Environments are usually set by default rather than by careful planning. We inherit the building a certain way and that often dictates how we use that space. It doesn’t hurt to take a moment to reconsider how we use the space we have to the best of our abilities.
Here is a concrete example of a ministry environment we created at Northwest that is now five years in the making. Before we came to Northwest we had a large number of people 50+ and a large number of people 18 and under. There was a huge gap between 18 and 40. The elders decided if we were going to grow into the future this group had to be addressed, grown, and active. So we started with the question of what do we provide that will best attract and grow (numerically and spiritually) a group of young adults at this congregation? Mixing them in the broader congregation had not been working. Hoping they would come and plug into the classes we had wasn’t working. We decided they needed a place to come and grow. This place (environment) would need to do several things. These things have developed over time. Some we recognized on the front end and others only looking back:
- Personal Safety – A safe place to come as you are and not worry about being condemned for your mistakes. In other words, a place to be real and authentic, not fake.
- Practical Bible study – A place of solid Bible study that would be focused on life change via application.
- Outreach safety – We wanted a place they would feel was safe to bring their friends. This happens in a couple of ways. In my teaching I try really hard to never attack anyone or be condescending. You find the good you can compliment and work through the disagreeables in a loving and considerate way that is based on scripture. If people feel attacked they will never bring a friend and they also may never come back. This is also fostered through the subjects we study. We don’t study things on Sunday morning that people would fear bringing someone to.
- Discussion – That study would involve discussion rather than lecture as we see with our young adults that they want to share their thoughts, opinions and questions and not get the “Bible from the fire hose” approach of lecture that was over their heads. We didn’t have a place this was happening. So we built one.
- More time – We recognized 1 hour a week was not going to create a meaningful community. We realized 1 hour a week in a church classroom was not going to create this community. We had to get outside the walls regularly and in meaningful ways if they were going to grow. We needed room for regular, quality, outside of class events that would be meaningful to them (devos, service projects, and fun time). Before you blast me for events, we recognized that isolated events aren’t as meaningful as events that bring purpose and continuity to an already existing community/group.
- Openness and honesty – People want to be able to talk about real life, their real struggles and not be attacked for messing up. How will they change if we can’t all be honest about our lives?
- Relevance – We address issues, topics, and scriptures that are relevant to their lives. For instance, some time back we realized the two biggest struggles for them were money and sexuality. We also realized the two things you never hear in Bible class are money and sexuality. So we had classes on both that were open and honest.
- Space – In an ideal world we would have had a classroom that was our own. We don’t have that luxury right now and so we share space with a classroom in our school.
- Responsibility/Equipping – We foster individual responsibility for the group through designating leadership roles over things like devos, service projects, etc. I realize that if this was going to get big that I couldn’t do it myself and that if they took on responsibility they would have ownership of the ministry and be more likely to be involved, stay involved, and invite their friends.
As you start putting these things in place an environment begins to form. That environment sends this message – you are important and loved. There is a place for you here that is meaningful and will allow you to use your gifts for God’s purposes for your life. Growth begins to occur and real life change starts happening. This is quite a different feel and message than the previous selection of adult Bible classes that were previously in the mix. It is different because we came at it with a fresh perspective that took into consideration those we are trying to reach. Since “class as usual” wasn’t getting it done we knew it would take a more considerate approach. Again, I am not saying they are missing the mark or that they are ineffective in what they are doing. I am saying they weren’t working for this demographic. Bottom line – it has worked. They have taken ownership. They are taking the lead. They have taken responsibility off my shoulders and shared it amongst themselves and we now have something that is bigger than any of us and is sustainable for many years to come.