Leading Your Church to Reflect its Neighborhood

It’s been more than 40 years since Martin Luther King, Jr. quipped, “Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.

If we are honest with ourselves– churches are nearly as divided today as they were 40 years ago. We call it culture and we call it personal preference. But the truth of the matter is that we just don’t want to rock the boat. (We like the comfort, staff members like their paychecks.)

So we allow racism, sexism, and a lack of cultural diversity to run rampant in our congregations.

It’s time those of us called to lead, lead our churches into a new paradigm.

And it starts with a sober assessment of where our congregations are at.

Simple measurement tool

Make a written observation the demographics of your congregation this Sunday morning. (Age, marital status, socio-economic status, race, gender) Then compare what you observe at your church against what the data set of your churches zip code as provided by the U.S. Census Bureau.

  • Does your congregation reflect its neighborhoods demographics?
  • Does your church staff reflect the demographics of the zip code?
  • If there is a disconnect, is your church leadership making serious, active efforts to close the divide?

Cutting to the chase: While most evangelical congregations don’t have white, middle class theology. They predominantly attract white, middle class congregations. And it’s scary how many church staffs are filled with white, middle class males. (Go ahead, look at the staff pages of 10 of your favorite churches.) That disconnect you observe should lead you to make changes!

Changing your behavior: If you are like me, a child of the 1980s, you were raised in a dogma of multiculturalism.

From kindergarten I was taught that all the cultures in my community have value, deserve equal rights, and should be given access to the same things I am given access to as a member of the dominant culture. That value may have been taught to me from a secular perspective, but I believe it also reflects a biblical perspective on how Christians are to live in society as well!

If you want to express that same value on Sunday morning you need to take some steps (maybe radical ones) towards that value.

In other words– Maybe you need to change churches? Maybe you need to stop funding something that doesn’t reflect your values and start funding a congregation that does? Maybe you need to lead the way and stop waiting for church leadership to lead you?

Personal testimony– This is what I’ve done. For the past 2+ years my family has been a part of a congregation that works hard to reflect its neighborhood. At times, it is simply beautiful and at other times it is wholly awkward. But it’s been a radical transformation for my walk with Jesus. So, know that I’m not just pushing an idealism, I’m encouraging you to participate in something that I’m finding tremendous joy in.

If you are a church leader who is taking a serious look at bridging the divide between the Sunday morning demographic you have today and the one you’d like to see in 12 months, may I suggest some action steps?

5 Radical Steps Towards Becoming a Congregation which Reflects its Neighborhood

  1. Hire staff members that reflect the demographics of your zip code. (Race, gender, marital status, age)
  2. Require all paid staff, from the janitor to the senior pastor, to live within the zip code of your congregation. (Give them a few months to move, make it financially possible, remove staff members who won’t move within 12 months.) Take it a step further by requiring all board officers to do the same.
  3. If you live outside of the neighborhood, lead the way by moving into the community your church is trying to reach. Don’t contribute to the disconnect– lead the way!
  4. Get involved in neighborhood issues. Lead the way on issues of justice, advocate for the poor, let your congregation be a voice in the community. (Here’s 10 suggestions for your church to be good news to the neighborhood)
  5. Adopt a local public school. The local schools are the access point to the people your church is called to reach. Get involved, not as an agent of adversary, but as a community partner. (Here’s 10 suggestions for your church to be good news to the local schools)

Is this a magic growth formula? Of course not. But as you take these steps you will earn the trust of a community who has learned to ignore you. When you care about what they care about and when you reflect who they are, you will be amazed at the social currency this will earn your congregation.

I recognize that these steps may seem extreme. (And I’m certain someone will tell me that firing staff for this is unbiblical) But that’s the nature of leadership, isn’t it? Sometimes God asks you to push past what you are comfortable with or what feels right to do what is right. Remember the rich young man in Matthew 19? He asked Jesus how he might enter the Kingdom of God, but he left disappointed because the cost was too high.

The reality is that if those in leadership don’t take radical positions so that their actions reflect their theology, the church will never change.

We simply cannot survive as a viable faith if we continue to act as agents of discrimination on Sunday morning. The church cannot be the most segregated place in our culture. It is time that the church take a good, hard look at who they are in their community and make some radical changes.

It’ll never get any easier or cheaper to do so than it is today.





10 responses to “Leading Your Church to Reflect its Neighborhood”

  1. Mike Lyons Avatar

    I looked up the demographics in my neighborhood and compared what I saw in church this morning and I was surprised that for the obvious stats we match up with our community pretty well. We’re actually a little less white than the community.

    Comparing the church I attend now to others I have previously attended, I don’t think it is a safe to say that it is acting any more or less as an “agent of discrimination” than are any of those other congregations. I think that to say “Hey, my church doesn’t have any Hispanic people” (it does) or something, and then to respond by making an effort to reach out specifically to that demographic is an act of discrimination, just with a different mask.

    Discrimination is not about who we hang out with or don’t hang out with. Discrimination is about WHY we make those decisions.

    As far as leadership from other zip codes or whatever, I think it depends. If a family is coming from across town because they like what our church offers, I think we should embrace that. I think we should continue to encourage them, as everyone in the church, to be involved in both our church and their community. Theoretically, they’re paving the way to be at the start of a church in their own area. For now, they’re coming here because we’re meeting needs they aren’t finding met in their own community. Leaders are people, too.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      I think this all boils down to what type of church you want to be. If you want to be a church about programs that is attractional…that’s an entirely different set of questions and expectations than one desiring to be a neighborhood church. Two different targets.

  2. Richard Daley Avatar

    So I’m looking at your step 2, and while it makes sense, I think that it needs to be preceeded by a step 1.5 if it’s going to be of any use whatsoever.

    1.5 Get your staff behind the vision of reaching and reflecting your community.

    The truth is, you can force staff to move, but you can’t force them to connect. Especially in a world as mobile as our own, where it’s easy enough to have one’s social life in a completely different part of the city than where one lives, it is far too easy for your staff to be living in a community, while remaining disconnected from it. It’s far better to spend time to show the staff what’s going on, work on getting them on board and then if they aren’t ready or willing to go along with being a part of this community in this way, then they can choose to leave no harm and no foul.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      Well, you can be smarter about how/who you hire, right?

      1. Richard Daley Avatar

        Oh yeah. I’m definitely in favor of hiring people who will be dedicated to the neighborhood and requiring them to move to the neighborhood when you hire them. It’s the existing staff that you need to get on board to make step 2 work (which is still a good step).

  3. Daryl A Avatar

    Im tempted to quote the TV show 30 Rock, Alec Baldwin character “Jack Donaghy”, and say ‘I dont see race or gender.’ However, I totally agree we need better representation (what about women in leadership?! I know thats a huge topic)

    Just a suggestion about step #2. If leaders (I dont understand why pastors would be required and not all leaders/influencers) are strategically connecting with a community in the demographic/area, don’t we all want to move into the area? I get the mobile/commuter mindset. However, if people are spending a bunch of their time with people in a specific area (volunteering with a local school, connecting with neighbours, enjoying meals and hanging out, etc), leaders will want to move to the area (if only to save travel time/transportation costs). However, one problem I see is people don’t really connect with a community. Instead churches commute to a program in the church building, and then everyone drives home. What your suggesting is very incarnational. God seemed to show us a model to be among people, “Emmanuel”.

    1. Richard Daley Avatar

      Something that has been floating around the back of my mind for a couple of months is the fact that we live such commuter lives, even outside of church. It’s not unusual for someone to live in one geographic community, commute to work in another, and then commute to a social life in a third. It makes me wonder what being incarnational to people who live those sorts of lives.

      I’m seeing more communities defined by industry or interest than I’m seeing by geography, and I haven’t completely figured out what that means for my image of an incarnational church.

      1. adam mclane Avatar

        Amen. This is where my heart is at too. Trying to figure it all out.

        I don’t know what the solution is for society. But I know that for my own life, to make it less crazy, I have chosen to life and worship in the same community. I work 15-20 minutes from home… but my church reaches my neighborhood, which gets me out in the community more and gives me another level of accountability to loving my neighbors. It’s one thing to love your neighbors and go to church across town. It’s another to love your neighbors and be 5 minutes away. You know?

  4. Tim Young Avatar

    Great thoughts, Adam. I’ve been reading some stuff on integrity the past few days and the guy says the easiest way to test for integrity is to ask “What’s missing?” If we apply that to our churches, we see that racial mingling is essentially absent. It’s pretty clear that we lack integrity when it comes to this. The church is segregated.

    Where I live, racial tensions are still pretty high. This of course leads to economic inequality as well (as it does in many cities, I’m sure). I think the only way our cities and country will see genuine racial reconciliation is for the Christian community to start being an integrated, racially-diverse mix of people in the local setting.

    1. adam mclane Avatar

      Amen. I think the thing that the schools taught us is that it’ll be hard at first, but the dominant culture needs to take the first steps. I think this post is a reaction to one too many discussions with friends whose churches are “praying about” how to change their church’s culture. I had one of these recently and when I got into the car with Kristen said something like, “Maybe they should pray about getting rid of some staff people and hiring different people?” That’s not “the answer” but I think its a positive step for orgs who are stuck.

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