By Eddie Pipkin

I have a friend who likes to tease me about my go-to poke-you-with-a-stick question in any brainstorming conversation: “Yeah, but what does that LOOK like?”  Ideas are fine, but they fizzle out on the brainstorming board if they can’t be given flesh and bone structure. Concepts must move to the stage of practical details.  Vision requires form and function.

One of the blockages in the ministry pipeline of “new ideas” is our inability to see beyond the current model.  I’m not talking here about a roomful of people reciting the familiar mantra, “We’ve never done it that way before.”  I’m talking about when you and I — people who sincerely think of ourselves as open-minded innovators — just can’t see beyond the old, familiar structures.

My friend and I were talking about an excursion that got together a bunch of former youth group folk for a weekend.  It led to observations about what an incredible (yet mostly unchurched) group of twenty-somethings they were – the powerful ideas and service they had to offer.  What a core group of fresh disciples they might potentially be!  Yet my friend bogged down at this point, shaking his head: “C’mon, let’s face it.  There’s no way they would ever be a part of _____ [unnamed local congregation X].  We don’t have anything that would appeal to them.”  What he meant by that was that _____ did not offer a worship service that would appeal to them.  This was our familiar metric for what a successful young adult group would look like: physical participation in existing weekly worship.

But what if we started with an entirely different set of questions and concerns?  What if we started with a fresh set of metrics for measuring what matters?

What if our metrics (based on our understanding of discipleship) were . . .

  • Authentic community? (A community that stays connected and supports one another through struggles and difficulties; that celebrates together; that encourages one another; that stays in touch and knows what’s going on in the lives of those who have chosen to be a part of it; that demonstrates forgiveness and restoration.)
  • Accountable spiritual growth? (A community that helps one another seek out the right path for each individual’s spiritual advancement: the relevant spiritual disciplines, the words and music that speak to individual hearts, the worship that connects, challenges, and empowers; a community that insists on a continuing journey, unique to each perhaps, but committed to a more passionate life of Christ-following.)
  • Meaningful service? (A community that reminds its members that Jesus calls us to serve in ways large and small, to move beyond our selfish priorities to employ our unique talents and gifts to make a difference for others; a community that promotes regular individual forms of service and occasional group service projects together.)
  • A life that changes our community by reflecting the values and priorities of Jesus? (A community that helps us think through what it means to think, speak, and act like Jesus in all our relationships.)
  • Social justice? (A community that helps think through – and take action on – issues of human dignity and worth, righteous actions, and planetary stewardship.)
  • Generosity and intentionally living with margin to empower that generosity? (A community that forms clear standards about the power of biblical generosity, a rejection of materialism, and an exchange of ideas about how to prioritize our saving and spending so that we our own needs are met, but we also preserve resources to respond to the needs of others.)

While participation in traditional Sunday morning worship can (and does) facilitate these aspects of Christian community, it’s not a requirement.  My intent is not to undermine the wisdom of Hebrews 10:  “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another. . . .”  Rather it is to rethink how we build community that translates those familiar phrases in new ways: “spur one another on,” “meeting together,” and “encouraging one another.”  A Sunday morning model for bringing these phrase to life is the model with which we are comfortable because it is the model we know – and the model towards which the resources of our local congregations are heavily weighted.  But it is increasingly a model that feels less comfortable and more restrictive for those we lead.

It’s a programming approach.  Let’s design a program or event to reach our objectives.  But what if, instead of starting with programs as a means to channel resources, we started with the community itself?  What if we started with reaching out to the community – gathering the community, engaging in conversations with the community?  What if we leveraged technology to break down traditional barriers of geography and scheduling challenges?

Every community of faith has a unique context.  Ginghamsburg Church pastor emeritus Mike Slaughter says, “Your church size and context are not barriers to mission and ministry.  Passion, a little out-of-the-box creativity, and a hunger to reach the least and the lost are the true essentials for Kingdom growth.” He wrote those words as part of a recent blog in which he explored three models for worship ministry that are non-traditional institutional models.

  • Recovery Ministry: Worship communities for addicts and their loved ones.

Recovery ministry is something any church, no matter its size, can initiate for moving outside its walls and addressing a tremendous felt need in its surrounding community. The addiction crisis is no respecter of persons, race, neighborhood or socioeconomic status.

  • Homeless Ministry: Worship communities for those struggling with homelessness that feature a blend of worship, a community meal, and connection to social services.

Serving with the poor in and among us creates some of the most powerful worship I have ever experienced. As Jesus noted, the poor we will always have with us. More than 2000 scriptures make plain God’s special concern for the poor. Clearly if the gospel isn’t good news for the poor, then it isn’t the gospel.

  • House Church: Small-scale worship communities based in homes and appealing to those who struggle with traditional institutional worship.  This kind of community is usually described as a start-up model, but it can also work in conjunction with existing congregations.

Simple organisms multiply faster than complex ones, and the house church can be a friendlier model to unchurched people who may not be attracted to a “big box store” church model.

None of these models is limited to a one-size-fits-all structure.  Some of you are leading versions of them right now.  There are as many potential variations as there are unique congregational contexts.  A homeless worship ministry would be most often relevant in an urban setting but make less sense in a suburban setting.  An addiction-oriented ministry, on the other hand could be equally powerful in a rural or urban setting.  The key is context: know the community in which you are located and have a clear vision for the community you want to be.  Do you have creative people?  Turn them loose, and not just in support of your traditional structures (hey come play in the worship band!).  Do the demographic studies indicate an underserved population of the old and alone?  Seek them out, talk to them, and see how you could best serve them.

Using the criteria listed above, it would be possible to identify any nascent community and help the people in it build a model for connection that works uniquely for them and is still participating in meaningful ways with the local congregation.

We’ll explore this topic further in an upcoming follow-up blog entry.  In the meantime, how have you seen non-traditional approaches to building faith communities – and once built, how do such unique communities amplify the work of the local congregation?  Share your stories.