Not too long ago church planting and existing church vitality work were treated as mostly separate things. Church planting focused on branding and community outreach, including the dreaded door knocking. While existing church vitality was dominated by core processes, the five fruits, and congregational surveys. This is an oversimplification of course, but I believe a fair one. Today, the distance between these two worlds has closed to almost nothing and the best of both words are shared between them.
Two reasons dominated this shift. First was the realization that intentional discipleship, often a tool of the existing church crowd, mattered far earlier in new church starts than initially assumed. Of course, you can’t take discipleship for granted in any church. It won’t happen by accident. It is tempting however in a new church to put off going deep in this work for as long as possible. We now know that’s a mistake.
Secondly, and arguably more importantly, the intentional outreach of church planting is now an inescapable part of any existing church vitality work. There was a time when existing church vitality was about better serving the people you already had. Many churches created contemporary worship services in the 90s not really as an outreach but more to keep the younger people they already had happy. For a long while, the focus in this area was about preserving, and maybe incrementally improving, the strength of the congregation.
The time when this approach to existing church vitality can find wide success is over. I have personally not encountered a single church that doesn’t need to invest heavily in the type of community outreach that church planters have been pursuing for years now. In truth, if you are in vocational ministry today, you are a church planter.
Every church, EVERY CHURCH, needs to invest time in creating new relationships with new people in their community. This is not just the job of the pastor either, though they do need to lead by example. Laity with the right gifts need to be identified, trained, and deployed to forge new relationships on behalf of the church.
In a church plant this is easy to do because the core leadership is typically small and the vision is clear. In an existing church it can be difficult where expectations vary greatly from member to member, leader to leader. I have a friend who embraced this by holding office hours in a nearby coffee shop instead of the church building. Some of her congregants praised it, some didn’t understand it, and some complained to the church council that she wasn’t around enough. Prioritizing outreach will always require letting go of something else. Most often this includes letting go of the assumption that the pastor is waiting in her office ready to respond to someone’s need.
Creating a culture that prioritizes outreach can only really happen by living into it and educating the wider congregation through celebrating the fruits of your efforts. Like many things, you can talk about it in theory all you want, but most won’t get it until they see it in practice.
Office hours in coffee shops and similar ideas are a good start. However, there is another way to start that any pastor or church leader can do no matter their location or context. Trey Hall, a successful church revitalizer and church planter, has written a great piece on relational meetings or the 1-1. In this article Trey lays out everything you need to know to start having 1-1 conversations and building new relationships in your community. He describes the 1-1 saying,
The relational meeting, a fundamental part of community organizing, is a short (30-45 minute), one-to-one, in-person conversation meant to uncover, explore, and share the animating stories, core values, and motivating interests of each conversation partner.
The goal of a 1-1 is to figure out the “why” of the person you’re talking to by inviting them to tell you.
In his article he gives you both background on how he personally utilized this strategy as well as a complete overview of how the conversation should flow. This is a practical way for any church leader looking to shift the focus of their community outward.
My personal challenge to any pastor that wants to seriously work on the vitality of their church is to read this article and understand how these conversations work. Then, I strongly invite you to start with one 1-1 a week for the next eight weeks. I bet right now you can list at least three people in your community you could talk to who you don’t currently have a relationship with. Even if it’s simply “the principle of the school over there.”
In many ways the local church has been on a bit of a break for the last several decades. We’ve focused our time and energy on our people and prioritized taking care of our needs. The time for that internal focus is closing quickly and it’s past time to re-engage with our neighborhoods and communities. Not as a side project or additional task, but instead as a core part of our practice of ministry. Trey has given us a great gift in the form of a very practical way to start that process. It’s now up to each of us to take up the challenge and see where the Holy Spirit leads us.