Many of us can remember a time when the church stood at the center of our communities. We don’t have to look very far to recognize this is not the case in 2017. You can flip on the news or log into any social media platform or even look at the schedules of youth and children’s extracurricular activities to recognize that the church is no longer a focal point in many of our communities.
I began to recognize this change in a real way in my time as a youth minister in the Atlanta area from 2011 to 2016. In those five years, we saw the shift happen right in front of our eyes. When I first started at the church, Wednesday evening and all day Sunday were known as “the church days” around town. No school programs, or city sports leagues scheduled anything on those days. A few years later I was teaching a youth Sunday school class and several of our students that rarely missed, were all not present that morning. Later in the week I saw a couple of them and asked them where they were. They all provided the same response, “I had a soccer game on Sunday morning”. Many are aware that travel sports have taken place on Sunday mornings for a number of years, but this group of girls played on the local recreation league that originally formed out of a local church.
I was telling this story to a friend who is a United Methodist pastor and he was nodding his head along with the story as if he already knew what I was about to say. He responded with a story of his own. He coached his 11 year old daughter’s Upward soccer team that took place at the church where he served. Several weeks into the season his daughter made friends with another girl on the team. That teammate asked my friend’s daughter what her dad did for work. She responded, “He is a pastor!”. The teammate responded with the question, “what is a pastor?".
I share these stories as I go around to trainings, not so we can dwell on the sad nature of this shift nor for the shock value, but so we can recognize the immense need for us to move beyond the walls of our churches. For many years, effective ministry meant having vibrant programs inside the walls of the church and some outreach to draw people to the wonderful things going on in your church. Today, I do still believe it is important to have great programs in our churches. However, we can't stop there. In this post-Christianity society we must learn to engage with our communities outside of the church walls as well.
A Mixed Economy Model of Church
My friend Michael Beck is the senior pastor at Wildwood UMC. Michael and his team have created what some call a “Mixed Economy of Church”. This idea is one that has circulated in the missional church for several years now. The Mixed Economy of Church is one in which there are traditional expressions of church (i.e. Contemporary Worship Service, Traditional Worship Service), along with ministry to the homeless, Celebrate Recovery services, and Fresh Expressions of church all under the umbrella of one church. Wildwood UMC has taken this model and embraced it. They offer a traditional Sunday morning service each week as well as several Fresh Expressions in their community including “Burritos & Bibles” and “Paws & Praise”. This multi expression form of church has taken them from being a church in Wildwood to being THE church for the Wildwood community.
As we think about what churches will look like in the future, I imagine them looking something like a mixed economy of church. A blend of programs and services inside the walls of the church combined with a variety of expressions of church outside the four walls.
What would it look like for your church to begin engaging the community surrounding your building? Maybe it’s at the ball field, the dog park, or the neighborhood bar and grill….. As we shift our focus outward, may we see the world as "our parish" like John Wesley spoke so many years ago.
Matt Harrell is the Fresh Expressions Coordinator for the Florida United Methodist Conference. He has a passion for coming up with new and creative ways for people to experience the love of God. Matt and his wife Nina live in Orlando, FL.