By Eddie Pipkin
Last week I wrote about putting people where they will thrive in ministry. This week I’m writing about putting the ministries where the people are! Our traditional model is to provide ministry at our home location and invite people to join us there, and this can be an excellent framework for establishing our campus as a location known to the community as a place where they are welcomed, especially if we are offering our space in partnership with other local groups. But most of the action in our communities—the places where people are living their day-to-day lives—is happening beyond our borders, so if we really want to “meet people where they are,” we should probably be taking that mantra a little more literally.
First of all, if the title of the blog got you to thinking about Ariel, the Little Mermaid, and her song of the same name, go ahead and click through and sing along to get it out of your system. It is worth noting that Ariel sings this song from her really cool grotto of human treasures. She has a special space of her own filled with carefully preserved artifacts from other people’s lives, but what she really longs for is to interact with people one-to-one in their natural habitat. That’s a lesson for us! It’s one thing to invite people (sincerely) into our space to share their life experiences, but it’s altogether another thing to meet them where those experiences are happening, to be relevant in the spaces where they are living their lives. This communicates to them that rather than just valuing them as recruits for doing “our stuff,” we are truly interested in “their stuff.” What we have to offer are insights into unlocking the true meaning and purpose of a well-lived life—but applied in their unique life circumstances. It’s always been a little weird that the church’s model for doing that has been to physically remove people from their daily context—granted, there are plenty of terrific reasons for establishing holy spaces as a refuge from the daily grind, and there is great value in establishing safe and welcoming community spaces—that’s us being the church at our best. But the total abdication of off-campus community presence—insisting on doing ministry only in the spaces that we control—is a rejection of the kind of ministry that Jesus modeled. Jesus was clearly entwined in regular physical proximity to people’s real lives.
I first had the idea for revisiting this topic because of a shopping trip that my wife and mother-in-law made to a big box hardware store. They were shopping for supplies for a bathroom remodel project at my mother-in-law’s home, and they needed some flooring tiles that would look good and work well in a humid bathroom setting—something durable, but easy enough to install so that they could DIY it. They were hovering in the tile aisle, analyzing the options, looking obviously (as they described it) like they really did not know what they were doing and not seeing a sales associate within hailing range, when an older, contractor-looking gentleman (again, their words) retrieving something from a shelf asked them if they needed some help. They proceeded to ask their questions, and he answered with apparent expertise and enthusiasm. He quickly helped them sort through their preferences and make selections and instructed them what supplies they needed to load their shopping cart with, as well superfluous supplies they could avoid. As they were profusely thanking him, he added, “You know, I do that kind of work, flooring installation. I could come do this project for you for a very reasonable rate, if you’d rather not take it on yourselves.” They came home with his number. What serendipity, they claimed, describing the whole thing to me when they got home. What luck! I was a little more skeptical, thinking, what crafty genius! This guy hangs out on that aisle at that store scouting for potential customers!
We should really think more like that when we’re thinking about community-facing ministry.
I’m not saying we should be operating from a mercenary mindset, lurking creepily and working to recruit new “customers.” I’m saying we have something of real (and eternal) value to offer, and it makes sense to meet people in the very spaces where they are most acutely feeling their need. We’re not pushy—we’re not selling something—we are available and offering ourselves and the resources of our church to meet their needs in the moment.
Here’s an article about the Niner United campus ministry and how it supports 30,000 college students, meeting them where they are because they don’t even have a physical building.
Here’s an article about a local north Georgia church being recognized for its outstanding, ongoing support of a neighborhood school.
Schools, hospitals, parks and recreation programs, counseling services, exercise initiatives, family support, job training, funeral homes, local businesses, community-serving local government initiatives, arts programs, environmental projects, assisted living facilities, and immigrant support all offer opportunities for connections and partnerships. There are people in your congregation who already have a passion for and connections to these efforts—let them take the lead. (I haven’t even listed here all the normal kinds of outreach that local churches undertake from food pantries to soup kitchens to clothing drives, etc. Even as we do these important mission initiatives, it is a great idea to look for ways to do them off campus as well as on.)
I just heard of another local church that is partnering with the community recreation and special events department to be in charge of all the kids’ activities for the upcoming neighborhood Christmas festival. This is great partnership. It is the path to being part of the fabric of the life of the community.
There is an additional benefit for us that comes from this “where the people are” approach to ministry. If we are hanging out with people on their home turf, we really begin to understand other people’s life perspectives. When we fellowship in their spaces, we better understand who they are and the challenges they face. When we work with them in their spaces, we put ourselves on the line in showing value in those spaces and those communities. We build credibility as agents of compassion and grace as representatives of our churches. We build those churches’ reputations. I’ve done work with a local church that is at the center of an affluent neighborhood that is literally a mile-and-a-half from one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the city. It is a beautiful thing to make people welcome in our well-appointed spaces, but it is arguably even more beautiful to make ourselves vulnerable by humbly and sincerely, with true interest and empathy, in order to fellowship and serve in their special spaces. I realize there is considerable preparatory work to be done to respectfully and successfully enter into spaces that are culturally radically different from our own, but it is exactly the kind of rewarding work we are called to do as followers of Jesus.
There is also an individual aspect to this philosophy of meeting people where they are. We can practice it on a regular basis as individual disciples, and such efforts will inspire our own spiritual growth and strengthen our contributions to the fabric of our local congregation. It is a corrective against our impulse to judge others and their ways of doing things. It is a vital part of the process of creativity, as we experience different approaches to living life and doing ministry.
What are the ways in which you and your congregation are partnering with outside groups to do important ministry beyond your campus? (And I’m not just talking about one-off mission trips here: I’m talking about ongoing partnerships.) What are the ways that you as an individual make it a point to experience the perspectives of others by spending time in their community spaces? How have you found that such experiences change you (and change your church if your church also makes it a point to engage in such ways)? Share your stories.