The Rev. Dr. Thomas G. Bandy is an internationally recognized author, consultant, and leadership coach for churches and Christian organizations and faith-based non-profits. He is the director of www.ThrivingChurch.com and has authored many planning tools that interface with the demographic research engine of www.MissionInsite.com.
Why do urban churches habitually fail to reach, include, and bless lifestyle segments that live within a ten-minute walk around their church buildings?
The common pattern is that most members and attenders commute from some distance away. They may drive 15 minutes to attend church, but locals will not walk 10 minutes to the same church.
Recent consultations with churches in areas experiencing demographic “centralization” have prompted me to reflect on the dynamic relationship of generosity, hospitality, and self-esteem.
Centralization is what happens as urbanization moves along major transportation corridors, isolating rural areas, and forcing people to relocate into small towns or small cities. This is because health, education, food distribution, and affordable housing have all retreated from the countryside to “central” locations. All the retail and social services once available in the country have disappeared.
Consider, for example, population shifts in small towns and city centers. The fastest-growing lifestyle segments include people like M45 Diapers and Debit Cards (young single parents with very limited incomes). Additionally, S68 Small Town Shallow Pockets (older, vulnerable singles and empty-nesters), Q65 Senior Discounts (Retirees in crowded apartments leading frugal but sensible lives), or N48 Rural Southern Bliss (lower-income multi-generational families with rural roots (descriptions from Experian research). Some may have been quite active in a small rural church, but when they relocate to “the city” they do not connect readily with a new church. Why?
Of course, there are also higher populations in central cities of urban survivors who make use of the food distribution and homeless shelters church outreach ministries provide. However, the lifestyle segments I have named tend to be too embarrassed to rely on what they consider “handouts”, and also very reticent to attend worship, anxious that they will be considered “alien” to those in the “inner circle”.
You begin to see the connection between self-esteem and hospitality.
These lifestyle segments tend to have low self-esteem to start with. They often feel they have been evicted from their original homes, separated from lifestyle friends, embarrassed by their poverty, shamed by addictions, or health concerns. Moreover, the traditions and spiritual practices of central city churches seem foreign even if the church is the same denomination as the one left behind. If they go to worship, they sit alone, feel awkward in coffee hour, and feel generally misunderstood.
It’s a vicious cycle. The lower the self-esteem of these people, the less likely they are to attend church. The more they attend church, the more likely they will lose self-esteem.
Church people often boast about their friendliness. There is lots of talk about “radical hospitality”, but these migrating lifestyle segments caught up in the flow of “centralization” do not see it that way. What they need is not “radical hospitality”, but “radical empathy”. A warmer handshake, better food, and extra effort to invite them to the Women’s Group or Bible Study will not be enough.
Hospitality is not about better tactics, but deeper relationships.
Churches need to go the extra mile to meet their needs: accessibility for their disabilities, childcare for their children, assistance for the rent, transportation to the clinic, and more.
But, most of all, church people must be ready and eager to step away from their comfort zones and friendship circles and risk personal discomfort in order to make new friends.
Yet this is only part of the challenge, for even this kind of “radical hospitality” is not enough to address the low self-esteem that people in these lifestyle segments often feel. While it is good to receive hospitality, it is even better to share it. While it is comforting to receive generosity, it is ennobling to give it. High self-esteem and a generous heart go together. The more generous we are, the better we feel about ourselves. The better we feel about ourselves, the more generous we are.
Moreover, there is a kind of hierarchy to radical generosity. It can be expressed in many ways: money, management, service, and mentoring. Generosity with money will raise self-esteem a little; generosity to participate in a committee may raise it a bit more. What really raises self-esteem, however, is the opportunity to serve and do practical things that make big improvements in another’s life.
Most of all, what raises self-esteem is to be respected as a person with valuable experience, moral character, and good advice.
Central church people often view these lifestyle segments as needy people, and so, even when they care deeply about them, they subtly perpetuate their low self-esteem. Church people need to view these lifestyle segments as generous people. They want to be generous so they can feel good about themselves, and when they feel good about themselves, they want to be generous toward others.
It’s autumn, and for most churches, the stewardship campaign is about to begin. Let’s face it. Come “Celebration Sunday” it is the big givers that receive the most praise. We are successful if the people who gave a certain amount of money last year have promised to increase that amount next year. That kind of thinking is automatically deflating to the lifestyle segments. Jesus said that it isn’t the size of the gift but the size of the sacrifice that matters. That poor widow that donated her copper penny not only left feeling justified, but she also left feeling proud.
If you really want to reach out and bless the growing number of people migrating into small towns and cities because of demographic centralization, by all means give them what they need. Then go the extra mile to make friends with strangers and newcomers. But more than anything, help them become generous in their own right.
We are currently facing hard times. Many church leaders ask me how aggressive they should be in fundraising this year. My answer is that the church needs to be even more aggressive than ever, but the focus and the method should change.
The focus should be on outreach and inspirational worship rather than operational budgets and salaries.
This reverses the priorities of many stewardship campaigns that focused on institutional operations and relegated outreach to “second-mile giving”. Now outreach and inspiration become primary to give people hope, and institutional operations become secondary. You will be surprised how generous people can be to the church out of appreciation for the outreach.
The method of fundraising should diversify. Celebrate the first-time givers and appreciate the sacrifice of smaller donors who in fact give higher percentages of disposable income. Offer lifestyle segments moving into the city opportunities to receive coaching for Christian household budgeting and debt-relief. And work hard to build real friendships between the big givers and the victims of demographic “centralization”.
I welcome all questions about using MissionInsite for ministry planning and leadership development. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.