A decade ago, in the midst of the coffee shop boom and rise of “third places” for people to gather for conversation, business, study, MainStreet started a church and built out a coffee shop style venue in a storefront space. We never realized the dream of filling that space with activity and gatherings all week long. We lacked the people and financial resources.
But another dramatic cultural shift happened over last decade: the “third place” moved online. Most people don’t sit at Caribou Coffee reading the newspaper, nor do most people gather to hear an author talk at a book store, or come together daily at a pub called Cheers to discuss life and family, religion and politics. Picking up with Paul’s social engagement in ancient Athens, the 21st century ‘Areopagus’ has gone digital.
19 So they took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are proclaiming? 20 For you are bringing some surprising things to our ears, so we want to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there used to spend their time in nothing else than telling or listening to something new.) (Acts 17:19-21)
Here’s the situation every pastor and church interested in engaging people with the Christian worldview needs to grapple with: people are being shaped and “discipled” far more effectively by the secular media they consume all week long than by any Sunday morning sermon they might hear twice a month.
Where do unchurched people today go first to explore religious ideas? Answer: YouTube, Wikipedia, Google, etc.
Where do the wise sages and popular teachers gather to share and generate conversation on the big ideas of life? Answer: TED Talks, YouTube, etc.
Where do people most often find themselves engaged in heated discussions about the issues of the day? Answer: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.
Pastors may need to spend less hours each week crafting a sermon many won’t hear, and more time curating and creating digital content to pastor people between Sundays. (As an example, I have started a “pastoral letter” writing ministry where I spend 2 or 3 hours each week writing personal letters to congregants. I think they are bearing more fruit than my sermons already.)
So, MainStreet is casting a bold new 2020 Vision. We are reimagining discipleship for an on-the-go, on-demand culture. How can we expand our teaching ministry beyond the Sunday service and sermon? How might we spark warm and stimulating conversations in the digital marketplace of ideas day to day with all who happen to listening in (cf. Acts 17:17)?
Between Sundays we will be curating and proliferating rich content in more convenient on-the-go formats such as podcasts, audio devotionals, video supplements, social media, as well as continuing face-to-face gatherings such as Lifegroups and Huddles. Daily digital engagement should never replace face-to-face gatherings, but they can build a bridge to people not yet interested in “coming to worship” or ready to gather in a living room small group.
These are exciting times filled with rich new ministry opportunities if the church is willing to find new wine skins to hold the vintage wine of Kingdom wisdom. Millennial Christians and spiritual seekers today are open to the teachings of Jesus, but they aren’t as interested in “going to church” and investing in brick-and-mortar institutions.
Will today’s leaders and older generations of Christians just shake our heads and complain that less people are coming to church on Sunday? Or will we imitate the Apostle Paul and find innovate ways of bringing the teachings of Jesus to where people are already gathering? At MainStreet, for example, we hope to host occasional “Campfire Chats” — something like local TED Talks — with broader appeal and warmer atmosphere for people just exploring Christianity. I can think of no better modern day version of the ancient Areopagus gathering than TED Talks that boast of “Ideas worth spreading.”
If we situate our ministry in the 21st century Areopagus, I am confident we will find people asking the same question they asked Paul 2,000 years ago in Athens, Greece: “May we know what this new teaching is that you are proclaiming? For you are bringing some surprising things to our ears, so we want to know what they mean.”
This is part of a series of posts called “Jesus on Main Street.” I will share more in-depth on MainStreet’s 2020 Vision in upcoming posts.