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How Churches Must Connect with Their Communities

What is the most important staff position at your church?

 

Of course, as a former pastor, I must declare that we cannot function without a pastor. What would we do without a music/worship leader? We cannot live without leadership for children or youth, can we? What about Christian formation? Outreach? Pastoral care? Missions? Administration? Singles? Recreation?

 

While all these traditional positions are obviously important, let me suggest another role to which every healthy congregation with a viable future must pay close attention.

 

Whether it is a solitary assignment to one person or a front-burner focus for every staff position, the role of missional strategist is indispensible.

 

Don’t like that title? How about coordinator of mission/vision implementation? Maybe congregation-world intersection specialist? Minister of mission (no “s” at the end of this title!). I like passion coordinator, though I suspect that might invite some misunderstanding. One more: Call commander!

 

While the titles may be confusing or cumbersome, the task I am addressing is emerging as an essential ingredient in the congregational mix of the 21st century.

 

The era of staffing a church based solely on the attractional model of congregational life is drawing to a close. The attractional model, which has defined us for nearly 50 years, suggests that the main arena of ministry is programming offered at the site of the church.

 

Build it large, staff it fully, offer high-quality programs and events, and stand back waiting for the crowds to show up. For years they did. Churches became synonymous with programs and facilities.

 

Large numbers of people showed up at church on a regular schedule to consume an overflowing banquet of opportunities the staff served up for them.

 

Staff members were professionals who led clearly defined pockets of church life (usually age groups) from a position of authority and expert knowledge. Often prone to over-function, clergy were expected to be part entertainer, part concierge, part scholar and part R&D coordinator.

 

Laity often were made to feel inferior (“Stand back, please don’t touch … leave that to the professionals!”) and were relegated to showing up faithfully and providing funding for professional clergy to work their magic. One unintentional but nearly inevitable result was a critical spirit among church members that evaluated the hired pros based on that week’s performance.

 

 

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Reduced to consumer status, lay members began to comparison-shop and frequently found their pastor or specialty minister lacking. Much like with football coaches, congregational win-loss records (usually attendance and offerings) became the standard for judging success or failure of the ministers and the church.

 

While we were consumed with “build it and they will come” church life, something dramatic happened. The world stopped coming. Oh, I know enough of them still come to enable us to hold out hope that our methods still work. And there is at least one “growing” church in your community that seems to defy the trends.

 

But much of that growth is transfer growth that chases after programming for the sake of children, youth, personal music tastes or charismatic preaching.

 

The actual percentage of the U.S. population that attends church regularly is a minority of the population, increasingly smaller in young adults and may well be far smaller than the 40 percent surveys suggest.

 

The logical conclusion is that, if they are not interested in coming to us, we must go to them. This is not to suggest that being an attractional church is no longer viable. I believe the vast majority of our churches will be engaged in excellent attractional models of ministry for many years to come.

 

The opportunity we must seize immediately is to add to our attractional life the element of a missional imperative. Such an addition is a needed balance to our tendency to stay home and expect the world to come to us.

 

Someone on your church staff – in addition to your pastor – needs to wake up every morning thinking about how to engage your church with your community and world. Someone must be charged with linking the individual gifts, talents and passions of your congregation with the needs of the community you live in.

 

If you do not pay attention to this, your church will die. Sounds dramatic, but I believe it is true. Slowly, but inevitably, if you fail to practice the Great Commission in your zip code, you will cease to exist. Let those who have ears listen – and staff accordingly.

 

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.