The Neighborhood Ministry Center Model for New Church Planting and RevitalizationPosted: February 25, 2014
More than a decade ago, I began to envision a new model for the local church based on maximizing actual ministry and use of facilities while minimizing investment in real estate. Since then, cultural and societal as well as economic forces have served to chip away at the traditional church model and render it unworkable, top-heavy, and otherwise obsolete in many cases. There also now exists a philosophical tension and even sociopolitical prejudice regarding leader-, location-, and facility-focused church ministry, as opposed to ministry which is visibly active in the local community and accessible to it. These circumstances make my Neighborhood Ministry Center model even more timely than before.
Church leaders ought not compromise the stated New Testament purpose of church ministry: to proclaim the Gospel, teach sound Bible doctrine, worship, encourage one another, and mentor new believers into the faith. But they must also recognize the non-New Testament origin of many church traditions and models, adopting a pragmatic approach to fulfilling that purpose, divesting the church of excess baggage or, in the words of Hebrews 12:1, “laying aside every weight.”
The basic idea behind the Neighborhood Ministry Center is simple: forgo the regular practice of a main gathering of the entire congregation on Sunday morning, in order to make the acquisition, ownership, and maintenance of a large auditorium unnecessary, along with large parking areas and other expensive amenities. Forgo, at the same time, the pressure of a growing congregation to move ever further outside current population centers in quest of more room to build. Instead, invest funds and effort in full-time ministry personnel and staff to do the actual work of ministry, not just on Sunday, but every day of the week.
The above conceptual diagram shows just one possible design for a facility. Activity would revolve around the leadership and church staff, teaching, training, counseling, organizing, or referring, as needed. On further reflection, office space in the diagram should probably be balanced somewhat further to accommodate a prayer room, a nursery for care of small children during small group meetings, and perhaps one or more conference rooms, with conference tables, for Bible studies. The size and number of meeting rooms could also vary, as well as number of staff offices. Meetings of various types and sizes would be planned throughout the week, and ministry personnel keep regular office hours, such that diverse types of ministry would take place on a daily basis. This procedure would thus accommodate people who seek ministry or counseling during the week, and in particular the increasing number of people who are forced to work Sundays. A receptionist would be on hand during business hours to schedule appointments for counseling and take down requests for prayer or other assistance.
The church could employ one or more Biblical counselors (ministers), licensed Christian counselors, or, if so desired, even professional social workers, according to the need and the amount of liability (legal and otherwise) the church is able to shoulder. An alternative to staff counselors would be to rent office space on-site to one or more independent Christian counselors, thus providing some additional income to defray church expenses. If no professional social worker is on hand, another staff person would be designated to act as liaison with local assistance organizations.
A Ministry Center of this type, by virtue of its small size, can easily be placed in local neighborhoods and even in high-rise office complexes, utilizing leased office space, or a converted storefront, restaurant, or house. (My dentist in Houston, along with multiple associates, offices in a converted Victorian house in Midtown.) A single congregation might like to place Ministry Centers at multiple sites within a city, or in multiple suburbs. Some neighborhood centers could be modeled somewhat after so-called “coffeehouse” ministries. An important aspect of the Ministry Center model, however, is the combination of involvement with the community as a whole (not just the homeless, addicts, or street people) and the businesslike, professional operation of a well-run church that inspires confidence and people of all kinds will want to attend.
The Ministry Center concept does not necessarily preclude the need for a gym or multipurpose building for large-group meetings and youth activities, but such facilities can often be rented for short-term use, or the congregation can take advantage of community facilities like parks and meeting halls. A large congregation with multiple Ministry Centers could share a larger facility for special meetings and youth activities.
Finally, allow me to anticipate questions that some readers can be expected to raise. It will be asked, “Without everybody meeting together as a congregation, how can people identify themselves with the entire Body? How will they achieve unity?” A large group gathering together does not automatically engender unity, but often rather hinders it. People often report attending large churches for many years, yet getting to know few people, or even seeing the same people twice. “Ice-breaking” methods, such as having people shake hands with those around them or hold hands across the isles during prayer, strike some people as manipulative gimmicks, and insulting, countering any benefit that might be derived. When newcomers feel insulted or manipulated, they probably will not come back.
It is well-recognized that the key to feeling at home in a church is getting involved; and to get involved, small groups are necessary. Only through establishing relationships can anyone feel at home, find common interests, share common experiences, and begin to feel unified. The Ministry Center model can be seen as an enhancement of the cell-group or house-church concepts, the enhancements consisting of more leadership, more professional staff, more extensive facilities, and more overall organization.
It might be supposed that whole-congregation meetings are necessary to establish familiarity with church leaders, as well as their authority in the church. Do not the people need to recognize themselves as equal members of the Body of Christ, yet beholden to the leadership from the podium? Churches have a long history of reinforcing pastoral authority through seating arrangements and building design as well as ritual and liturgy, yet no such methods originate in the New Testament. On the contrary, any authoritarian structure all too easily superimposes the semblance of spiritual authority where there is none. True, church members need to recognize God-instituted authority over them–something that societal changes have sadly undermined–but the establishment of the pastor-disciple relationship is not dependent on building design or a particular order of service. Rather, that relationship is best established by mentorship, not necessarily one-on-one, but certainly up-close and personal. Students learn best when they can see the whites of their teacher’s eyes, even better when they come to feel that they know their teacher and are known by him, with mutual caring. The Ministry Center model provides the pastor and staff ministers with the opportunity to meet with multiple groups, on a more personal basis, throughout the week.
Then there is the question of any inherent spiritual value of a whole congregation coming together at one time. Any theory of a higher level of spiritual benefit deriving from larger meetings, perhaps a parallel to New Age “visualizing world peace” or a kind of metaphysical union, is debatable, and also cannot be established from Scripture. In opposition to such a notion is Christ’s own promise regarding “where two or three are gathered in my name.” Moreover, generational and subcultural distinctions in America have become so pronounced in recent years–spawning, by way of examples, the music style and sound volume debates–that the large meeting format becomes increasingly unworkable, and a cause of dissension. The nature of the large meeting is to impose “sameness” upon the whole, at least for its duration, against which many individuals, right or wrong, increasingly rebel. Breaking up the at-large congregation into separate groups of interest, as in the Ministry Center model, can not only circumvent clashes between disparate groups but provide the benefit of tailoring worship style, as well as ministry types and purposes, to each group.
I must add that, as a Pentecostal, I have noted the growing tendency of larger churches to suppress manifestations of the Spirit in their meetings, perhaps fearful of confusion or loss of control of meetings. (Surely this consequence is unacceptable and cannot be allowed to stand!) Smaller meetings can afford not only more opportunity to individual Pentecostal believers for spiritual expression and edification of the Body–which Paul described as vital to “Body ministry”–but also a sense of personal contribution and “ownership” of the overall work of the church. This can be the difference, a vast one, between being a spectator and a participant.
I believe this new model church can be used in order to:
- Empower church staff and connect them more closely to church members and adherents.
- Allow for more interactive and participatory worship as well as teaching experiences.
- Emphasize teaching ministry and mentoring in the pattern of Ephesians 4:7-16.
- De-emphasize less meaningful activities and better focus resources.
- Facilitate multiple worship styles, meeting types, and learning experiences in order to appeal to multiple segments of society with minimal friction.
- Make church an activity that is available daily, not just weekly, and ministry available daily.
- Maximize use of facilities while minimizing building size.
- Place centers of ministry convenient to target areas and populations.
- Expand by placing new centers of ministry elsewhere.
© 2014 Paul A. Hughes