By: Christa Meland
“We have to make the case for why church matters…and we have to be the church we’ve made the case for,” Rev. Adam Hamilton told 2,000 people last week at the 2014 Leadership Institute.
The Leadership Institute is an annual one-and-a-half day event put on by Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection (COR), the largest United Methodist Church in the country. More than 100 United Methodists from Minnesota and the Dakotas attended the event to be inspired and learn about new tools for ministry.
The theme of this year’s event was “Revival,” which Hamilton translated as “turning the church inside-out.”
“Over time, Christians and churches have become inwardly focused and satisfied with the status quo,” he said—and for unchurched people we’re trying to reach, the status quo doesn’t feel energizing or connect with who they are. “Church leaders are responsible for keeping their churches outwardly focused and unsatisfied with the status quo.”
Hamilton said that, oftentimes, the things that are most important in our spiritual lives are the things we don’t want to be part of. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to go on a mission trip, and we make excuses about why we can’t leave work for long enough to attend it. Or maybe there’s a small group at church, and we decide we have too much going on to fit it into our schedules.
“We’ve stopped doing the things we dread and do the safe, comfortable, and convenient path for our faith,” he said. He asked: Are you ever doing anything that’s uncomfortable and inconvenient? And are you challenging your people to do something uncomfortable to grow in their faith?
“The world needs the church in the 21st century—now more than ever,” he said.
Drawing on successful experiences from his own church, Hamilton offered a number of ideas for turning churches inside-out to reach new people. Here are nine great ideas for churches of all sizes and locations:
1. Take church to where the people are. When COR was starting a new campus, leaders brought church (in the form of worship services) to area nursing homes and retirement communities—places where there were people with whom to share the gospel but where there wasn’t currently a church presence. This proved an effective way to reach new people and introduce residents of the community to the church. Hamilton asked: What are creative ways for you to take the church to the people rather than waiting for people to come to the church?
2. Invite people to join you where they are. Although some people might be skeptical of some of what churches do, many like and admire the fact that Christians care about those in need. COR organized a run to raise money to provide clean drinking water to people in Africa. The church promoted it within the community, and many unchurched people were interested and ultimately decided to participate. Another time, church members knocked on doors to ask neighbors if they were interested in donating food to local pantries; those who were interested received a bag for the food and a printed pamphlet about the church and why it was doing the hunger drive, what types of food were needed, and when volunteers would be back to pick up donations. At the time of pick-up, volunteers left a thank-you door hanger with information about the church. Start by asking people to help with kingdom work, and eventually some want to know what else is happening at the church that’s doing good deeds.
3. Build relationships with your church’s neighbors. COR brought a box of cookies, and an introductory note, to all businesses within five miles of its primary location in order to help people get to know the church. And at Christmas time, the church gave poinsettias with notes to businesses around its downtown location. “We told them, ‘we just want to be great neighbors for you,’” Hamilton said. All of us want people to say, “You’re real Christians. Your church is the real deal.”
4. Reach out to invite people to your Christmas Eve service. Many people who are unchurched still think going to church on Christmas Eve is a good thing to do—so be sure to invite community members to your service(s). COR mails large postcards to neighbors—one year they said, “We have the gift your children will never outgrow…” on one side and an invitation to the service on the other side. The church also gives smaller postcards to every member in a worship service bulletin—and asks members to pass them along to friends. The hard work doesn’t end there, however. Hamilton says to make sure that those Christmas Eve services have great greeters, beautiful music, and a message that speaks the meaning of Christmas in a way that unchurched people can understand. Also, consider putting the full offering toward causes that really resonate with people. “People want to give to things that make a difference in the world,” Hamilton said.
5. Be the church for people when there’s a need. When COR was just launching, Hamilton called area funeral homes and volunteered to do funerals for anyone who lived within a 10-mile radius of the church and didn’t have a church home. He told them he didn’t want money and just wanted to meet people. Before such funerals, he would ask to go to the home of the person who died to learn about them and pray with the family. At the end of the funeral, he would tell attendees that he’s a pastor at COR and that he’d love to have them join the church for worship.
6. Support international projects through the United Methodist connection. For churches that don’t have big budgets but want to make an impact internationally, Hamilton suggests www.umcmicrofinance.org. The United Methodist Church has partnered with the Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA), which provides loans to the world’s lowest-income entrepreneurs so they can build or expand their small businesses and improve their standard of living. Through this website, churches and individuals can choose a small business owner to support and make a donation. (Donations replenish the funds already loaned to that borrower, thus allowing new loans to be made available for other borrowers in need.) The website also allows people to purchase gift cards that allow recipients to choose the project they wish to support.
7. Plan and market a sermon series that speaks to the unchurched. One that Hamilton did and suggests to others is “The Power of Words.” The tongue has the power to destroy or build up, to polarize or unite. The series explored how to reign in hurtful words and instead use our tongues to bless others. Week one focused on the words we use in neighborhoods, schools, and the workplace. Week two was about words we say to family members. Week three focused on words in politics and the power they have to unite or divide us as a nation. And week four was about the painful words we speak to ourselves—and the positive words God speaks to us. Attendees were encouraged to build up others with words and to recite Ephesians 4:29 every morning and evening throughout the series. “After four weeks, it makes a difference in how you act,” said Hamilton, who encouraged congregants to always be looking for ways to bless others with their words.
8. Officiate weddings as often as you can. “Here’s a time when nonreligious people are asking for your help,” Hamilton said. COR charges the same rate for both members and nonmembers in order to encourage the unchurched to get married there—and the church requires the marrying couple to come to a worship service once before booking a wedding there. “We want to be a place where people want to get married because we show them love and hospitality and care,” he said. Premarital counseling offers a great opportunity to form a relationship with the couple, and the message offers a time to inspire and connect with attendees. Hamilton asks each of the two people getting married to write a two-page letter about what they love about the other person and why they want to be married—and he uses parts of the letters in the service. “I want to give them the best wedding they’ve ever seen,” he said.
9. Challenge each member of your congregation to perform 100 acts of kindness within a year. Hamilton encourages every church to lead its members in an effort to touch, bless, or minister to 100 people over the next year by meeting needs as they arise in everyday life. He suggests distributing a coin or rock to each person and instructing them to put it in one of their pants pockets at the beginning of each day. Each person should aim to perform one act of kindness each day—and then they should move the coin or rock to the other pocket after having done so.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church