Multichannel Church: An off-site focus

Adding an off-site focus to an established congregation takes some fresh thinking.

For one thing, congregations have spent so much time, money and energy maintaining the central location. Why do anything elsewhere?

For another thing, congregations know about off-site gatherings such as church-friend parties, mission work, maybe small groups. Isn’t that enough?

So let’s do some fresh thinking.

First, the established site is far more visible to current constituents than it is to anyone else. It’s also more valuable to them. Prospects don’t see your primary facilities, and they don’t care about all that you have invested in them. They certainly don’t want to be seen as the hope of paying for that work.

Second, prospects want relationships, not a place in a space. The typical Sunday service is so busy and non-personal that relationships don’t form. Those who have relationships already bring them to Sunday church and nurture them there, but they probably formed those relationships while cooking a meal, raking a lawn, building a house or staffing a picnic.

Third, if relationships come first, then you need to provide settings where relationships can form. You need a venue where people will come and where they can find face-to-face interaction. We need to realize that Sunday morning isn’t such a venue for the vast majority of potential prospects, especially young adults.

Fourth, to paraphrase the old fishing adage, you need to be in the water where fish are, not standing back at the lodge waiting for the fish to find you.

Think, then, about a highly visible presence in, say, an apartment complex where a lot of young adults live. Don’t go straight to a worship event, which isn’t likely to sell. Think social gathering, where young adults can do what they really want to do, namely, meet each other. Think mission event (.e.g. cutting lumber for a Habitat build, or sorting food donations for flood victims).

Don’t start by wanting to institutionalize it — an every-Friday wine tasting. Think one-time event, see how it goes, learn how to communicate, and then try another.

In a child-centered neighborhood, think about an open-mike event for discussing local schools. Or bring in an expert on a common issue — teenagers and drugs, partying, self-esteem, technology in learning and parenting — and invite everyone in the neighborhood.

The point isn’t to replicate Sunday worship in another setting, but to provide venues where people can form relationships and, in time, understand those relationships as having to do with God and, secondarily, with your faith community.

Another example: I sing in a gospel choir at an Upper East Side church that is seeking to grow its diversity. I have suggested we hold some or all of our rehearsals in Harlem, perhaps as the opening wedge of an ongoing presence in this historically black community.

Off-site venues have another plus: you can re-invent yourself in them. Back at the central site, doing anything new tends to face resistance. But in an off-site venue, long memories don’t weigh you down. You can try new ideas, interact with new people, present a more complete sense of who you are.

Faith communities need both pioneers and settlers. The settlers are firmly in control at the central site. Send your pioneers out into the neighborhoods to plant new crops.