I’ll be the first to admit that there are not many successful stories to share. Most older white congregations in transitioning communities either close their doors, continually decline or relocate. It is rare that you find an older Anglo church embrace their changing demographics and find a vibrant future. I find that churches in this situation begin to panic and become insulated in the name of self preservation. They will occasionally offer some type of community outreach but it is only a one time event with minimal results. They will say that they “attempted” to reach the new demographic but was unsuccessful. In order for an aging Anglo church to reach a changing community it must give more than courtesy fellowship opportunities or special events. The church must fully embrace a missional mindset to that community and begin to pattern its ministry to be intentional. Unless this is done the church will never see tangible, lasting results. I fully believe that the following things must take place in the church in order for it to fully embrace its community and revitalize for the future:
1. Honest individual and corporate confession must take place. Engaging the community will mean breaking down racial and economic barriers that may be spoken or unspoken. Normally people will not openly admit that they don’t want to reach their community based on race, but they may certainly be internalizing these thoughts. Let’s be very clear, racism is a sin and God doesn’t tolerate it. Peter came to a breakthrough moment when he came to a Gentile home, shared the Gospel and proclaimed, “I understand now that God doesn’t show partiality.” Acts 10:34. We talk much about the importance of core values in relation to mission strategies, but a church in this situation must fully and without hesitation embrace the core value of “outreach to all regardless of race, ethnicity or economics.” God will not bless the ministries of a church who believes the gospel is only good news for a certain segment of society. The pastor and staff likely already understand this but may be having difficulty bringing the congregation toward this value.
2. Be prepared to lose long standing members. Because the church may have put up barriers in order to preserve what it has left, rest assured that when those barriers come down some of the members will leave. A pastor might expect to lose some key leaders, tithers and long standing members who honestly don’t want to see their church become integrated. While I never promote making decisions that will lead to a decrease in membership, there may be some who will need to leave in order for the church to move forward. The question that likely keeps the pastor of this church up at night is this; “Do we continue on as we are now and not rock the boat or do we fundamentally change the direction of the church and risk losing members?” For many of these churches, continuing on the same course will lead to further decline.
3. Embracing a racially diverse community will require changes to church structure and function. Yes, this is where it gets dicey. A church must reflect its community in order to find perpetuity. Therefore, it will need to relearn the community. What does the new demographic information show? What is the Mosaic segments that now make up the majority of a 4 mile radius of the church? (www.missioninsite.com is a great source). What is the best way to reach them? Your state convention will provide that information for free. Once a church relearns its community it may need to change ministries to better reflect the demographic. Some churches may need to bring diversity to their staff. Ministries will need to be carefully examined and the church will need to corporately embrace a new strategy.
4. Build up children and youth ministries that will effectively reach families in your area. Regardless of the color of skin people will gravitate toward churches that love their children. Build those ministries not based on what you currently have, but on who you are trying to reach. This will take intelligent staffing, budgeting and a lot of patience. The results may not come quickly, but with persistence, love and fellowship opportunities the ministries will take off. The church will need to be intentional in outreach and evangelism to the children and youth by going to where they are. To set up a ministry and expect that they will just show up will offer no tangible results.
5. Finally, offer practical ministry to the residents of your community. Think practical. Most important question the church should ask is, “What are the greatest needs of our community?” The second most important question is, “How can we help to meet those needs?” Who is more uniquely equipped to meet the needs more than a redemptive body of believers? Many lower income communities will have a high number of single parents who are struggling to make ends meet. A church could offer free after school tutoring, provide backpacks or school clothing or Mom’s night outs. Find ways to improve the community rather than sit and complain about it’s future direction. The Gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to change your part of the world. Start today by touching one person at a time.
Some would say that this is utopian thinking, but the future of many churches depends largely on what they do with the mission field they currently reside. If a church is not willing to embrace their changing community they should have serious discussions about possible merger options or relocation ideas. To sit and do nothing holding the Good News in your hand and a life changing message in your heart is not an option.