churches sometimes by 10% a year. Now 10% was only four people. But it took a lot to invite four new people and get them to be involved at that small church. And it was a closeness in the community. In our society today, people call small businesses boutiques. And a boutique is something you go to, and it has a special set of services that it does really well. It doesn’t do everything. But it does some things really well. I would guide pastors in those missional spaces to think “what are the things that this church does really well that will be our service to the community?” But if you serve a smaller church, I do want to suggest to you, you have to get your head out into the community, and sometimes your congregation only wants you to serve them. Many small churches are set up on a chaplaincy model. Not on a missional model. And so, an area of focus in leadership that you’ve got to have is to remember, we’re here to serve the community. And you’ve got to build that ethos into the congregation. And quite frankly, they may have lost that ethos 50 years ago. So, as I’ve said, I’m serving a church that was started in 1861. And when I got here 22 years ago, what I did, and this is in the book that Lovett Weems and I wrote, Bearing Fruit. If you get a copy of Bearing Fruit, it’s really important to tap back into, in the small church, tap back into the founder’s vision. And look, that’s probably not written down so you just need to imagine it. But if people built that church in the 1800s, at some point, they did it because they wanted to reach people for Christ. I mean, there’s no other reason they would do it. They did it because they wanted to invite their larger community into a church community where people could experience the love and compassion and the joy of being Christians together. And they wanted to be a blessing to their community. So find that origin story and, if you don’t have it, imagine it. Right, I’m not saying make stuff up. I am saying just imagine what any founder of any church would be feeling and trying to do. And what you’re trying to do is to get that vision back into the DNA of the congregation. And sometimes, in small churches, churches of any size can be inwardly focused. But I’ve found that when I served — I served three different small churches — and I found that I had to really work with them to remember what that was. I described this to a scientist one time, a friend of mine who’s a scientist who worked at the National Institute of Health and he worked, some of his work was in genetics and DNA. And he said, “Tom, what you’re describing is called DNA repair.” He said “DNA in the human body is sometimes damaged and as a scientist, what we’re trying to do is to find a way to repair the DNA to remind it of how it used to function.” And he said, “When you describe what you’re trying to do with your church, you’re doing DNA repair!” And I think that’s so important because what that reminds us is that, in a church of any size, God was at work in that church and it was missional at some point in its history. Our goal is to make it missional again. And a lot of that will come out of what we believe and what we’re willing to do on behalf of the mission of Christ.

Doug Powe: Tom, thank you very much. This has been excellent! And I believe that people are going to really receive some things they can really hold onto and apply in their congregation.

Tom Berlin: Well, Doug, it’s always a privilege to be a part of anything the Lewis Center and Wesley Seminary is doing. So I really appreciate the ministry you all have because so many of us are depending on you.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with church renewal expert Sue Nilson Kibbey about the central role of “breakthrough prayer” in helping a congregation shift the focus of its gaze up and out, rather than down and in.

Thank you for joining us and don’t forget to subscribe free to Leading Ideas at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

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About Author

Tom Berlin

Tom Berlin is bishop of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church. Previously, for over 25 years, he was senior pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. He was written several books. Most recently, he coathored The Third Day: Living the Resurrection (Abingdon Press, 2023), available on Cokesbury and Amazon.

Rev. Dr. F. Douglas Powe, Jr.

F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. He is also co-editor with Jessica Anschutz of Healing Fractured Communities (Palmetto, 2024) and coauthor with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Sustaining While Disrupting: The Challenge of Congregational Innovation (Fortress, 2022). His previous books include The Adept Church: Navigating Between a Rock and a Hard Place (Abingdon Press, 2020); Not Safe for Church: Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations; New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations; Transforming Evangelism: The Wesleyan Way of Sharing Faith; and Transforming Community: The Wesleyan Way to Missional Congregations.