By now you’ve probably heard of Rooted or used it in your church. Rooted is an experience brought over from Kenya by Mariners Church about a decade ago. If you haven’t heard of Rooted, you can get the full details here and here . While many churches have seen phenomenal life transformations through Rooted, other churches have struggled to implement Rooted or to deal with life after Rooted. While I’ve written a great deal about what is working with Rooted, let’s take a look at what churches are finding difficult.
Rooted is a Big Deal, but It’s Only 10 Weeks
Where will your groups go after Rooted ends? While Rooted should be a major initiative in any church, it is only 10 weeks. Rooted requires a certain amount of training in order to qualify a facilitator to lead the Rooted group. So, for the group to continue, you need to raise up a new leader to lead the on-going group. If you don’t then, you will lose your Rooted facilitator and will have to recruit more facilitators for future groups. You have to begin with the end in mind.
As the Rooted group starts, the facilitator needs to quickly size up the Rooted group to see who the potential on-going group leader might be. You could even get ahead of this by recruiting the on-going leader before the Rooted group begins. Of course, this puts you in the dilemma of recruiting both Rooted facilitators and group leaders. We all know how tough handpicking leaders can be.
One option would be to ask someone to gather a group, then give them a Rooted facilitator. Similar to a church-wide campaign where someone would gather their friends, then the church would supply a video-based curriculum. Instead of giving them a video, you would give them a Rooted facilitator. Then, when the 10-weeks of Rooted ends, you have the on-going leader in place.
The approach to disciple making in Rooted is much different than most Western left-brained approaches. The rhythms of Rooted touch on both the left and right sides of the brain. (For more on this see, The Other Half of Churchby Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks). While there is plenty of left brained activity like daily homework and Bible discussion, the addition of the rhythms and experiences of Rooted produce powerful transformation. This combination creates an appetite for more. The problem is at this point there isn’t more.
I have seen a few other attempts at follow up studies to Rooted like Story and Life in Rhythm, but at this point neither of these measure up to the original Rooted. So, should your church avoid Rooted until this is remedied? Absolutely not! But, here’s what you need to think through.
First, in time Life in Rhythm will measure up, so be patient. You can offer Rooted without offering its immediate cousin as a next step. In fact, you can turn any 6-8 week study into a Rooted sequel by adding the prayer experience, strongholds study, serve experience, and celebration. The appetite is for the rhythms and not necessarily the “brand.” (But, the brand is pretty great.)
Next, consider other studies which relate to the themes of Rooted. At the Rooted Celebration the graduates are commissioned to find and fill needs in the community as “ministers of the Gospel.” Studies like The Neighboring Life by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis or The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon would dovetail beautifully with this commission. After all, you don’t need any special ability to be a neighbor!
Before you begin Rooted in your church, you need to have a next step study in mind. If you haven’t planned a next step, then you will have created an appetite that will go unsatisfied in your church. That is never a good thing.
Churches Don’t Know What They’re Getting Into
Rooted is a powerful experience. I have seen little else that produces the level of life transformation as Rooted. But, you know when you introduce powerful godly forces, then you will face a significant amount of spiritual warfare.
When I worked with Mariners Church and the Rooted Network on their pastors’ training events, as a Rooted semester began things would always happen: financial struggles, relationship tension, health problems – you name it. In every semester stuff happened. As a Presbyterian friend of mine says, “Well, when you do things for God you can expect a certain amount of spiritual flak!” And, we did. At one point, I mentioned to Robin Riley, the former COO of Rooted, “When it comes to the dynamics of Rooted, sometimes I wonder if you should run toward it or run away from it.” I’m not saying these things to scare you, but you need to be prepared.
You need to bathe your Rooted launch and Rooted experience in prayer. This is a powerful tool. God will do amazing things, but you will face opposition. Before you execute a single strategy, ask the prayer warriors in the church to pray for your staff, your facilitators, your members, your church, and your community. Otherwise, if you launch headlong into Rooted without sufficient prayer covering, you might end up like the Sons of Sceva (Acts 19). Ok, maybe not exactly, but you get what I’m saying.
Give every Rooted facilitator a coach and check in with them regularly. Rooted will bring up a lot of stuff. You won’t see this in the first two or three weeks, but after that, your facilitators will face some things they may not have experience in. They will need to process what’s going on in their group. Enlist some mature folks in your church to check in with your facilitators every week and make themselves available to them. While this is something you might be tempted to skip, don’t skip it. This is necessary for the well-being of your leaders.
Rooted Brings Up Major Issues
If Rooted works well, then Rooted graduates will never be the same. People will come to Christ. People will be set free. Some will be completely overwhelmed by the spiritual strongholds in their lives (Week 5). They will need something beyond Rooted to address these issues.
I am currently working with a church that did Rooted as a church-wide campaign a couple of years ago. All 1,400 of their people did Rooted all at once. They are still trying to sort everything out. For months there was not a single counseling appointment available in their town. All of the counselors were booked up with Rooted graduates who needed to process their strongholds.
If your church is doing Rooted as a church-wide campaign, then have some resources in place to deal with these strongholds. Celebrate Recovery and other support groups can be a great resource. Recommendations for local counselors will be welcome. The strength of Rooted is that people will face stuff that they’ve buried for a long time. They will experience freedom. They will experience blessing and connection with God. But, this isn’t automatic. Be prepared to give them the help they will need.
The Biggest Problem with Rooted
Churches have been anxious to offer Rooted to their people to see their lives transformed. This is a wonderful thing. This is what first attracted me to Rooted. But, this is only half of the equation.
The purpose of Rooted is to transform both people AND churches. When the people change but the church doesn’t change, there is a problem. Rooted is built on the Simple Church concept [LINK]. Rooted calls for you to re-evaluate the ministries in your church and to purge the things that don’t align with your mission.
In the early days of Rooted in North America, much was made about the Loop (pictured below). Now, many Rooted churches don’t know what the Loop is.
The title of the Loop tells the story: Transformational versus Transactional. The intent of Rooted is to change people’s lives, but also to change the culture of your church. The focus goes to culture, connection, and outreach – nothing else. Rooted is an empowering movement. But, if you attempt to put new wine into old wineskins, then you’ll have a mess on your hands.
Think About This
If you’re church is using Rooted or planning to, do it! But, plan ahead. Here’s your checklist:
What is your prayer strategy?
Who will lead the on-going group?
What are the next steps after Rooted?
Who will coach the Rooted facilitators?
What resources will you offer people to process their spiritual strongholds?
How will you allow Rooted to impact your church in every area?
Rooted can and will make a tremendous difference your community. If you are ready or reluctant to launch Rooted in your church, then let’s talk. Click this link to set up an appointment.]
Thinking about the post-COVID church might seem like a little wishful thinking, but I believe we can embrace the lessons learned in the last year and apply them to what’s ahead. Since March 2020, we’ve learned what we can do without. We’ve found some things that were more effective than we ever imagined. We have also discovered that some of the things we thought were so important are simply unnecessary (I’m looking at you large gatherings with rubber chicken and a speaker).
Churches learned to “play chess without the queen of the weekend service” as Alan Hirsch told us. We also learned that the weekend service did not accomplish nearly as much as we counted on. After all, sermons don’t make disciples. Once the building was closed and services were cancelled, the pressure came off of “guest services” and went to online worship services. Membership classes and growth tracks, small groups and even Sunday school classes went online.
People stayed home and fell in love with Sunday brunch. Adults had the choice of watching any church in the world at any time. Kids got the short end of the stick with no youth groups and no online children’s church. As time wore on, people became a little more lazy about watching the weekend service. Granted, the average church-goer only attended 1.6 times per month in-person. It was easier to skip church at home. No one was watching them.
The pandemic accelerated everything. Everyone suddenly went online. Things that were breaking broke rather quickly. According to the Barna Group, one in five churches will close in the next year, if they haven’t already. Most churches have lost 20% or more of their congregations. The challenge of the post-COVID church is to embrace things that were forced on us (but worked!), to part with things that are not effective, and to discover some new things for a new season of ministry.
The Front Door of Your Church is Now Digital
Prior to March 2020, online services and online small groups seemed like a novelty to most churches. Online worship was either not considered or catered to the elderly and infirmed who couldn’t attend regularly. COVID changed that. What was once a novelty became a necessity, but it became even more than that – online services, online small groups, and an online community are an opportunity.
In a recent podcast interview with Jay Kranda, Saddleback’s Online Pastor, over the last decade he has seen genuine community forming online in groups, services, membership, and discipleship. (You can catch the podcast episode here). What was once thought of as abnormal became the norm. What’s even better is that it works – not just for online worship, but for Alpha and Celebrate Recovery where their role is bigger than ever before.
Before anyone darkens the door of your church, they will watch your service online. They were already starting with the church website before COVID. Now, they’re starting with online worship. Knowing that far more people are watching online than are even attending in-person, churches need to invest in their new digital front door. Streaming video is not an online service. The need and opportunity for online worship longs for a unique online service.
The Growth Engine of Your Church is Groups
While there are many great benefits to online groups (Download the Senior Pastors Guide to Groups), churches with groups faired far better than churches without groups in 2020-2021. Churches did an excellent job producing content. In fact, at one point, Phil Cooke, a media producer, said, “Right now the church is producing more content than Hollywood.” Churches had content down, but if groups weren’t in place, they lacked community and conversation.
When the building was closed, ministries were shut down, and in-person services were cancelled, small groups thrived. For every pastor who has ever longed to see decentralized ministry, the pandemic accelerated the reach and effectiveness of groups online and in-person. Facebook friends became Facebook groups. Wherever people find community (online or offline), there is a place for groups.
What’s even better is that during the pandemic, you became a church OF small groups. All of the other competing ministries went away and only groups were left. Previously, you just had a larger crowd. Now, you are a church OF groups and not just a church WITH groups. This helps churches focus more clearly on their mission to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19). Groups are a great tool to enlist more disciple-makers. If disciples aren’t making disciples, then you have missed the point.
The Greatest Impact of Your Church is Your Members
The last year has proven that the greatest impact of your church is not the weekend service, and it’s not meaningless serving roles. While most churches have lost 20% or more, many of those were consumers. While every pastor hates to lose anyone, the balance of the equation is that your committed core remains. They have found meaningful ways to serve their neighbors and their families during the pandemic. They don’t need to be coddled when they come back to church. They need to be challenged. In this moment, the churches who chose to empower and equip their members to serve will come back far stronger and make a much bigger impact than those who merely return to “normal.”
Offer your members practical ways to discover and hone their gifts like Find Your Place by Brian Phipps and Rob Wegner, SHAPE from Saddleback, or the classic, Network by Bruce Bugbee. But, this is more than a seminar, give your people permission and opportunity to use their gifts in meaningful ways. If you do this right, then the emerging ministries of your church will come from what God has placed on your peoples’ hearts. That doesn’t mean that you merely accept everything that everyone wants to do – it still has to fit in your church’s mission and vision – but it does mean embracing what your people are gifted and called to do rather than inventing roles for them to fill.
The Future of Your Church is Practical Outreach
Years ago Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson asked the question in The Externally Focused Church: “If your church vanished would anyone notice?” Well, in the last year the presence of your church did disappear in some ways. (Obviously, the Church is the Body of Christ, which while not meeting in-person for worship, did not actually disappear). When your building closed, what was missing from your community? Traffic? A positive influence? An essential service needed by your community?
During COVID did your church focus on survival or outreach? While pastors work hard and don’t deserve the heartbreak of watching their hard work evaporate, what was the focus on the last 12 months? Were you clinging to what you had 12 months ago or were you embracing the opportunity to serve and reach the community? The need is great. How is your church helping to meet that need?
In the past missionaries to other countries established hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other practical organizations to meet the needs of the people. In addition to meeting the people’s needs and building a platform to share the Gospel, the missionaries’ charitable work endeared them to governments who otherwise might not have embraced their mission. When someone opposed to the Gospel came to power, the missionaries’ good work stood out and kept their mission moving forward.
The North American church is fulfilling its mission in a culture that is increasingly hostile. Culture is changing rapidly. The Moral Majority is long gone. The church’s influence is diminishing on a broad scale, but that’s never where souls were being saved anyway. How can your church use its influence, its resources, and its gifts to meet needs in your community? What can your church become known for in your community? Rather than standing out as the church that’s against certain things, how can your church be known for the good that you’re doing? This doesn’t mean that we embrace things that are contrary to Scripture. It means that the church’s mission moves forward in loving ways despite the opposition. After all, God “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked” (Luke 6:35).
While you might despair the loss of an audience, you should be very excited about those who are left. Your audience is gone, but your army remains. An audience must be entertained to keep them engaged, but an army just needs their marching orders. Once you equip and empower your people to serve in meaningful ways, your church will never be the same. All your people need are permission and opportunity.
The world has changed. Ministry methods from prior to 2020 won’t work the same. Everything has opened up. The opportunities are endless.
Church-wide campaigns are great sprints toward connecting a lot of people in a hurry. But, disciple-making is a marathon, not a sprint. The ultimate goal of groups is to make disciples. Disciples are not the end result of a process. Disciples are crafted. Eventually, the church will want video-based-curriculum-dependent newbies to be able to rightly divide the Word of Truth and facilitate a discussion leading toward on-going life change. You can’t grow disciples in fits and starts. As Eugene Peterson once titled a book, it’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.
Campaigns can help you or hurt you. Just like hot sauce,
you’ve got to know how much to use and when. Otherwise, you’ll numb your taste
buds for campaigns. Is it time to start a church-wide campaign? Or, is it time
In Jesus’ work with His disciples, there are three distinct phases: “Come and Follow” (Matthew 4:19), “Come and Die” (Luke 9:23), and “Go and Make” (Matthew 28:18-20). While some churches attempt to start “serious” discipleship groups with “come and die,” it’s much easier to start groups with “come and follow,” and then lead them into maturity to reach “come and die.”
The purpose of the “Come and follow” stage is connection. Whether the church is trying to connect their worship attendance, the neighborhood, or both, this connection purpose can largely be achieved by offering a felt needs topic with an alignment series, as described in Exponential Groups. This low commitment, short-term approach allows potential leaders and their groups to test drive a group and begin the habit of meeting together. While the primary purpose is connection, other purposes including leadership development and spiritual growth can certainly take place at the “Come and follow” stage.
The danger in connection groups is in seeing them as an end in themselves. They should be viewed as the starting point for discipleship which will increase the maturity of the group members and group leaders. Some pastors embrace the notion that things must be kept easy and low commitment in order to produce maximum results. After working with churches in their alignments series for nearly 20 years now, the reality is the low commitment and low requirement approach eventually produces low maturity. What’s worse is that as the church continues into a minority Christian culture, the lack of challenge is off-putting to those who seek depth and genuine relationship with God and others. In the 21st century, people are looking for answers. They desire a cause to live for. Once they are engaged in groups, they need more. They need the challenge to “Come and Die.”
The purpose of the “Come and Die” phase is growth and spiritual maturity. Please don’t read those words as “deeper” teaching and more Bible facts. While the intellect is important (after all God gave humans a book and a brain), there is so much more to discipling the whole person. This is more than an academic exercise. A well-rounded approach to discipleship must take into consideration every aspect of a person’s life and being – physical, emotional, relational, financial, intellectual, and other areas. This topic is too large to explore here. There is a future book in the works.
The mission of the church in making disciples is to baptize them and teach them to obey what Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Obedience and surrender are best evidenced in a person’s attitude and actions. Rather than using all of the clichés about “walking your talk” and so forth, the point is the end product of discipleship is someone who resembles Jesus Christ. They have died to themselves and their ways of dealing with things and replaced their ways with those of Jesus. The self is sacrificed to produce genuine transformation.
The church can turn up the temperature on discipleship in
their groups through the curriculum and leadership training offered. Again,
this is not an invitation to teach groups to parse Greek verbs. Curriculum
should be a balance of personal time with God, a group discussion of the Bible,
assignments to turn words into action, and accountability to check progress.
Curriculum is not just a course of study, but an action plan for integrating the teaching of the Bible into daily life. This is not merely an ascent to a belief statement, but how believers live and breathe in their daily lives. Study formats like Rooted, The Neighboring Life by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, Emotionally-Healthy Discipleship by Pete Scazzero, D-Lifeby Dr. Bill Wilks and Dr. John Herring, or D-Groups by Robby Gallaty help to turn up the temperature of discipleship. Even a format like the Discovery Bible Study Method which uses the same nine questions for every passage of Scripture helps group members to apply God’s Word and live it out. The expectation here is the power of God resident in every believer (Ephesians 1:18-20) accompanied by studying the Bible and interacting with other believers will produce transformed lives.
A few years ago, I was working with a small group director
who had moved from another country to the United States. In his country of
origin, there was a high expectation of believers learning, doing, and sharing
what they’ve learned from the very beginning of their relationship with God. He
was a little beside himself when he came to the U.S. and discovered many
believers learned biblical truth without much intention of practicing what they
learned or sharing it with others. When he challenged people in his church to
high commitment approaches to discipleship, he found resistance. I asked him if
he had ever heard the analogy of the frog and the kettle. He had not.
I explained this common story about placing frogs in hot water caused them to jump out. Yet, by placing frogs in cold water, then gradually turning up the temperature, the frogs remained in the hot water because the change was gradual. I told him he was putting his disciples in hot water. That’s why they were resisting. (If you’re shaking your head at this point about the reverse implications of this analogy, I apologize. I’ll switch gears before this turns into martyrdom, which is no joking matter).
For average American church members, the move from the worship service to a group is a pretty big step. If the benefit of a group is unproven, they need an opportunity to try out this environment in a short-term, low commitment way. An alignment series or church-wide campaign fits the bill. If they’ve had a positive experience, then the group may agree to continue into a follow up series. Once these two studies have been completed, then it’s more likely that the group will continue on.
Group leaders are given a leadership pathway to develop as disciples and as group leaders. Group members should also be given a pathway. This could be based on the results of the group’s health assessment. The right curriculum can also lead the group into new experiences and even into taking risks as a group. These risks could include things like the three-hour prayer experience in Rooted, the neighborhood map in The Neighboring Life, or the genogram in Emotionally-Healthy Spirituality. The goal of these exercises is to learn to trust God in deeper ways, to hear God, and to learn about oneself.
Curriculum for the sake of curriculum is worthless. Checking off a list of studies doesn’t guarantee growth. But, using curriculum as a vehicle to produce growth and lasting change is worthwhile. What is your curriculum producing? What are your groups producing? Using an assessment to evaluate the progress your people, your groups, and your church is making.
The third phase from Scripture is “Go and Make.” While these phases don’t need to occur in sequential order, the goal is to make disciples who make disciples. After all, that’s how a church knows it’s making disciples. If the people in the church are not making disciples, then they are not disciples. The appropriate term for them would be “the crowd.” In the Gospels, Jesus spent 73 percent of His time with His disciples. He didn’t devote vast amounts of time to serving the crowd. Boy, has the modern American church turned that on its head.
“Go and Make” implies that church members are thinking about others more than about themselves and their own needs. They are become self-feeders. The focus is on servant leadership at various levels. While most people in the church will not have the title of leader, they do have influence over people around them. The goal is to multiply their lives and their abilities. Jesus spent three and a half years investing in 12 disciples, who after His departure, developed others and took the message of the Gospel throughout their known world, establishing churches, and making disciples. If you’re a Christian reading this, it’s because of these 12 who Jesus poured His Life into. Who are your 12?
This is the place where pastors equip the church to do the
work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). In the last 30 years, the church has
catered to people in order to serve a Christian consumer culture. A growing gap
has emerged between staff and volunteers, or clergy and laity, as it was once
known. People are asked to volunteer to serve the church and the efforts of the
church staff. But, the volunteers are the church!
Members should be challenged to pursue and develop their gifts. Resources like Networkby Bruce Bugbee and Leadershift by Don Cousins and Bruce Bugbee create the philosophical foundation for gifts-based ministry that is truly satisfying to church members and effective in reaching the neighborhood. After all, ministry is not something pastors do to people. Ministry is the purpose of the church body, not the leaders of the institution. People need to serve in meaningful ways in order to grow spiritually. Meaningless volunteer roles cannot meet this purpose.
Since a church of any size cannot assess and recognize the gifts of every church member, groups play an essential role in helping people discover, develop, and use their gifts. This is more than another assessment. There is an expectation for people to take responsibility for understanding and implementing their gifts to fulfill the mission of the church. There is also a responsibility for the church to release, not just ministry responsibilities, but also the authority to carry them out.
One more step lies beyond identifying and using gifts – members developing other members. Every person in every role in the church, including members, pastors, and church staff, must multiply what they are doing in the lives of others. This is one of the primary purposes of groups – leadership development. The church must embrace Hero-making as articulated by Dave Ferguson and Dr. Warren Bird. The pastor is not the hero in the church. The staff are not the heroes. The members are not the heroes. But, they are all called to make heroes. They are all called to invest in others and help them flourish in ministry. They are called to work themselves out of a job, so a new ministry, a new group, or a new church can be launched to serve others and repeat the process.
These three phases may not be the only phases. They don’t
necessarily need to be taken in exact order (or else some churches will camp on
phase two until Jesus returns and never get to phase three). The point is
everyone must be challenged to take a next step at every phase. Those only
attending worship must be challenged to join a group. Everyone in a group must
be challenged to take what they learn to heart and mature in their faith as
evidenced by their actions and attitudes. Those who are maturing must reach out
to their neighborhoods and share their hope. Those who are serving must develop
others to serve.
Attractional services and advertising built some great churches over the last 30 years. The next 30 years will be much different than the last 30 years. This statement is not meant to discount what happened over the last 30 years, but it’s time to gear up for what is next. In working with churches across North America, I’ve visited many formerly great churches. At one point in time, the church was the shining beacon in the community. Maybe they were the first church to offer contemporary worship music and relevant messages. People came in droves, until every other church in town followed the model. Now those churches are dwindling. They are formerly great.
There is a shift that must take place in order to engage people in the 21st century. These concluding thoughts reveal part of the thinking needed for the church to flourish in an increasingly minority Christian culture.
Love God and love your neighbors. In the Great Commandment, Jesus boiled 613 commands down to these two. He went on to say, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40, NIV). In other words, if Jesus’ followers do anything, they should focus on these two things. The Neighboring Life focuses on the second commandment in order to follow the first one.
Who is My Neighbor?
The act of taking time to learn a neighbor’s name demonstrates obedience to Jesus’ command. Once a believer knows their neighbor’s name, then they can pray for their neighbor. Pray for their lives, their families, their jobs, and even an opportunity to get to know them better. Neighboring is also serving next door neighbors. By offering a helping hand, often the next step is offering a listening ear. “We love our neighbors because we are Christians, not because we are trying to make them Christians,” says Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, co-authors of The Neighboring Church. “We need to stop hijacking the endgame with other things. It happens so subtly. We love our neighbors so they will go to church. We love our neighbors so they will join our small group…Those motives turn people to be loved into projects to be directed…People will know when they are a project.” The Neighboring Life is the creation of Rick Rusaw, Brian Mavis, and the team at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, CO. Built on the foundation of The Externally-Focused Church, co-authored by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson (Group Publishing 2004), LifeBridge along with many other churches, has sought to transition ministry from missional, community-wide, Service Day approaches to a more granular form of ministry. Rather than donning matching t-shirts, serving for one day, and making local headlines, The Neighboring Life is a daily, personal experience with one’s neighbors. More importantly, it adds the relationship component to serving. “The bridge between being missional and incarnational is relationship,” according to Scott Campbell, The Ascent Church, Colorado Springs, CO. “You can be missional without being relational. You can’t be incarnational without relationship: ‘love neighbors as you love yourself.’” “For years [LifeBridge Church] had been getting into the stream of our community to serve. A city employee asked if we would take care of a woman’s yard for her. I said I would look at the situation and get back to her,” said Brian Mavis. “As I was driving up, I spotted the house from blocks away. They weren’t exaggerating. The grass was almost as tall as I was. I knocked on the door and a woman in her young thirties answered. Standing next to her was a little girl. I learned that this woman had recently survived stage-four cancer, and she was taking care of the nine-year-old girl, who was in foster care. This woman was tearful and embarrassed about her yard, but she said her health prevented her from trying to take care of it. “My heart broke for her, and I was happy that our church was going to help her. I gathered a dozen people and they brought their own equipment. A few hours later we had the yard looking almost as good as new. We came back the next week to put down some mulch. We prayed for the homeowner, and we felt great about what we had done. I was proud of our people, and I was glad the city knew they could call us and count on us to take care of it. “Over the next year, I called the woman a couple of times to see how she was doing. After the second call, while I was silently congratulating myself, the Holy Spirit said, ‘This is nothing to be proud of. This should never have even happened.’ I immediately knew the full meaning of this gentle rebuke by God. The woman’s grass should never have grown more than six inches tall.” What should have been done differently? “First,” said Mavis, “I wouldn’t just ask a dozen people from our church. Instead, I would look to see who lived near her. We have several families within a couple blocks of her house. I would’ve called them and asked them to help me help their neighbor. Then I thought I would go one better. I would ask them to help me, but I would also ask them to knock on their neighbors’ doors, no matter if they were Christian or not, and invite them to join in helping this woman…If the church had done a better job of helping our people learn to love their neighbors, then I never would’ve received a phone call from the city in the first place…For years our church was serving the community, but were we loving our neighbors?” A dilapidated house or an unkempt yard are easily recognizable signs of a family in crisis. But, not all needs are revealed from the curb. Needs are revealed as neighbors are known. Since neighboring is not a program and neighbors aren’t projects, the focus on neighboring is more of a spiritual discipline than a ministry initiative. Neighboring is moving life from the backyard to the front yard. It’s taking time for a neighbor when they are outside. The heart of neighboring is putting others ahead of oneself. Neighboring requires no special talent. Anyone can be a neighbor. Neighboring does require a shift in thinking for pastoral leadership. Emphasis is given on scattering equal to the emphasis on gathering. This is not to discount the value of gathering, but to balance receiving and giving.
Stay, Pray, Play, and Say
Neighboring almost seems to harken back to years gone by when neighbors knew everyone and helped each other. It was the norm. Today, the norm is cellphones, garage door openers, and quiet streets in neighborhoods. Neighboring requires intentional effort. The practices of neighboring are simple, yet significant. They can be summoned up in four words: Stay, Pray, Play, and Say. Stay means being available to get to know one’s neighbors. It’s stopping to talk to a neighbor instead of hitting the garage door button. Maybe it means sitting on the front porch instead of the back porch. Pray means praying for neighbors. Praying for both neighbors who are known and those who are unknown. Praying for opportunities to connect and serve. Play is offering hospitality to neighbors from dinner invitations to backyard barbecues to small scale events. The fourth word is say. When the opportunity arises, Christian neighbors are prepared to share Christ with their fellow neighbors. This isn’t the completion of the “project.” This is the start of a new journey.
Leaders Go First
As with any focus, leaders go first. Pastors and church staff can prepare to lead neighboring in their churches by starting to neighbor themselves. Resources such as The Neighboring Church by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, and Becoming a Neighboring Church, a six session study by the LifeBridge team with its companion video are a couple of ways to get ideas on leading a community-wide movement in neighboring. Other resources include The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, Neighborhood Initiativeand theLove of God by Lynn Cory, and Neighborhood Mapping by Dr. John Fuder among others. Once pastors and staff have some experience with neighboring, the entire church can be engaged with The Neighboring Life study and companion video used as a church-wide campaign, group study, or individual study. These resources are available at TheNeighboringLife.com.
Jacob & Mary Alice: An Unlikely Pair
Ever since his wife’s death, 80-year-old Jacob called his neighbor, Mary Alice, regularly. Somehow Mary Alice had broken the ice with this self-proclaimed “crotchety old Jewish man who doesn’t make friends easily.” The two were quite a pair in the neighborhood: a mom of two teenagers chatting the ear off the grumpy old man. When Jacob’s number came up on caller ID, she answered it, but on this evening, when she picked up the phone Jacob wasn’t talking but she could hear difficulty in his breathing. Rushing over to his house, she found Jacob at the bottom of the stairs and quickly called 911. The paramedic in the ambulance, the emergency room receptionist, the technicians drawing blood, and the doctor all asked her, “Are you his daughter?” “No, I am just his neighbor” she answered every time, as she kept Jacob calm and answered their questions about his past medical history. As Mary Alice left the emergency room after Jacob was fully stabilized, the doctor asked her with a smile, “Will you be MY neighbor?”
Neighboring requires no special talent. There are no scripts or methods to follow. The heart of neighboring is taking an interest in one’s neighbors. Pastors can start their own neighboring movements by encouraging their members to take a few minutes to talk to their neighbors when they see them outside. This might be an introduction to a new neighbor or a bit of an apology for living next door for so long and having never met. This shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should be a start. As churches embrace neighboring, any step toward a neighbor: a conversation, a meal, a prayer, or an act of service should be celebrated. What pastors tell stories about will cast vision to their congregations. If pastors are ready to get serious about neighboring, then some tough questions must be answered – How can you be the best church for your community rather than just the best church in your community? What if you got better at the two things Jesus said mattered the most – loving God and loving your neighbor? How can the church put equal energy into scattering into the community as they do gathering for weekend worship services? If your members move out of their neighborhoods, would they be missed?
Most churches are organized to preserve the institution. The institution may be the church as a whole, a paradigm embraced 25 years ago, or a worship style that fit a previous generation well. I’m not just speaking of traditional churches. This also applied to churches which are contemporary to 1995 or 2005. What worked for the last 25 years will not work for the next 25 years.
Ministry is Simpler
A stark difference lies between simpler and simplistic. Simplistic means offering just a few things to easily assimilate busy people into the life of the church. That’s not bad. But, perpetuating ministries based merely on the length of their existence or on its success in other churches are insufficient reasons to continue them in your church (or even to start them). In most cases, the basis of this thinking is a system of staff-led ministries created to move people from the parking lot, through the front door, into a commitment to the church, and finally assigned to ministry. Henry Ford would be proud. But, the people who leave their cars in the parking lot to step into church for the first time are not raw materials or blank slates. They have different backgrounds, education, gifts, abilities, and spiritual experiences. If and when they complete the church’s process, they won’t be uniform products lined up neatly in rows. We aren’t manufacturing widgets. Ministry is complex when those in authority decide what the church’s ministry should be, then attempt to recruit members into ministries which are not well suited for them. The purpose of many of these ministries is to serve the institution: park cars, shake hands, take up the offering, watch the children, and so forth. The focus of ministry is centered on the weekend experience, not the gifts and passions of the members. The end result is the constant need to feed the beast, that is, the weekend service. As Rick Rusaw asks, “What if we gave as much attention to scattering as we give to gathering?” The seeker service is fading. The missional movement gets the church part way there, but lacks building relationships with those who are served. Incarnational is next. What is incarnational? Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37-40 — “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus gave his followers only two things to do: Love God and Love Neighbors. An M.Div. is not necessary for either of those. (I have an M.Div.) There is merit to keeping what works and tossing what doesn’t. Every ministry has a time to thrive, and a time to die, especially when it’s not aligned to Jesus’ mission. When we give people permission and opportunity, they become very creative. Ministry is simpler by starting only the things our people currently are gifted and called to do. When there is no longer a leader carrying that vision, then the ministry ends. Then, we get behind the next group of leaders with the gifts and passion for what is next. It’s simpler.
The System is Simpler
Most people don’t need an elaborate strategy to connect with a church. They only need someone who genuinely cares about them. They need a friend. This is a function of multiplication, which I wrote about here. A simpler system is a system of multiplication. You must multiply yourself in order for your church to grow. We must realize that ministry is not something we do to people. The people are our ministry. Their development is both the future of our ministry and the future of the church. But, when does a busy pastor have time for multiplying themselves when the tasks of ministry are overwhelming already? Give some of those tasks away. Develop people to fulfill those roles. Stop doing things which are not multiplication factors. Everyone has the same amount of time – whether they are multiplying or not. Only 15 percent of Millennials and only 4 percent of GenZ are Christians. We have heard for years that the church is only one generation away from extinction. This could be the generation. You don’t need to become an expert in Millennials or GenZ. You just need to engage them. Talk to them about what Jesus said and help them discover the application for their context. Instead of approaching them as their grandfather, engage them as a missionary. This is a cross cultural experience within our own culture. I am 53 years old. I am not the future of the church. Neither are you. But, I’m not planning on quitting any time soon. I do plan to continue in relevant ways and to celebrate what the next generations come up with. What will it take to empower and encourage the next generations? How can we give them permission to serve in their cultural context?
Word of Caution
Before you go and wreck your church, remember you have a lot of people that it’s working for. You can’t afford to lose them. Love Millennials all day long, but remember, they’re broke, and you’re not ready to retire. Am I speaking out of both sides of my mouth? Maybe. You can be the judge. Your current church members were brought into the current ministry of your church with a certain understanding of how things would be – a contract, if you will. If you attempt to change that contract in an autocratic, mandatory fashion, then you’re done. But, what if you could begin to make changes without threatening the base? In a recent episode of Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast, Todd Wilson from Exponential shared the idea of churches creating R&D labs and setting aside funds for it. This would allow for pilots and “skunk works” without upsetting the apple cart. I’m not talking about creating services like we did for GenX that ended up splitting our churches. R&D is a portion of funds, staffing, energy, and creativity applied to the future without radically disrupting the status quo until new concepts are proven out. It will take a long time for our members to give up the worship style and ministry that they love for the sake of the next generation. Wasn’t this our argument to the traditional folks when we wanted to implement seeker services? But, time is short. A generation is at stake. What is your church discovering? Allen White helps Take the Guesswork Out of Groups. We offer books, online courses, coaching groups, and consulting.