And the idea needs a name, too

I serve in a county full of small churches, almost all with part-time pastors and very limited resources. I had this thought yesterday that I want your help with.

I may be wrong, but I do not believe most of our very small churches are capable of reinventing themselves on the fly into congregations that reach the rising generations. The analogy is sometimes made of redesigning the airplane while it is flying. I may be too pessimistic about God, but I think most of our smaller congregations will crash if they try to do that. And yet, we must reach those we have failed to reach.

In the midst of puzzling about this, I had a thought that is still very embryonic. Could a handful of small churches hire and support an individual whose task is to reach the people that those churches cannot reach?

What would be required in terms of finances and other support for a number of small churches to come together to support the work of a freelance missional pastor like that?

What kind of salary would be needed? What UMC bureaucracy would have to be worked through? How specifically would you shape such a person’s job description (for lack of a better word)?


11 thoughts on “And the idea needs a name, too

  1. This sounds like an exciting idea John. It sounds to me like a coalition of all the churches involved needs to be formed to toss around ideas about this (pastors and laity).

    I met a man in Ohio at a public meeting of a high school who intrigued me when he gave me his business card. He was identified as a “minister-at-large” of a local Christian church. He invited me to a meeting the next day of a Shalom Zone that was being formed in a nearby community. He was the secretary of the Shalom Zone, which was a tremendously exciting coalition of churches and local agencies.

    It seems to me that churches in a community could certainly find ways to cooperate in ministry. Check out the “cooperative ministry” descriptions in the BOD for more ideas about structuring this.

    Also, here is a link to something I learned about yesterday. It describes “The Grassroots Conspiracy” in Vancouver, Washington–an emerging Christian community. Start by watching this video

    Then take a look at this blog

    It seems to me that in order to reach the members of a community who do not go to church, it is ESSENTIAL for the new person to live in the community. Perhaps housing needs to be provided.

    1. I’m trying to get the idea more clearly in my head before I try to pitch it to the church’s I serve and others. But, yes, it would require a lot of internal conversation and prayer.

  2. Actually, what you are describing began in about 1885. Once called “rural work” and later “town and country” and finally “church and community.”. The idea was just as you described– have a “parish” of churches that together hired a trained church and community worker — who might do Christian Ed for that parish – or start needed social services – or train volunteers for a joint Vacation Bible School – or whatever was defined as the need. Some workers founded the first libraries in Appalachian areas — in the trunks of their cars. One worker Riverview Restaurant in Ashland CityI know became the mayor of her small town snd learned how to apply for federal water and sewer grants. But workers focused on assisting the churches in Christian witness if various kinds — and in strengthening the churches in leadership and understanding of the gospel.

    This work was started by the women of the church — as were most things that had to Di with mission. Scarritt College here in Nashville was one of several training schools for such workers. It is no longer a college but a conference center — Scarritt-Bennett Center, which does lay education and empowerment of women as well as working against racism.

    The UMC structure that church and community work related to was national (Bd of Global Ministries), conference (various names for committees), and local (individual church or churches or other project). Funds came from the national level and the conference and the local level. The GBOGM has just restructured some things — with some missionary work going to a separate entity called United Methodist Women (probably a good thing) and some remaining at the GBOGM. Church and community remained at the GBOGM, although deaconesses and home missioners went with the UMW. Church and community workers have declined in numbers as support for general agencies of the church has lessened, but some local areas support such a worker totally from local funds. Deaconnesses and home missioners have done similar work as well.

    Sorry that was so long. Hope that it helps as you flesh out your idea.

  3. John,
    I know you’re familiar with Kenda Creasy Dean’s work “Almost Christian”. Have you ever read her work on youth called “The God Bearing Life”?
    There are 2 themes from her book that come to mind and give me pause about this suggestion for a specialist within small congregations.
    1) There is an analogy between this position you describe and “youth ministers”. Many in a congregation leave the gifts, graces, AND responsibility to someone else more qualified/suited. They practice the “light-bulb principle”: find someone who attracts youth with their bright light and passion, and they try to do too much, last about 18 months, if that; and then burnout. Once they do, you just replace the light bulb and start-over.
    2) related to this- This can’t be the ministry of one person, or even a team, unless you begin with the “end-goal” that this develops into the ministry/participation/culture of the whole congregation. Kenda talks about youth ministry that is “one cut-off ear” of a silhouette of Mickey Mouse’s face. Think of the quintessential three ovals: one large oval for the face, and two smaller ones for the ears. If youth ministry is something “for” youth, and not something done for and “with” the congregation as “The Whole Body of Christ” that includes youth, then even if it does some good initially, it eventually dies on the vine. For what we practice, becomes our culture. Youth attend “age-appropriate” cut-off ghettoized ministries without ever being a part of the congregation at council, in worship and then they “graduate” from church. They leave and don’t come back, because they were discipled/trained to reflect on themselves as a tribe and not as part of the body.
    The adults are discipled as well. They think that youth need “youth things” that are exciting and strange, and that work is obviously for someone else. They don’t invest in young people relationally, and therefore they aren’t missing the youth and the youth aren’t missing them, because they never had a meaningful relationship in the first place.
    These are some of my concerns with your proposal. It may take someone with skills/vision/grace to show us a foreign culture to our own, but unless we are invited to be in relationship with the “other” it will be short-lived.
    thanks for all the good thinking/praying/posting that you do.

    1. Thank you for the thoughtful and critical reply, Josh. I have not read that book, but it certainly looks worth the time.

      I was not really seeing the role as an appendage of existing congregations as much as a “local missionary” (for lack of a better word) charged to engage the culture that our current churches cannot effectively engage.

      I’m not sure what that person would do, exactly.

      The thought arises from the pressing need juxtaposed with limited internal resources as the various individual congregations. A 30-member church is not going to add a second worship service and if it converts it one worship service into something more in line with the cultural expectations of younger non-participating people, it probably is too fragile to survive the turmoil that would result.

      We live in an age when generations constitute different cultures side-by-side in the same geographical area. I’m just trying to figure out how to reach those our current churches do not.

      1. Typically, congregations “reach” far less efficiently than individual people do.

        The findings of the US Congregational Life Study are really pretty clear about this. By far, the number one way someone gets to and then stays at a church is because someone they know invited them. If the pastor does it, the effectiveness is six times lower. If you are relying on advertising, it is 23 times lower. (See the data and analysis here:

        Social networks are the “magic bullet.” Not programs, not “super ministers” (especially not in areas that prize face to face relationships). People. People taking initiative toward other people– both using their existing social networks, and taking steps to expand them.

        This can be taught. You don’t need everyone in the congregation to buy into it. But you do need the congregation not to compete with it. This is one reason pastors are among the worst at this, precisely because they spend so much time (by design) with people of the congregation that their active social networks become (necessarily) truncated. Pastors will generally know far fewer non-church-related people than most of the people will, except for that percentage of the people who end up dedicating most of their time to the immediate work of the congregation itself.

        It seems to me that’s the bigger challenge in smaller congregations. Smaller congregations end up requiring a larger percentage of people spending a larger percentage of their time on the congregation itself, meaning their social networks become truncated as well.

        So part of the work of a circuit rider is to help congregations identify where their own systems are truncating social networks for people, try to reduce that as much as possible, and then help people refocus more of their attention to persons in their social networks who are not yet connected to Christ. I’m not saying all– just more, and that more being intentional, and active. And then, for those who are ready, ways to start expanding their existing active social networks to include a few more people who have no connections to Christ or the church.

  4. If I read your thoughts correctly, your proposal amounts to starting a new church. If I’m right, as laudable as it sounds, it would have to be the handiwork of God to get several small churches to buy into the concept enough to make the kind of financial comment you would need to follow through on this project.

  5. A district or cluster evangelist has been and should be a part of a congregation’s ministry. Billy Graham and Luis Palou get attention, but there are many people with the gift of evangelism who could serve in bivocational appointments, just as that tentmaker, Paul, did.

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