Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The “fit” factor

Written by: on May 15, 2015

In chapter 4 of Social Geographies: Space and Society, Valentine discusses the concept of community in relation to they way they mobilize and come together.   The author talks about ‘natural communities’ and Darwin’s theories surrounding the relationships between organisms and their surroundings.   Also discussed are the theories of Park, who looks at community through competition, ecological dominance, and invasion and succession.[1]  While I don’t agree with everything that Valentine asserts, I believe that it is important to understand the concepts underpinning the way that communities develop. Over the past 50 years, the church has broken into many different types of communities. Some of these communities are thriving, while others struggle. There are many theories about how to start and grow a church community, yet few of them consider the natural evolution of how communities form. They don’t consider the “fit factor”.

We know that our culture is consumer driven, and that communities grow based on the value that we place on housing, schools, etc. For example, I live in a small, wealthier community. Our town is somewhat segregated from the poverty in a nearby town just 5 miles away. People have paid large sums of money to live in this community. The wealthier people contribute to the local school system, which has become one of the best in the state. It has been difficult for people with lower incomes to move into the community due to the high taxes and real estate rates. With the recent economic downturn, many in the community have had a difficult selling their homes. As a result, real estate prices have recently dropped, as the high prices can no longer be supported. This is providing an opportunity for some to purchase homes in the village, who could not previously afford to.   People are attracted to the community due to the culture, esthetics, and general feel of the community.   The people within the community have common interests. Education is highly valued, as is care and keeping of the environment. People have moved into the community because they are drawn to the lifestyle and type of people who live here.  Yet, as new people move in the dogma of the village could change over time.

I’ve often been told that people surround themselves with others who are like them. They want to hang out and spend time with people who have common interests. I believe that this is also true of church communities.  Too often churches fail to grow because they seek to build community with others who aren’t like them. They either send their people into new communities with a vision to attract the people and start a new church, or the community around their physical space changes.   I saw this first hand with our previous church. They were located in a neighborhood that had changed over the prior 30 years. At one time, the community surrounding the church was full of children and younger generations. Today, the same community is mainly retired individuals. The church attracts individuals over age 50, and has growth in this area. However, the new pastor and his team have spent countless hours and dollars trying to ‘revitalize’ the church by focusing on youth and young families. They aren’t seeing success, as they don’t know how to attract and relate to that generation. If the church wants to grow, then they would be better to focus ministry efforts on the older community who so desperately wants to be involved in serving together.   I believe we need to leverage the concept of a natural community in our church environments. While we should welcome diversity and to be willing to go outside of our comfort zones, I also believe that natural communities develop whether they are intended or not. In the example of my prior church, the people simply don’t have the capacity to build community with younger generations. Most in the church simply can’t relate to and have a limited understanding of what most young professionals and families experience in their day-to-day lives. How could we minister more effectively if we considered the “fit” between the people building church community and living in church community?

[1] Valentine, Gill. Social Geographies: Space and Society. New York, N.Y.: Prentice Hall, ©2001.

About the Author

Dawnel Volzke

Christ follower, wife, mom, teacher, student, professional...my passion is to serve Christ and my calling is to help organizations become great at fulfilling their mission.

4 responses to “The “fit” factor”

  1. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Dawnel, “I’ve often been told that people surround themselves with others who are like them.” I would agree and I would not necessarily say this is a bad thing. I remember after planting in Lowell, we were about three years into our plant and I realized how alike all the people that were coming were. When Andrea and I moved to Lowell to plant a church is was based on feeling like there were a whole lot of people living in lowell who were looking for what we were looking for with similar pictures held about life, community, purpose, and values. In physics we said, “like begets like”. While God was definitely at work in our planting process and he was the reason for its success, the realities of social geography were something he was definitely using to draw people into relationship with him and relationship with one another. Great post!

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Great observations – thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sure that Lowell had a dogma all of its own, and the ministry grew because you were able to relate to and become a part of that community. I can hear your heart and love for the people in Lowell through many of your posts.

      I also want to mention something I’ve heard from Nick… I appreciate the process in which his church has been working to transition from one pastor to the next. This allows time for relationships to be built and for the next pastor to come in and become part of that church’s dogma.

      The challenge for the greater church is to become part of the dogma of the community in which they operate, and to facilitate people to come together to fulfill their calling in Christ in a sustainable manner. The protestant church (as a whole) tends to focus much energy on the communities where they believe the most growth can occur or where poverty or crime need to be addressed. We have the mindset that we are needed in these communities and can make the most impact there. While there are certainly needs in these communities, we often overlook the smaller upper and middle class communities or rural areas and we fail to provide adequate ministry there. We take the inoculation or SWAT team approach. Because of this, there are many small churches that are declining and struggling to support themselves. They have lost the spirit of why their church exists to begin with, and the church structure that should be supporting them isn’t truly providing adequate resources and training to help them do real ministry where they are located. While I appreciate the fact that we are planting new churches and ministries (it is certainly needed!), we are failing in communities where we’ve had a long time presence. It is a shame to drive into a small town and see multiple church buildings, closed down or barely sustaining themselves. We need to learn to become part of these communities. Continuous revitalization should start within a church at the point of conception, and if that hasn’t happened then we need to come alongside them and help get them on the right track or shut down and allow other churches the opportunity to minister where they are stronger. My question is, “why do we move church planters from place to place?” In my mind, we need church consultants to come alongside pastors who have a calling to serve in a specific community. It takes relationships and becoming a part of that community to be successful for the long term. The church needs to invest in pastors and missionaries to provide time for them to evolve with a community over the long term.

      We treat churches and community efforts like projects, although this doesn’t align to the natural evolution of how they are formed. Unfortunately, the church seems ok with their model of projects, and they accept failure more often than success. We allow resources to be spent extravagantly on grand ideas without longer term accountability…we lack the flywheel approach (per Jim Collins, in Good to Great). We come in like a SWAT approach, plant a church, and then expect to leave it to be sustained over a longer period of time. I suspect that a large number of the church plants started today won’t necessarily be around 20 years from now as we aren’t investing in pastors and resources for the long term.

  2. Brian Yost says:

    “While we should welcome diversity and to be willing to go outside of our comfort zones, I also believe that natural communities develop whether they are intended or not.”

    Great post, Dawnel. This reminds me of a church in Lansing, MI. Many people drove to the church from other communities. Lansing has a big refugee program, so outside the walls of the church are countless people from other countries who are not connected to any church. Unfortunately, no one in the church knew how to connect with them. Realizing this, they brought a Haitian pastor on staff to start a new church. Within a few weeks, he had connected with twice as many Haitian refugees as were on the official government list. Using this strategy of natural communities, they have started fellowships of Haitians, Dominicans, Bhutanese, and even a Bible study for strippers and prostitutes.

  3. Mary Pandiani says:

    “I believe we need to leverage the concept of a natural community in our church environments.” Such is the creative tension of a church – how to reach out and stretch while recognizing the culture of a church requires some great discernment. I agree that a “natural community” provides a much more sustainable solution.

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