Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Creating competitive & contagious church communities

According to the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life’s 2012 Religious Landscape Survey, over 29 church denominations are represented in the U.S. Underneath this umbrella, hundreds of thousands of individual churches host services on Sunday mornings in all 50 states. So, how does an individual church plant go about setting themselves apart from the so-called competition?

Pastor Richard Brand of First Presbyterian Church in Henderson, North Carolina, recently wrote a Huffington Post blog about the importance of every church's “central mission” – whether it be community involvement, worship, or architecture. In his post, Brand emphasizes the need for every church to identify their strengths and proclaim them to the masses – so much so, that it should be readily apparent to newcomers what the church's main mission is after attending only one service.
For Mile High Vineyard Church in Denver, Colorado, Pastor Dave Runyon’s vision is to get members involved in their communities outside the walls of the church (details in this Christianity Today interview). Runyon recommends working with city officials to get involved with community needs and encouraging congregants to love their neighbors via community initiatives - Mile High's "claim to fame" is a neighborhood initiative called "Building Blocks."

Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., founded by senior pastor Bill Hybels in 1975, averages over 20,000 attendees at Sunday services, and is known for its community outreach and worship ministries.
Photo courtesy McShane Fleming Studios
Action steps for churches worldwide

As a Christian journalist in the greater Chicago area, I have a wealth of experience reporting on churches around the world. I'm a keen observer of religious media and culture, both inside and out, and believe the following steps are a recipe for success for church congregations everywhere:

1) Define your church / organization’s mission statement: what is the main theme you want to get across to “church shoppers” and members alike on Sunday mornings? (contemporary or traditional worship, community outreach, Bible-based teaching, etc.)
2) Discuss this mission statement with the leadership at your church: create a thought-map summarizing what the pastors and elders see as strengths to your worship and liturgy as presented on Sunday mornings.
3) Discuss this mission statement with the congregants at your church: produce a short survey, included with the bulletin, that asks congregants what they believe the strengths and/or weaknesses are of your congregation or the Sunday service at large.
4) Collect the surveys, and discuss with church leadership. What do congregants perceive the church’s strengths are, and are you capitalizing on those areas? Also, how can you take the weaknesses and turn them into strengths?
5) Analyze the church’s curriculum and outreach ministries. How much money is being allocated to each area, how many volunteers exist in each sector (childcare, small groups, community outreach efforts/partnerships), and does this spread of finances and personnel reflect the congregants’ and leadership team’s priorities?

Based on these action steps, what are you waiting for? If you're a church leader, call a meeting. If you're an elder or layperson, call a meeting! Talk amongst yourselves, and remember - actions speak louder than words, and talk is cheap. Begin community discussions, both inside and outside the walls of your church - but make sure your vision carries through to execution.

-Allison J. Althoff is a masters of journalism student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and Integrated Marketing Communication, focusing on religious media marketing, consumption and production. She also currently serves as an editorial intern at Christianity Today Media Group, writes "A Daily Miracle" blog at ChicagoNow, and is an active member of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill. Follow her on Twitter @ajalthoff.

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