The context where I pastor is unique: the urban center of Baltimore. It has a unique history and a unique present. But, if you think about it, your context is also unique. If you are in a rural part of the country you will face challenges different than mine. If you are on the west coast the people in your community will think differently than a farmer in Iowa.
To reach our communities no matter the context is the goal of every pastor. Here are four ways that help me improve my approach to reaching those in our community. I hope they will help you.
Put down that book
I’m not an anti-intellectual pragmatist. I believe most pastors would benefit from continual growth in theological depth. I’m not advocating less scholarship.
Here’s what I’m addressing: Pastor ___ reads a great book on how someone else reached their community on mission & implements those things hoping for the same results in their own church. (You can substitute “conference message,” “podcast,” or “blogpost” for “book.”)
I see too many pastors spend time and resources on things that the people in their community don’t really need. Growing a missional DNA requires us to read our community.
As we started our church, almost all of the books I read about community stressed the need to establish small groups in homes to get away from the church building. And we discovered that for a segment of our population, this was true & effective.
Yet we were also finding that most of our friends from the neighborhood were not coming to these groups. A light went off for me when one man finally explained that for people local to our city—in our case, often struggling socioeconomically—meeting in a stranger’s home was not a welcoming place. The preference would be to meet in the safe neutral ground of our church building.
Every book told me the exact opposite. But I’ve come to realize that most of the books are not written by people who know my neighborhood.
Get to know the members of your community and learn their real needs. You will discover underlying desires and unearth idols. It will help you develop means of outreach which are contextually appropriate and also learn what may NOT be effective.
Acknowledge a Long-Term Approach
One of my cross-cultural experiences is learning there is something in American culture called “minute rice.” This horrified me. Rice is something that needs to be prepared in this big cooker going for a very long while, bubbling and gurgling until it’s finally ready to be served in all its steamy, delicious glory.
Minute rice may look like rice but real rice takes time.
Modern discipleship methods can be like minute rice, designed programmatically to produce fast results. But if you want to be missional in making disciples among those who truly do not know God, it will require appropriate expectations of the time and perseverance required.
It’s asking ourselves the hard question of whether we want to grow the church by evangelism or primarily by drawing Christians from other churches. I don’t know very many who desire the latter but if we genuinely desire to do the former, we must prepare for a long journey. This can encourage us that as we seek to make disciples among the lost and we find it’s not happening overnight, that it’s actually normal.
Define a Disciple
Especially in ministry cultures that value high intellectualism, discipleship can primarily be a classroom concept where more information equates growth in Christ. Though we want people to grow in knowledge, a missional culture will require discipleship leading to an outwardly focus.
Train your church that following Jesus on mission means it’s not all about them. That to be part of a church on mission means there will be some things they may just not prefer.
It will require asking how certain expressions of our ministry reflect who is welcome in our church. For example, when it comes to preaching in our church, it’s not that I can’t use very theologically sophisticated language but we make clear that our goal is not just to connect to Christians looking for a doctorate level understanding of doctrine but to the person on our streets. That requires a certain death for some of our folks.
Defining a church culture of dying to self for the sake of others will be one of the most effective means of discipleship you can establish as it points them to Christ.
Cultivate Intentional Integration
Many naturally associate mission with a program. Programs can be effective especially as we mobilize people collectively for expressions of outreach, especially in mercy and justice.
But one of the most powerful ways we can increase our missional capacity is to train people to live with mission integrated into every aspect of their lives.
Meditate on Acts 7:26-27 and ask: What would it look like to affirm to our people that God has placed them exactly where they are at this time in history to be doing the things they do with the people they’re with?
Encourage people to do what they would normally spend their time doing anyway: Eating. Exercising. Socializing. One of the most tragically underutilized settings for missional living is the dinner table.
Then challenge them to view these expressions of life with eyes intentionally focused on their neighbors, coworkers, and friends. Many will experience the thrill of embracing who they naturally are and seeing how God uses those things as He empowers them on mission.
Featured image credit, edited for size.