Wednesday, October 17, 2007

When Buzz Matches Vision

The big idea of what my church is trying to do with Element has to do with discipling folks 18-30something. Experientially, while we do have college students and we do have young marrieds, the majority of our participants are young professionals in their mid to late 20s.
What we are doing in terms of our program format -- a weekly "generational" worship service and small groups -- is not much different from what lots of other churches are doing for young people in that gap when most young people vanish from church. I think what sets Element apart, at least from similar generational efforts in our area, are two things:

a) We are trying to do what we are doing in the context of community (as opposed to merely hosting a program, an event. The Element events, for us, are components of cultivating community, which ideally builds up and bridges to the greater community of our church. (The events aren't the only components in this effort, by the way. I only mean that the events aren't meant to be stand-alone attractional alternatives to staying home.)

b) While in format, again, we are not unique among twentysomething services (worship/teaching), I do think we are unique in that our teaching approach is conscientiously cross-centered, grace-driven, and Gospel-focused. The idea is that what people need foremost is the Gospel and application comes secondary. This is a risk on our part, because when asked what they want out of a message, most will say some variation of "practical, applicable, etc." People want homework.
At Element, we do give stuff to do; we just like to overshadow it with what Jesus has done. What we are trusting is that when that unexpected message hits, even if someone wouldn't have expressed wanting it before hearing it, it is a relief and a relevation.

This is all great in theory. If it all about "what we're trying to do," we could measure our effectiveness and success purely on whether we thought we were hitting that mark ourselves. The scary part is asking people who attend "Why do you come to Element?"

I've mentioned before that we have a divinity school grad student using Element as her congregational case study project. I informed her that we are not a congregation, but she was taken enough with what we're doing for that not to hinder her interest. She's spent the last couple of months asking anybody who will talk to her all about their interest and participation in Element. I have had no idea what anyone was telling her.
Until last Sunday night. After she interviewed me for a while, I wanted to interview her and ask her, out of my own concern and curiosity, "So what's the buzz you are getting about Element?"

What I really wanted to know is, Are the things people are getting out of this the things we are hoping they do? Are our aims true?

This is a sampling of things she reported:
- Generally, people are coming from church backgrounds they consider burdens and they are liking the, in her words, "focus on grace."
- Generally, people are enjoying that Element is, in her words, "not superficial."
- More than one person indicated that Element was for them, in her words, "healing."

It does not behoove us to be naive about critical response to our efforts. I know opinions are as varied as the people who hold them, and I know that even among our regular attenders, there are folks who have concerns, questions, and criticisms. But she said the dominating buzz is positive, and further, it is a reflection precisely of what we are wanting to convey.

It is very easy to worry about numbers, exposure, influence, reputation, etc. I can get discouraged very easily when I bog down on those things. And I'll be honest in saying they are issues for me, and I think they are valid ones. But before we started doing anything, my heart's desire for Element was that people would encounter the cross of Christ as I believe I have, that people would be scandalized by grace as I believe I have, that people would get outside themselves to focus on Jesus as I believe I need to. And if that is being accomplished, even in a small way, it is a measure of success that is far more rewarding, to me, than whether ten times as many faces merely walked through the door.

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