the shape of leadership

Staying on Mission in a Changing Community

Three ways to keep the gospel in focus

Mike Ivaska on August 14, 2019

This doesn’t look like Vashon,” I said, eyeing the decor with mild contempt.

A new coffee shop had just opened in our small island town, and my wife and I decided to give it a try. I grew up on Vashon, located in Washington’s Puget Sound. I tend to associate what is authentic to my community with what is small town and funky.

This slick, urban coffee shop looked like it belonged somewhere in Seattle, not on my little island. Its style and decor were evidence of the increasing gentrification and suburbanization of our community. It spoke of things I had grown to resent.

People who have lived as part of a community for a long time — whether a town, a church or a neighborhood — often feel that the community becomes a part of them. The history. The culture. The people. It’s all part of what makes them feel at home there.

The degree to which a person’s identity can become mixed up with a community’s goes beyond conscious thought. It’s as if you are that place, and that place is you. But what happens when the community starts to change?

Maybe you’ve pastored a church that was on fire for Jesus in the past. You were the neighborhood church, and families walked to worship every Sunday. But now demographics have changed.

Your congregation no longer looks like the people in the neighborhood, and vice versa. Maybe they don’t even speak the same language. People in the neighborhood still walk to worship, perhaps, but it’s in the other direction — on Friday, to a mosque.

Or perhaps you live in a small town like me, and things are changing. Jobs have gone overseas, and the town is poorer than it used to be. Drug addictions are on the rise.

Maybe, as in my case, it seems the big city next door is swallowing up your town. People are moving in. They aren’t the same as you. They think differently and have different experiences. They have driven the cost of living up, and some of your own people are moving away to find affordable housing.

The community you loved is a shell of its former self, and something else you don’t recognize is taking its place.

As ministry leaders called to shepherd the people of Jesus and reach our communities with the gospel, how are we supposed to react to such changes? And how do we stay on mission? In my own struggle to remain mission-focused in a changing community, I have identified three keys to navigating change successfully and keeping my church moving forward.

We will never effectively lead our churches on mission if we don’t love the communities to which we are called.

Start With Yourself

I love my town and will always call it home. My wife grew up in our church. We both went to the local high school. I remember the names of places that aren’t even here anymore. And I’ve probably griped about the changes to our town more than anyone I know.

One thing I have had to accept is that I will never move our church forward in its mission of loving people toward Jesus if I am complaining about the very people I am called to reach. If I fail to trust and love them, and if I resent the change they bring to the neighborhood, how can I expect my church to open its arms to them?

If I don’t check my own heart attitude toward my neighbors, both my church and town will notice.

Honor the Past

One of the things that keeps people from moving forward during seasons of change is a fear of losing the past. While we don’t want to make an idol of the past, or turn our churches into museums, maybe we can find ways of honoring what God has done, and what His people have sacrificed, while still looking forward to the next thing God wants to do.

This could include throwing a party to celebrate the anniversary of the church’s founding — but hosting it for your neighborhood, not for yourselves. Or you could use stories of what God has done in the past during your sermons, tying those memories to the new vision God is giving your church.

Honor the past without failing to press onward toward the future.

Build a Bridge

Finally, find ways to build a bridge between your church and the surrounding community. What common values exist? What changes can you make to tear down walls and start conversations? What needs can your church meet in this new situation?

For our church, we adapted a longstanding tradition of handing out free bottled water at our community’s summer festival. Even though festival-goers have generally appreciated our efforts, environmental concerns over single-use plastic had led some community leaders to criticize our booth.

This presented an opportunity for us. We could have taken offense at the criticism, ignored our neighbors’ environmental concerns, and kept giving out plastic bottles, but we decided this would do more harm than good.

Instead, we found a brand of water that comes in paper cartons. Making this switch built a bridge between our values (blessing our neighbors) and those of our community (environmental responsibility), allowing us to keep our tradition going without knocking our church off mission.

We will never effectively lead our churches on mission if we don’t love the communities to which we are called. When change makes us feel displaced or disconnected, the responsibility is ours to do something about it. Neither we nor our congregations have to completely lose touch with the wonderful things that once were, but we cannot let yesterday get in the way of tomorrow.

By starting with our own hearts, honoring the past and building bridges, we can keep our churches on mission, even in a changing landscape.

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