Urban Church: Hitting a Moving Target

I learned a new term this week: vacation move.

A vacation move is when a person or family picks up and moves to another city but has no intention of staying in that city long term. Vacationer movers pack up their life and head off to another city, most often because it sounds like a fun place to live for a season. And millennials are doing it in droves.

A move may be accompanied by a job offer or any number of reasons, but the idea is never one of permanence. It may be a stepping-stone position, or it may simply be a desire to live somewhere exciting for a little while prior to settling down. Whatever the case, permanence is no longer assumed.

Mayflower, a moving company, recently sponsored a survey to gain some insight concerning moving patterns and uncovered this trend among young adults. According to the study, roughly 41 percent of millennials are vacation movers, and an even higher number (53 percent) say they are likely to make a vacation move in the next five years. Furthermore, these vacation movers are setting their sights on the city, with 69 percent currently living in a major urban center or its very near suburbs. Houston is in the top ten destination cities, along with other large urban centers such as San Francisco, Denver, and Washington DC.

Hitting a Moving Target

I point out the above survey to draw attention to a present reality for the urban church. Urban missions and ministry is aiming at a moving target. Of course, this truth comes as no surprise if you are planting or pastoring in an urban center. You deal with this every week as you wonder which members are leaving for a new job or moving out of the city for more space. Transience defines urban ministry.

It is not uncommon for me to hear church planters wrestle with this truth. They work and work and committed members tend to slip through their fingers like sand. If not careful, church planters begin to resent this aspect of the urban context, and eventually begin to blame any perceived failings in their ministry on the lack of long term residents. While that is understandable, I do not think it is the right approach. Urban missions must be approached like any other context, by considering its unique nature and working with instead of against it. The rapid turnover in cities may pose a high obstacle for churches to overcome, but this is simply part of the context. What is more, it can also provide a number of benefits to that urban church for accomplishing the Great Commission.

In short, urban churches must ask the question, “How can we be faithful to God’s mission in the midst of rapid turnover?”

I suggest three areas for consideration:

Boldness in Evangelism and Missions

What I am about to suggest may sound counterintuitive to a fresh church planter armed with the trendiest of missional methods, but hang in there with me. I am of the persuasion that the urban setting requires more direct methods of evangelism. Nowadays, it is real common to speak of relational evangelism and of winning a hearing among thoroughly secular people. I get that, but too often, we misunderstand relationship evangelism. Poor relationship evangelism works hard to become friends with someone before ever sharing the gospel instead of sharing it from the beginning of the relationship. We want people to know we care about them, but delaying any meaningful conversation about religion most often has the reverse effect. It comes across as a bait and switch. People feel like you just spent six months becoming their best buddy all so you could sell them on religion.

Fact is, rapid turnover in the urban environment makes this approach to evangelism even less effective. Urban churches do not have time to wait around on a two-year relationship to develop by doing nice things for people. In reality, those people will likely not be around to see the end of that relationship or even hear the gospel. By all means, we need to be doing nice things for our communities, especially complex urban communities. An organization called Loving Houston comes to mind here in my context. Connect with schools, serve neighborhoods, love on people, but that does not need to be your “evangelism strategy.” Do those things because those are the things Christians do. An authentic Christian community in an urban neighborhood should be, in fact, an authentic Christian community. That means serving and loving neighbors. We need no other motivation than the imitation of Christ.

When it comes to evangelism in urban settings, however, we need a broad seed-sowing mentality. Ironically, the rapid turnover in a city actually amplifies the impact of seed-sowing. With a revolving population, it is much easier to be bold in sharing. High turnover means the urban church is regularly presented with a fresh set of ears in their neighborhood and community. Instead of using methods that require longevity for the gospel to be proclaimed, flip the script. Share quickly with neighbors and coworkers, knowing they are only there for a limited time. Urban churches need to rediscover the art of teaching members personal evangelism through verbally proclaiming the message to newcomers.

Developing a Discipleship Plan

I hesitate using the term discipleship in this manner, because I believe it can lead to an anemic understanding. What I am referring to here is an equipping process through which we develop those people in our congregation for spiritual and missional maturity. When church members have an expiration date, then a healthy church will take this into consideration as it equips them for ministry. The urban church must wrap her mind around the short timeframe of her members in order to serve them well.

I have had friends who planted in urban centers tell me that their average turnover is about 18 months. A year and a half is not a very long time to make an impression on someone’s spiritual formation, but that is precisely what churches in cities are called to do. And personally, I do not think this is a fool’s errand. It does, though, require a church to have a plan for their members that kicks in on day one.

Build your equipping with an end in mind. Consider developing an 18-month equipping process from membership to send off. Pose the question, “If we only have someone for 18 months, how do we want them to be changed by the time they leave?” In answering this question, weave the various discipleship channels in your church together. During your membership process, let new people know what to expect concerning this equipping. Train small group leaders to equip with turnover in mind. Churches in high turnover could even develop a long rotation of themes that cover spiritual formation. These themes could guide a sermon rotation as well as small group practice. I am not necessarily suggesting topical sermons but themes of application that are intentionally highlighted in book-by-book study throughout the year.

For instance, my previous church in Raleigh held gospel, community, and mission as three guiding concepts for their discipleship. A church developing an 18-month equipping rotation could spend six months building gospel-centered foundations, six months shaping the understanding of Christian community in the church, and six months equipping members toward personal mission. There are many ways to break this down. The point is to think ahead and work backwards with your equipping process to move people to that spot.

Fostering a Sending Culture

Finally, help your congregation form a sending mentality. If people leaving is always viewed negatively, then a spirit of pessimism can set in where there is rapid turnover. And in fact, rapid turnover may not be a bad thing, if the church grasps the sending potential it provides. If an urban church is intentional with the equipping process above, it can help members see a bigger purpose in their going. Furthermore, the church will view its membership as a stewardship, given to them for a season for their equipping and sending.

Challenge members to think through their motives in leaving, and call them to a purpose centered around the Great Commission. Eventually new job opportunities become pathways to serve the church and reach the lost in a new location. Additionally, a church with a healthy sending culture will more naturally raise up missionaries willing to move for the establishment of churches in new cities all over the world.

Instead of communicating to your congregation that turnover is a problem, learn to celebrate the sending. This can be hard for small urban church plants, but it reframes reality for the congregation. After all, every congregation serves a mission bigger than their own.

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