We live and do ministry in Princeton, a college town in New Jersey. If you took a string on a map and connected New York and Philadelphia, right smack dab in the middle you’d find us, about an hour away from each. Princeton may be a small town, but it has big city transience. The average resident stays in Princeton for three years – which means our college students actually help boost that number upward. Having lived here only seven years, I increasingly find myself in the strange position of being the ‘old timer’ in a crowd.
In all likelihood, Princeton is more similar to your town than different. There is no question our world is becoming more and more transient: people change careers more often, leave home for college more frequently, and have traversed more continents than ever before. Fifty years ago, it was unlikely the average person had more than one close friend living outside his or her home state, now it is the rare individual who doesn’t have a network of friends scattered all over the United States.
As church leaders, we have to be aware of this and willing to adapt to the new environment. The congregant who is dedicated, baptized, married, and eulogized in the same church is rare indeed. But how should this impact the way we minister? Here are a few of my thoughts:
· Teach your congregants how to find a new church. Moving, for many, is inevitable. So, educate your people on how to move. Before moving a person ought to have an idea of the church they will attend. Even if they are unable to visit the city, they can visit websites of churches, read up on the vision of local churches, and listen to sermons. It is NOT a given that the town you move to will have a healthy church and that consideration should be key in making a decision to move. How many of us know congregants who lament after a year in a new city that they have been unable to find any good churches? Second, websites are a great tool, but they are limited. A phone call to a pastor of a prospective church is a very wise move. Such a call can help a person lay some very basic questions on the table and can establish a connection before he or she even arrives. Of the several hundred new people who visit our church every year, I respond to only a few phone calls from folks before they visit. It’s a real shame, because the calls I do take from folks who are looking for churches are always productive and encouraging to those who are moving here. Finally, don’t expect your congregants will be with you forever. Teach them to discern what core truths that are essential in a healthy church. I can tell a lot about the health of the church’s folks are coming from by the theological or ideological drums they beat: make sure the folks who move from your church are beating the right ones and are making wise decisions based on these core truths and not merely preferences about peripheral issues.
· Analyze the demographics of your town and tailor your ministry to them. If you minister in New York City, where you have folks in your church for just a few years, your ministry ought to look much different than it did in rural Kansas where most of the folks in your congregation were there for decades. Because the average person stays in Princeton for three years, all of our curriculum and vision casting is considered in three year chunks. We always are asking the question: “How can we impact and grow someone in his or her discipleship in the three years he or she has been here?” This influences our decisions on sermon series, seminars, adult education, and down the line. You may have felt like you just preached on finances or the life of Jesus or depression or relationships or core truths… but if you live in a transient town and that sermon series was five years ago, in all likelihood, most of your congregation has not had those truths drilled into their hearts.
· Make your assimilation process appropriate to the level of transience in your town. Many churches would never dream of having someone who has only been in the church a year or two lead up a ministry, but if you are in a town with a lot of transience, you might be banging your head against the wall trying to fill your posts if your assimilation process isn’t realistic in light of your transience. Don’t lower the bar for your leaders, but allow for the ability to speed up the ‘getting to know you’ process. Make sure the folks who recruit leaders (including yourself) learn how to spend extra time up front getting to know folks. With their permission, call up former churches of prospective leaders.
Transience for a minister can feel daunting, overwhelming, and exhausting, but transience is also a tremendous opportunity. Christ’s call to the early church was to keep a move on: “Go, therefore” he said – “move!” The gospel spread because the early disciples were men and women who preached the gospel as they were going, who touched lives in every corner of the Ancient Near East. If seen in this light, our communities have the opportunity to be constantly sending missionaries from our midst, missionaries who will impact not only “the ends of the earth” but also “Judea and Samaria.” May God use our churches as mobilization centers for his kingdom!