Do you want to grow a suburban church in our culture in 3 easy steps? There’s a pretty reliable formula. First, get a dynamic teacher. Second, hire an inspiring worship band. Finally, above all make young growing families with children your target demographic (preferably those with stable incomes). “You simply cannot grow a church without catering to young families,” conventional wisdom will tell you.
I can’t tell you how times I’ve heard “church growth” experts say healthy churches are “youthful churches”, while churches filled with gray-hairs and an empty nurseries are “dying churches.” Even if there is some hard, cold truth to this mindset, I submit it’s a markedly unbiblical way of thinking that is far adrift from the Kingdom vision and heart of Jesus.
Jesus’ mission prioritized the marginalized and neglected people of his day. He didn’t send out his apostles—i.e., “church planters”—saying, “Go ye therefore to the sprawling suburbs and invite the upwardly mobile dual income families with children.” He said, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” (Luke 14:21). Would you try growing a church with such folks? Church growth manuals would urge against it! Yet, our world is filled with people who are poor in finances as well as poor in spirit and loving relationships. Everyday we are surrounded by people who are crippled by fear, anxiety, depression, debt and addiction and wondering if they will ever “get on their feet again.”
A church targeting these demographics may be a “harder sell” in our convenience-driven, comfort-craving society, and a bit less appealing to families searching for a new church home. Yet, don’t we need new churches targeting special needs adults who require rides to church and are less able to serve and advance the organization? What about planting a church for unmarried men and women who have no children to boost the attendance numbers or help grow the next generation? How about a church trying to provide a support system for hurting and unstable people in recovery? Will a church with a heart to reach lonely and forgotten elderly folks sitting in nursing homes appeal to parents looking for a Wednesday program to drop their kids at? Finally, how much “business sense” does it make to build an organization with poor and financially burdened people when you’re behind budget and trying to raise money to keep funding the mission?
Friends, welcome to MainStreet Covenant Church!
Practically speaking, of course, churches need to reach the next generation if the organization is going to grow and thrive into the future, and funding is an important factor in any healthy organization. And I’m delighted that our young church is filled with the noises of crying babies, toddler tantrums and an active children’s program and a freshly launched youth group this fall. We recently expanded our kids ministry space and kids under age 13 make up 30% of our church. But are we to determine our “target demographic”—those we are aiming to reach and minister to—primarily by marketing metrics and church growth formulas? Or should we heed the words of Jesus, be faithful to His calling and entrust the results to Him?
I still remember lunch with a church growth expert and nay-sayer as we were beginning MainStreet. He showed me maps of the western suburbs detailing growing school districts, booming real estate markets, and fancy formulas rating various communities according to their viability as church planting locations. He concluded, “Jeremy, Mound gets a low rating, and will be a difficult place to grow a church.” I thanked him for his expert opinion and simply said, “Well, you have your little folder of metrics, and I have the call of God on me to this city. I’ll take my chances.” (Thankfully, he bought my lunch so I got something out of our time.)
What if a new church feels called to reach the precious groups often overlooked and neglected by the typical church plant these days. What if we feel called to invite into our community the kinds of people who may provide a lower ROI (return on investment) when it comes to organizational growth and health, and instead embrace Jesus’ clear words that “the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (Luke 6:20) and “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40)?
While most growing churches are built upon the foundation of traditional family units—dad, mom and children—MainStreet’s largest demographic of adult attenders (67%) is households of single adults without children, divorced single parents, and solo attenders who are married but whose spouses do not attend. Households of married couples make up just 33% of MainStreet. Our culture may warn against building a community on so-called “broken families” but we prefer to call it building upon God’s gracious restoration trophies. Whereas many churches are comprised of traditional family units who go to church together, MainStreet is comprised of a ragtag group of individuals who are becoming a new family unit in Christ: widows and elderly shut-ins, college students and single parents, special needs adults and people in recovery, families with children, and singles who have never had children but are suddenly being called aunt and uncle for the first time!
The heart of the gospel is a love that sacrifices self-interest (including organizationally driven ROIs) and instead invests time and resources on those who are most needy whether or not they will help the church grow. Leaders of churches are often tempted to sacrifice Jesus’ values and mission on the altar of organizational solvency and financial sustainability. The mission of Jesus, however, begins and ends with faithful obedience and compassion for the “least of these”, not organizational self-preservation and church growth metrics. Jesus warned that “Those who want to preserve their life (and organization?), will lose it” (Matt 16:25). On the other hand, those (churches) willing to sacrifice their concern with self-preservation and take up a self-sacrificial cross-shaped mission of serving those in need will find new life and divine blessing!
As we approach our 7th anniversary, we are more aware than ever that MainStreet is a somewhat unique church and we often find ourselves taking the “narrow road” in our approach to ministry and fellowship. We see ourselves a “Jericho Inn Church” picking up people alongside the roads of life who have fallen on hard times. Recovering addicts just going in or getting out of treatment. People going through a divorce. People struggling with mental illness and depression. People barely scraping by and facing financial hardship. In all these cases, we are providing refuge and a place to heal and get back on their feet.
Now, many such MainStreeters may be less likely to help “grow the organization” by taking a membership class, becoming tithing members, and so on. Like the Good Samaritan, however, other good hearted people have chosen to partner with MainStreet for years now and keep telling us with their financial support, “I’ll help foot the bill—put it on my account. Keep bringing people into the Inn to be cared for” (cf. Luke 10:35).
Here’s a snapshot of who makes up this unique little church family. The reality may not fit the image in your head, as many people have a church plant stereotype of a hip church filled with young families and just a few gray hairs. MainStreet has always tended to break the mold. MainStreet is currently comprised of about 80 people in the following categories: 24 children/youth (30%), 10 college students (13%), 14 people age 26-39 (18%), 12 people age 40-59 (15%), and our largest adult group comprised of 20 people age 60+ (25%).
Did you know that at MainStreet 42% of single/solo attenders over age 25 are in recovery for alcoholism? Half (50%) of households with children under 18 are single parents. Almost 1/3 of MainStreet adults over age 25 have experienced the pain of divorce. A majority of our households fall below the average income bracket for the Lake Minnetonka area and many are barely scraping by.
More recently, we have felt called to increase our ministry to special needs adults at Sojourn Adult Center down the road in Mound. Faith volunteers go pick them up each Sunday and bring them to church. We go visit them regularly during the week and open the scriptures and pray. We have been ministering to another gentlemen with physical needs, bringing communion to his apartment and encouraging his soul. For a couple single guys at MainStreet, we have become the only real family they have, inviting them to be part of our own family Thanksgiving gatherings, bringing them to the doctor when ill, providing a room and bed in times of need and so on.
Furthermore, MainStreet is committed to sending the first 10% of our funds back out into mission, and this year took the big step of partnering with Pastor Erico Ortega and his wife Maria to plant a hispanic church in Fridley—Unidad Covenant Church. This past Sunday we drove up to Fridley and worshiped in Spanish with our sister church and shared a Thanksgiving meal with them. It turns out pie is a delicious blessing that transcends cultures!
We know that almost every church is engaged in similar ministries of mercy and compassion. The difference for MainStreet is we are only about 50 total adults—and these are not “side ministries” to people outside our fellowship; these folks are the very people who make up our little church family. These are the various folks trying to pool our resources to cover our ministry expenses and continue reaching others with our mission and message.
We have remained faithful to God’s unique call on MainStreet to be a Jericho Inn where people find healing, a fresh start and a new family. Yet, as this beautiful gospel ministry has advanced and grown, our finances have declined this year. Our “target demographic” are not the typical suburban middle-class dual income families. We also had a few core families leave the past year or so, as they grew tired from the emotional intensity that accompanies a small, tight knit family and went searching for a more established and less relationally demanding church. For the first time ever, we find ourselves facing a serious deficit in giving at MainStreet.
We are $30,000 behind and unlikely to make up this difference without the continued support of faithful partners who believe this Jericho Inn church is a worthwhile Kingdom investment. Will you help us continue funding this unique “mission outpost” in the Lake Minnetonka area so that we can, as the old motel commercial goes, “Leave the light on” for all who may be stumbling in the darkness and in need of the light of Christ’s love? The light shines bright in this MainStreet family!
We are bearing fruit and lives are being transformed. In the coming days we want to share some of the stories of people who have been touched by God through MainStreet. Stay tuned.
Will you help us continue being impractically faithful to Jesus’ call to reach the “least of these” in the Mound community? We’re asking God for some unexpected year end gifts to catch up and finish strong. You can donate HERE.