The congregation I pastored in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, was the first in the city to develop a latch-key program, including tutoring. Our then 1980′s neighborhood was one where many children were not allowed to come inside until the street lights came on–regardless of the weather. The result was that our church parking lot was often filled by children with almost nowhere to go. Our Sunday evening services often brought unexpected guests in the forms of elementary age children looking for something to do. We did not have to work hard to consider how we might work to meet human need in the name of Christ.
The most innovative ministry and non-profit programs begin this way. A group of leaders step outside and begin looking for needs that might be addressed. Anyone who puts on glasses like these does not need to look far before the ideas literally present themselves. Attend a Willow Creek prevailing church conference and you will hear the story of knocking on doors to find out what would bring people to church who thought they might never attend. Visit a Ministry of Money retreat and you will hear that the origins grew from people looking for a way to help people (especially affluent ones) deal with the money in their lives. Read the history of the Salvation Army and you will read about Christian people searching the streets for people to help. The underlying theme of these and many other stories is that someone(s) took the time to figure out what was needed.
These are the organizations to learn from because they went through the process to figure out how to make a difference. But it is the process we need to learn, far more than the result. Too many congregations, ministry organizations and non-profits prefer to leap to solutions developed by these organizations and to skip the struggle to figure it out altogether.
I’ve had the privilege of attending several Willow Creek conferences where the story of the congregation’s origins was told every time. I’ve mingled among the small groups as teams of church leaders attending the conference work through the insights they will take home and implement. Overwhelmingly, instead of discussing how they will figure out the unique innovation they might offer in their unique context, they talk about purchasing resources in the bookstore, how they might lay out their sanctuary in a similar fashion, or what it would take to also raise the bar of technology in their worship services. In short, they talk about imitation of the product instead of imitation of the process.
There is a qualitative difference between a product borne from process and a product purchased as a means to bypass the process. If you disagree consider this: would you rather hear a sermon from a preacher who struggled with the text for your specific audience, or a regurgitated and generic sermon someone else wrote and was purchased from an online subscription service?
-mark l vincent