By Eddie Pipkin

How to build a non-traditional, accountable group of young believers whose journey towards deepening discipleship is not based predominately on Sunday morning worship attendance?  Time for you to help me figure that out.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a weekend retreat that brought together former youth group members, as well as some representatives of the older generation who had counseled them along the way.  This was an energetic and faith-oriented group, but, as I observed, most of them are no longer directly connected to a local church. I suggested to a ministry friend that it was a shame we couldn’t get them reconnected, and he said there was probably no way to get them connected – at least not to the congregation they had attended as youth – because that congregation currently offered little to attract 20-somethings (or people who think like 20-somethings), particularly in the area of worship.

The question I posed in the blog two weeks ago was “Why are most local congregations still so focused on worship as the main point of connection, interaction, and ministry?  Why are we still so overwhelmingly oriented towards Sunday morning in the distribution of our resources and the allocation of our ministry time?  Is this a model that will carry us into the future?”  I’m interested in hearing what you have to think — whether you agree or disagree with the very premise.  Do you think a shift in resource allocation and focus is practical or even attainable when tinkering with a model that has been dominant for generations?

Why do we have multiple people focused on making worship happen on Sundays and not one staff person with focused responsibility for social media (and the resources to support it)?

Why do we spend hours in meetings working out every detail of Sundays and no organized time in one-to-one conversations with emerging disciples?

Help me to sketch out some ideas for a redistribution of focus and resources (or tell me where I am missing the boat).  I’ll share some thoughts first.

Let’s start with some underlying principles, and then we’ll brainstorm some specific strategies:

  • People just don’t connect with worship in the ways they traditionally have connected with worship, and, therefore, they need alternatives for engagement.
  • People stay connected to and engaged in the world around them in ways that are different from the ways they stayed connected and engaged a generation ago. Social media is a huge daily factor in their lives, and, therefore, social media needs to be a natural part of how they live out their faith.
  • Even though the point above is true, life lived through social media contacts can feel shallow and incomplete. People still long for a deeper experience: deeper, lasting connections and complex interactions that make them feel secure and challenge them to grow.
  • Relationships matter above all else. This is the most biblical of principles (narrated throughout the Bible and lived out passionately in Christ’s ministry).  The building of healthy, accountable relationships is our most important work, and when we do that work, all else follows.
  • In considering how we bring to life the point above, we should acknowledge that while events and programs (which form the bulk of our current ministry work) can be an excellent pathway to building relationships, they often are not, and can even thwart relationships (diverting our time to logistical rabbit holes, reinforcing a sense of “who’s in” and “who’s out,” soaking up resources, and limiting us to cubbyholes of ministry, while stifling creativity and flexibility). That is to say, events and programs can easily become goals unto themselves, causing us to lose sight of the higher priority of relationship building.
  • Conversation is always a great beginning. Conversation is never wasted.

You make take issue with these philosophical underpinnings.  Please do!  You may think I missed a couple that are essential to this conversation.  Please share!  Having stated them, though, and having presented a real-world challenge in the opening paragraph, let’s apply the principles to the practical.

Challenge 1:  Getting folks connected in a non-traditional manner.  In this case, we begin with folks who have formerly been a part of each other’s lives, or even if they did not previously know each other directly, were part of a shared institutional experience that played a significant role in their lives.  They are dispersed geographically.  Their spiritual growth journeys have diverged – some are still actively involved in a local congregation, but many no longer actively attend church.  They may be practicing lives of generosity and service; they may have forgotten what that’s like.  They may be on track with educational and career plans, have significant others and healthy family relationships.  On the other hand, they may be totally off course.  Flexibility in meeting them where they are is going to be key.

Challenge 2:  Holding folks accountable in a way that promotes their spiritual progress.  Rather than creating a social group that would merely celebrate those former connections and memories, our quest is to leverage that history to promote new growth.  The premise of the original connection was spiritual growth and world-changing impact, so the culture of the new connectional system (whatever shape that new connectional system eventually takes) should further these original values.  That is, it shouldn’t be merely a nostalgia-based group (like an alumni get-together).  It should be an active group, sharing in life’s struggles and growing in new directions.  How are group members committed to their own spiritual progress and that of their peers?

Challenge 3:  Making this new system of connection and accountability matter in ways that make a difference to the wider world and the local congregation.  If challenge #2 deals more specifically with accountable spiritual growth for individuals, this challenge propels the group to engagement with connectional ministry in local church settings and a wider world context.

Even if we are able to tackle these challenges, I know that you, my ministry friends, are asking how we local church leaders can spend time, energy, and resources working with such an amorphous group of believers.  How is this loosey-goosey association of the ambivalent going to grow your local church and empower your community ministry?  Here’s another premise:

  • When we do the work of faithfully building disciples, all else follows. As we grow this non-traditional group of believers, it will lead to God’s work being done in unanticipated ways.  Some of it will be directly in our local church.  Some of it will benefit other local churches.  Much of it will benefit the wider communities in which these group members live.  But the energy that comes from the spiritual excitement of a new thing happening will definitely inform and infect our local church work.  And, as we decide which folks to engage directly, the opportunities that present themselves directly in front of us – an organic outgrowth of our daily interactions – seem like a great place to get started.

So, having established operating principles and contextual challenges, how do we proceed with some specific strategies?  (We here at EMC3 Coaching are big on using SMART goals!)

  • Identify key partners who agree this is a worthy project. Start with a core.  Identify a time frame (a year, perhaps) to see what you can accomplish.
  • Write down a description of what you’re hoping to do. (You can call it a Vision Statement if you must, but why bog it down with freighted expectations?)  It should have a short version you can share quickly with others, and a long version you can share with yourselves to be sure you are all on the same page.
  • Start building a database. Gather as much contact information as you can about people who might be part of this group – gather cell numbers, email addresses, social media profiles, etc.  (Physical addresses will likely play a limited role in this enterprise.)
  • Start having conversations. Begin reaching out to the people in the database.  Just talk to them!  Make notes on what they are up to.  They may be content in their own current lives, serving the Lord and doing fine, thanks very much!  They may be desperate for the contact you are offering.  If they are in a well-established stage, ask them if they would be willing to partner with others who could use some help.
  • Build an online community. Establish a portal by which these connections can have a place to live.  Promote interaction and reconnection.
  • Host a gathering. It is probably not going to work to invite everyone to church on Sundays (for a lot of reasons).  Host a purpose-built gathering to get together socially.  Let that gathering spawn other gatherings, some smaller groups, some big group blowouts.  Host an occasional large retreat which can go deeper.  These could have focused spiritual development and service components.
  • Promote spiritual growth opportunities. Spiritual growth should be a leading factor in this group’s identity.  Promote studies and events that group members can attend independently or together (including at your local congregation or other local congregations that group members may already be attending).  Host online discussion boards.  Host a Bible reading challenge through the online portal.  Have members share what they’re learning.  Post resources for spiritual growth.  Develop a series of mentors, prayer partners, etc.
  • Promote service opportunities. Service should be a leading factor in this group’s identity.  Have members share ways they are already serving and have them invite others to serve alongside them.  Promote group service opportunities (“Hey, let’s get together for this Habitat build!”).  Promote service opportunities at your local church – this is a great way to engage this group with that local congregation.

This is a template for something new.  Of course, worship should also be a component in any disciple’s life.  Developing worship alternatives that appeal to our ragtag bunch is a worthy goal.  Directing them to interesting worship alternatives, while keeping them connected to other believers in other ways is also a path.

What do you think?  What do you see as major obstacles to this approach?  What do you see as fundamental flaws to the underlying premises?  What successes have you seen that reflect similar flexible approaches?  What challenges do you face in your specific ministry context in connecting with and engaging people?  Share it all!