Most congregations talk like they desire to add new and different people into the life of the church, but the reality is that most aren't equipped. Consider the news shared at the recent UMC General Conference that 70% of our churches didn't have a baptism last year. This is a shocking statistic, but one which can be turned around.
I've learned that many congregations tell the Story, yet seem to get stuck in patterns of their congregational history, replication of worship and program, and a rather serious disconnection from their community. Despite repeating the ancient words of faith, I often wonder if many congregations are serious about reaching their community or prefer to merely repeat what they have known with who they know. It's as if many churches have one or more major issues which render them incapable of accomplishing what they say. They lack the capacity to do, or to be, that of which they speak.
In my experience there are a number of factors which interact with one another to determine the capacity a congregation has to reach or impact their community. These are interrelated and in no particular order.
Theological Capacity: Most congregations have some sort of theological, biblical, and practical ecclesial focus. Now, truth be told, this is usually so intertwined with a cultural or social belief and value system that it may be almost impossible to disentangle it all. It may be lost, or somehow forgotten, buried deep within the fabric of the congregation. What are the expectations of your community of faith regarding the primary purposes of the church? Push deeper than the practices as you consider, and discuss this, otherwise you'll merely list worship, prayer, discipleship, outreach, etc. As you push deeper into the shared theology you may find a unified, deep theology. Or, perhaps you find a shallow and varied understanding which reveals fault lines and hints at possible fragmentation.
Leadership Capacity: Many congregations have limited themselves to be the size they are. This may be due to the community context, the style leadership, the congregational expectations, the theology, or some mix of the above. This isn't to say small church is bad and large church is good. In fact, I often find a powerful shared community and depth of discipleship in some small and medium membership churches. In terms of reaching your community, the key issue is if leadership of any size congregation has this as a key value and driver of the system. If it isn't as important to be in the community, developing relationships, and sharing faith, as it is to be "in" the church building, then you are likely developing leaders for the "last chapter" of church life and not for today and tomorrow.
Organizational Capacity: Too often it seems our churches begin to think that offering a presentation is our main objective. Many churches don't seem to want new and different people. Old classes and groups, concretized relationships, and set patterns become the norm. The ability to invite, engage, and retain numbers of new and different people may be a lost practice to such a church. How well do we create new, diverse leadership? Do we promote and free new leaders for service? Do we challenge existing groups to multiply or do we promote stability? Does our current organizational structure match well with our present community?
Communication Capacity: Many congregations have no idea what "tribe" they represent in the community, what people group/s the congregation effectively reaches, and which group/s the church has natural affinity with. Too often, in the past, this has been solely defined by socio-economic and racial criteria. This is worth honest, realistic examination as you consider who God is calling your church to know in your community. It may be likely that you need a local, a translator, and a missionary who is as comfortable in the community, where they are authentic in life and faith, as they are in the congregational setting. What music and language works in community life?
Integration Capacity: What room do you have in your individual life, and in the life of the congregation, for new and different people? Many groups within a congregation, and perhaps the congregation itself, is capped in its relationships. Their are skills and practices related to engaging and involving new and different people into an organization. Who is in charge of this at your church? Is it a movement, a culture within the church, or is it merely the work of one or two staff people? A church that is more of an open system with the community calls upon many to be guides, mentors, and helpers to "outsiders" becoming "insiders" and fully involved with the church.
Change Capacity: Congregational life today should look somewhat different than it did 20-30 years ago (if your community and culture has changed during that time). Is your organization capable of change? How quickly can you make adjustments? How many adjustments can you make in a year? Many congregations have placed such a high priority on repeating history and not rocking the boat that they have little interest or capacity in change. What year is it in your church? If all the momentum revolves around keeping the current "customers" happy you will never develop new constituents, customers, friends, members. You are well on your way to no baptisms, more funerals, and soon enough the death of the congregation. Talk about a change!
Consider your congregational capacity to reach or impact your community. Hopefully you can identify a few adventurous types who likely already know the community well and can assist you in opening the doors of your church to the community. Who in your church or community can help you increase your capacity to be an open congregation to your neighbors?