It is all too easy for a church to discover one day that they have become disconnected from their block and the surrounding neighbors. Like Adam in the 1999 film Blast from the Past, church members can poke their head out of the cocoon of the sanctuary to discover that everything has changed. The people, places, practices that were once familiar are gone and the neighborhood no longer resembles what they remember. The change appears total, and it’s scary. God’s people could shake their fists and retreat into the safety of the familiar, but this betrays the mission. A missional outlook sees the community change in a different light, as an opportunity. Revitalization can come to church and community alike when they honor Jesus by getting reacquainted and reconnected.
The most common measure of demographics is ethnicity and culture, and these are the first important baselines for the church to review. Many places have changed in their ethnic composition over the years, a change not always paralleled in the church. If the declined or plateaued church does not reflect the surrounding neighborhood, we find an opportunity in asking why? In older churches, where people lived in the parish boundaries of their church, this question went unexamined. As transportation became personal and movement away from cities and towns became commonplace, many churches have declined because the remaining congregation now commutes to church. Their only connection with the neighborhood is parking there on Sunday morning. The radical solution is to move back into the community, but, barring that, the first missional step to take is to find ways to integrate our lives with the people of the neighborhood.
Demographics extends beyond race, ethnicity and culture. Income disparities can also arise that separate the congregants from the neighborhood. The missionally-minded church can serve this neighborhood, and therefore their neighbors, being careful not to hurt as they help. Embracing mission in this context is within the reach of every church, regardless of their size. It can range from the provision of basic needs (Matthew 25) to supplementing the education of the neighborhood children by tutoring to helping the adults to become proficient in English. Each of these touch-points offers a gospel opportunity; your life of service reaching over barriers embodying the gospel. As we build trust in the neighborhood, it sees the church as a part of the community, and a new season of growth might take the place of decline.
Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.Amos 5:14-15; 24
As the declining church embraces the missional calling, we have to recognize that the missio dei involves more than crossing racial or ethnic or socio-economic boundaries. We must remember that the ultimate objective of God’s redemptive plan is the restoration of wholeness in creation, the return of shalom. As we engage with our church’s role in the redemptive plan, we must be prepared to engage with injustice in the many forms that have injured our fellow image-bearers. We engage by devoting ourselves to listening and learning about those areas where unrighteousness—as defined by God—has been visited upon our neighbors. After hearing, the church is blessed by opportunities to act in their interest. This might be the most challenging and demanding aspect of a church on mission, but it is also one most likely to express the immense love of God for those trampled by the fallen nature of humankind through the ages.
There are very few churches left who only see their neighbor as someone who looks like themselves. There are equally few churches who don’t recognize the missional call to love that neighbor in both word and deed. It can be challenging to cross cultural boundaries, especially those that the church has ignored or denied through the years, but it can also be enormously rewarding. The promise of the new heaven and new earth is one of all people together enjoying the return of shalom. The promise for our neighborhood is found in a church that embodies the promise of Christ to unite all peoples, regardless of worldly differences – “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female,… All one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3:28]
The North American Baptist Conference has four principles that guide ministry throughout their churches. These principles [called End Goals by the NAB] are interconnected and intended to be understood as a whole. Ministry flows through each of the principles to form a holistic, missional philosophy of the Church in the world. The thoughts above are an interaction with End Goal 2: NAB Churches will seek opportunities to engage cross-culturally. In an article written by Executive Director Harry Kelm, the following appears:
The church – the body of Jesus Christ – is to be a people of God that consists of many nations and ethnicities. John 17 tells us that though we are different from one another, we become one in Jesus. Engaging in cross-cultural ministry is embracing the diversity found in our oneness as God’s people. Onward Spring 2023
In addition to church planting, these principles should also guide revitalization efforts. As with the church plant, the legacy church has a place in being and proclaiming the gospel to their community. Use the principles to evaluate the alignment of your church’s ministry and leadership with the vision embedded in the Goals. Teach them and shape your efforts to reach your community and the world with the love of Christ and the hope of shalom.