Hopeful Church

Can we be missional if we have dirty bathrooms?

Our mission is only as good as our church community

by N. Graham Standish


Over the past few months I’ve been working with a pastor enrolled in a missional church certificate program intended to transform his church.

He’s frustrated. He loves learning new ideas for ministry. He loves their energetic discussions about “walking” the surrounding community to figure out how to respond to the community’s needs. He loves how encouraging his teachers are. But he’s struggling with nagging questions: Have they ever pastored a church like mine, or are they mostly focused on new church developments? What happens if we address a community’s needs and they still don’t care? What happens if people show up and they discover that our church is old and out-of-touch?

I said to him, “True. If they aren’t attracted to your community, it won’t matter how much you walk their community.”

A church where people want to be

I’m not trying to take a shot at the missional church movement. I’m suggesting a complementary tenet to what it teaches: We can’t be a church for others until we become a church where others want to be.

Wait, am I saying that our churches should become more like country clubs? I hate to break it to you, but most country clubs are better at community than we are. They grow precisely because they’re community centers where people meet to eat, talk, play games, create friendships, hold their weddings and funeral luncheons and celebrate holidays. Everything flows out of their sense of community. Is that true for our churches?

When I became Calvin Presbyterian Church’s pastor 23 years ago, they said they were a mission-oriented church. It was sort of true. They gave 18% of their $130,000 budget to mission, had done one or two work mission trips over 18 years, and were the phone line for Habitat for Humanity. Good job! But they had also formed the kind of tight-knit community typical of declining churches, becoming a community mainly for themselves rather than for those outside the church. And it showed. The church was in tragic disrepair with outdated décor, wrinkled carpets, dull lighting, peeling wallpaper and a 1960s vibe (not in a good way).

They had been taught by the previous pastor that spending money on church upkeep was selfish money. They needed to spend it on mission, not themselves. Unfortunately, by becoming a dilapidated, worn out place (much like a formerly glorious country club with threadbare carpets and sagging furniture) they stopped being a community that attracted others. One of my first tasks was changing the message: If you become a caring place that others want to be a part of, you’ll end up doing more mission than you ever dreamed of. And that’s what happened.

We cleaned, renovated and expanded, but even more we became a community for others. As we grew, our mission giving and activities expanded. By the time I left in 2017, we had quadrupled our mission giving. Even more, a significant number of members were active in all sorts of creative missions — from collecting bicycles for a Native American reservation, to helping Syrian war refugees build new lives in Canada, to helping maintain and staff Camp Westminster in Michigan with its mission to inner city children from Detroit. It all flowed out of our growing as a compassionate community for ourselves and others.

How can we create a community for others?

I have a theory about how to tell if our church is a community for others: Look at the condition of its bathrooms. They’ll reflect the condition of the church community. If the bathrooms are outdated, stained, smelly and neglected, the church probably has given into decline and now is a mostly closed community. If they’re cared for and clean, the community wants to be a place that cares for others and has confidence in itself. Your bathrooms tell others who you are.

Here are some other quick thoughts on building a church community that attracts others?

  • Try new ideas that create a new vibe. The more your church community tries things that seem creative —a talent show, an art show, a blessing of the animals, a Green Day (showing people how they can make their homes and the world more “green”), a game night — anything atypical and creative — the more people will want to try your church.
  • Offer childcare and children’s programming that’s clean, safe and fun staffed by childcare volunteers or staff who are well-trained, friendly, and competent, even if you don’t get many children on a regular basis. If you don’t have childcare and programming that young parents feel good about, they won’t trust your community.
  • Treat visitors the way you would welcome them into your own home. Train members to welcome visitors in a way that gently says you’re glad they’re there, that you want them to feel comfortable, that you’re available to answer questions, that lets them integrate at their own pace, and that welcomes them back. DON’T act like you’re desperate for them to like you.
  • Work on congregational cohesiveness. Nurture people to have healthy relationships, which means encouraging people to talk directly with each other and not behind each other’s backs; to be flexible and accommodating with each other; and to be compassionate with each other.
  • Create opportunities for people to get together in different contexts—dinners, prayer groups and vigils, classes, mission speakers, clean-up days, fun events, outings and so many more, even if it means more work for us. Make it hard for people not to connect outside of worship. A little secret: People don’t really connect during worship because they never get a chance to chat in worship.
  • Encourage people to become a church community for others, not just for themselves. Emphasize love, compassion, graciousness, generosity, kindness, and all the other attributes that lead to forging a healthy community that can then become healthy ministry and mission.

The key thing to remember is that if a congregation isn’t invested in creating a truly caring, compassionate community, it also won’t care enough to reach out in mission.

A pastor for 31 years, the Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is now executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting, where he also runs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations Program. He is the author of 8 books on spirituality and congregational transformation (www.ngrahamstandish.org).