35. What’s Your System for Reaching People?

Recently a clergy friend loaned me a CD of a talk by Andy Stanley about ministry systems.  I havenít read much of Stanleyís work, but I appreciated some of the stories he told.  For instance, he described ìthe systemî in his family for getting the garbage taken out.   Each Wednesday night, heíd tell his sons to carry out the garbage.  Then later, heíd remind them again, and then later heíd repeat the reminder. Finally, heíd lose his cool and demand that they take it out, and then theyíd take it out.   He joked about that being their ìsystem,î their approach toward getting that task done.  If a friend at school asked one of his sons about their system for taking out the garbage, the son might answer, ìWeíll itís a strange system, but each Wednesday our Dad tells us, then tells us again and again, and  when he finally gets upset, we carry out the garbage.  Thatís the way we do it in our house, the way itís always been done, and we learned to do it that way.  We learned it from our Dad, and it works for us!î Later, Stanley decided to change the system, and so he took out the garbage himself.  When his sons thanked him and looked on curiously at this burst of fatherly generosity, he explained to them that he was happy to take the garbage out on Wednesday nights, and was especially happy because every time he did it, he would get their allowance for that week!   Needless to say, the system changed.

His point applied to church life is clear: some systems are conducive to ministry and some systems impede ministry.  How are we doing with our systems for getting things done?

This provoked several thoughts to me about the Five Practices.  All churches have a system by which people come into participation, attendance, and membership.  We may not be conscious of our systems, and they may be notably ineffective, but we have a system. 

For instance, a churchís system may be as follows:  Each year about six new United Methodist families move into our community, and of those, about four manage to find our church.  Of those four, three may visit the church sometime during their first year in the community, of those three, two may visit several times, and one of those may eventually join the church.  Thatís the system by which people come to be a part of the congregation.

Obviously, this system has notable limitations.  First, it is entirely passive.  It depends upon people moving in, finding the church, taking all the steps.  With luck, a few get through the door.  Second, this system entirely focuses on those who are already Christian, and even already United Methodist.  There is no initiative, pathway, contact, or engagement with the unchurched.   The pastor may preach about evangelism, about invitation, about welcome, and there may even be an Evangelism committee, but if the only people who join our churches are relocated United Methodists, we have a system that needs reconsideration.

Another church may have a system, unspoken and unrecognized, that depends upon the parents of the church day school to further engage the congregation.  Another may have a fall festival that involves hundreds from the community, and itís from that engagement that unchurched and nominally-churched people form impressions that may lead to further involvement.  For another church, it may be their hands-on mission work that opens doors to further church engagement.

Churches that take Radical Hospitality seriously are keenly aware and carefully intentional about their systems of inviting, welcoming and assimilating new people.   They have a plan, and they teach and model and motivate and recognize the practices that support the plan.  If they are in an area with new people moving in, they focus on finding those who are new, making initial contact, inviting, following up, and keeping in touch.  They donít wait for people to just show up.   If itís a small church with few visitors, they develop a plan to make even the Fall Festival work toward this purposeóthe people pray for the event, realize itís not about money or baked goods or crafts, but about people; the pastor is present throughout the event; and members cordially introduce visitors to the pastor; and the church may even plan a special music event or educational event a week after the festival so that they can hand out flyers and put up posters that invite visitors to come back for the special event.  Churches that have day schools work with the school director to see that all parents and families receive the mailings of the church, that families who face personal illness are contacted by the pastor, etc. 

Whatís your ìsystemî for finding, engaging, inviting, welcoming, and creating a sense of belonging for new people?  What are you doing systematically to motivate, reward, recognize, model, teach, and support the practices that support a system that is conducive to ministry rather than one that impedes ministry?

We could ask the same question for each for the Five Practices.  The ìsystemî by which most churchís modify and improve the worship experience is by reacting to criticism, or getting a new pastor.  What if we created a system instead that brought together the key worship leaders once each six months to totally assess, discuss, reflect upon, learn, and modify as necessary every component of worship?  Imagine a conversation that starts with who opens the doors, and turns on the lights and microphones and walked through the whole morning, asking why do we do it this way, and is there a better way?  How does this help connect people to God and to one another?   Imagine walking through the entire serviceÖthe work of ushers, the pastor, the musicians, the lay participants—asking, why are we doing it?  Why this person?  Why do we stand here, and can people see and hear ok? How is the length, how does this contribute to the service? What is distracting, and how could we do better?   The system of improving worship then would not be reactive to criticism but would become a regular and expected part of learning and improving ministry.  Another change in the system for improving ministry would be for the worship leaders to covenant to attend together at least one high quality event together each year to learn about worship from someone outside the church, or at least once a year, to invite someone in to teach.

Whatís your system for evaluating, deepening, and improving worship, and adapting it to the continuing needs of your members and visitors?

We all have a system for receiving others and for modifying the practices of worship, just as Andy Stanleyís family had a system for taking out the garbage.  Some systems impede our purposes, and require rethinking.  Other systems motivate, support, and deepen effectiveness. Whatís your system for Radical hospitality, and for deepening Passionate Worship?

Yours in Christ,