I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
– 1 Corinthians 9:22b-23 ESV
I believe that Paul is communicating here that ministry is not just about saying the right things, it’s about applying the gospel to a particular context. However, many of us just do what other churches do without considering that other churches are in other places and those places are different. All of us believe that we are to reach every ethnos (people groups) like Jesus said. What many don’t consider is the amount of intentionality it will take to do that. We have to work hard to fit in locally, but what does that actually mean?
Local: relating to or occurring in a particular area, city, or town; not general or widespread
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
So, how does your church relate to your particular area? Would how you do ministry be defined as specific or as widespread? I’ll write more on this later, but here are some thoughts as you consider how “local” your local church is.
Does Your Building Stick Out Or Fit In?
The bible makes it clear that the church is a people who’ve been redeemed by God and empowered by his Spirit to love the world and proclaim his goodness. So, to be clear, it’s a people, not a building. Buildings are great, we meet in several and we are thankful for them, but to confuse the building for the “church” is tragic on multiple levels.
That said, when people come to your building, is it overwhelmingly a “church” before they even get to meet the people or hear the gospel preached? Have you considered that this can be very intimidating for people new to Christianity?
If not, imagine you walked into a Mosque or a Buddhist Temple and were expected to know what was going on. I think you would agree that this would be a very paralyzing feeling. That’s how people who don’t know Jesus probably feel when they visit most church buildings.
The challenge of making your building not feel too religious is a challenge in big cities, however many I know have to be so creative about where they meet in large cities due to regulations and cost of rent that they usually end up in a trendy building by default.
However, many churches in small towns are meeting in older, more traditional buildings. We don’t all have lots of warehouses to convert, although they occasionally are available as we found in our last building project at One Harbor.
What should you do if you lead a church in a small town and are struggling with your outdated facility that’s overtly a “church?”
Consider Your Context
Remember, local means specific, not widespread. Your building may feel “generic” and you need it to feel “local.” To do that, visit local hangouts with your team and consider what they have in common. Then consider if you could do anything to your facility to make it easier for people to want to come to?
Maybe it’s as simple as repainting and using some metals or woods on the walls that are often used in your context. Maybe you need a full-blown remodel. If that’s the case, please consider that what is cool now will not be cool forever. Try to design the building in such a way that you can make modifications later that won’t break the bank. Imagine what you could do to make the building you have feel more inviting to those who aren’t yet Christians. However, they are by no means your only audience.
The de-churched in small towns are a mission field themselves. You being engaging in making your facility more “local” will most likely lead to folks who had given up on “church” coming to check you out. When they do, make sure you remember to tell them who THE church really is and why!
Does Your Music Reflect The Most Popular Radio Station?
A lot of churches I see are strictly doing the music they like the way they like it. They don’t give any thought to who else may be coming. What we are communicating is that this meeting is all about us. The fact is, we can go out of our way to play our songs in a way that at least resembles we have considered our culture, but that will require some effort.
Think about this next Sunday. Imagine you didn’t know anything about Jesus or church and had come into the room where people started singing. What words would you not understand that are in the songs? For example, we now explain words like, “hosanna, hallelujah” and we explain phrases like, “here I raise my ebenezer.” We also changed the words from, “the trump shall resound,” to, “trumpet shall…” for obvious reasons…:)
So, moving from widespread to local, consider how you can do a better job of helping people who are visiting your church by making the music feel more in style, like something they like, and making the words as easy to understand as possible. Why? Because the goal is for people to be amazed by Jesus, not distracted by our insider language that reiterates they don’t fit in.
Do You Consider Local Events Or Seasons When Planning?
A few years ago, we realized that in the summer we were killing all of our local leaders and volunteers. Where we live is a tourist destination, which means we get three months a year to make up a lot of missing income the rest of the year. However, I had not ever considered this and so the summers were just as busy as the rest of the year. What I was communicating subconsciously is that I didn’t care what duress I put people under. I wasn’t considering them when I was planning our calendar.
I think we took a lot of ground when we finally began to consider our local calendar of events, not as competition, but as something we could work with. Holidays, spring break and summer are things to be considered when planning your church calendar. Local festivals are another massive opportunity. That’s right, an opportunity. You can either pout because everyone is at the local__________ or you can join in and make the most of it when possible.
For example, we had a building located in our small “downtown” for a few years and ended up having to shut down service on that Sunday due to a massive influx of people coming to our local Seafood Festival. We made the most out of it. We did a baptism and breakfast service in the morning and had our people volunteer in the afternoons. I would encourage you to consider how you can better work with what’s happening in your town as you seek to be a church that is part of it and wants to be a blessing to it.
Does Your Preaching Attire Fit The People You’re Trying To Reach?
I know a pastor who visited our church and saw I didn’t wear a suit to preach in. (Remember we live in a beach town full of divers and surfers who aren’t known for wearing suits unless someone died and they were told they had to wear one.)
He asked me to coffee and drilled me with questions about why I didn’t wear a suit when I preached. I told him that we were not trying to impress people who were already Christians. We were trying to reach people who were going to hell. I was not trying to be disrespectful by not dressing up, but I was trying to make people new to church & Jesus feel like I was a normal person like them; a fellow beggar who found bread.
He promptly went back to his board and told them he was considering preaching without a jacket on Sunday in an effort to be more relatable to visitors and people who cannot afford to dress up for church. A deacon told him, “Nice talk, but I hope you’re not serious about not preaching with a suit on.” It wasn’t long before my friend moved on to another town.
Now, maybe for your context a suit is appropriate because that is what all the local people wear…but the point is, think about this and have some purpose behind it more than looking to impress Christians who are probably more concerned with tradition then evangelism.
Us pastors and church planters are products of a culture. Sadly, most of us are products of a Christian subculture that works against us as missionaries to the cultures around us in our small towns. We cannot change the gospel, but we can change how we communicate it to those around us. The first thing most of us need to do is just step back and start considering how what we are doing may need to change. Then, try small ways to adjust how you do ministry and trust God to do what only he can do.
***I wrote more about this topic in Chapter 7 of my book, Small Town Jesus.