Jacob Armstrong, founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee, offered a provocative and helpful workshop on evangelism during the 5 Talent Academy in Virginia last October. Provocative enough that I bought his book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015]. In an occasional series, I’m going to take a look at how some of the ideas in his book might apply in small towns and small congregations.
The title of Armstrong’s book encapsulates his basic belief that churches need to adapt in order to thrive. But what that adaptation looks like will vary with context. So the first chapter in the book deals with finding a vision that matches the mission field.
Armstrong went back to a community he grew up in to start his new church, but he didn’t assume that he knew that community. He and his leadership team began their ministry by listening and praying. He describes driving through town on a Sunday morning at 10 AM when church people were in church and getting to know those who weren’t. The team rolled down their windows at stoplights to hear what was on car radios. They observed what people were doing.
What they discovered is that the community didn’t need a hip church with a pastor in skinny jeans. They needed a church that could connect with soccer moms and suburban struggles. “As we began to pray for and over our community,” Armstrong says, “our hearts were turned to who they were, not what we wanted to do.” (5)
Armstrong goes on to outline other steps in developing a vision for your place:
- use demographic studies of your community
- spend time in the coffee shops and other ‘third places’ where people gather
- identify & meet with people of peace
- learn from other churches
As I think about Armstrong’s analysis I realize that one problem that established churches have is their unintentional insularity. We spend so much time in our buildings that we lose the ability to see why they may be limiting our outreach to new people. WE feel comfortable there, so why don’t others?
But most of the small churches I attend have tired buildings that have not been updated in many years. They serve the existing congregation well, but they do little to recognize the barriers they present to new people.
In a similar way, our mindsets, especially as clergy, have been shaped by the environment we are in. Getting our bodies and our minds out of the building has got to help us learn about the people we are not seeing in the church.
In small towns, the number of ‘third places’ is shrinking. Coffee shops may not exist. Old civic groups like the Ruritans and Rotary are disappearing and those that hang on do not attract young people. But there is the local diner or restaurant where everybody goes. There are soccer fields and school events. There is the local community college. There are the aisles of the grocery store. We can put ourselves in those places to listen and learn.
This summer, during my month-long sojourn in Archer City, Texas, I got to know Ben Rigsby, pastor of the local United Methodist Church. Ben knew everybody in Murn’s Cafe. He ate lunch with the police chief. His church was organizing a neighborhood party at the community pool on a Friday night.
This kind of work doesn’t show up on many pastoral evaluation forms, but it makes a big difference in getting to know your mission field. And it can make for a vibrant church.