The hardest thing I’ve done in ministry (John Maher)

John MaherJohn Maher tells us the hardest thing he's done in ministry.

Over the years I have done a number of things in ministry that are very challenging. These have included successfully 'Wimberising' a typical Episcopal parish by introducing healing ministry, worship bands and other influences from the Vineyard. We also built new parish facilities and relocated.

However, these things were nowhere near as challenging as planting a new church to reach people no other church is reaching.

The reason why is because our parish structures assume a population which is attracted to church already. The difficulty we find is that one of the fastest growing sections of the surrounding population (in my opinion) is the group that is not attracted to any Christian church. Changing the structures most Episcopalians, and probably most Americans, have in their mind as to what a local church is supposed to be like is far more difficult than building a new facility and moving to a new location.

In 2005 I moved to the Phoenix area and began work to plant a new church in the Diocese of Arizona. Most of the people who initially joined in with the new work had this picture of church:

priest + building + liturgy = church

I quickly began to see that something new was needed. Bob Hopkins and Mike Breen gave me a new model, or operating system, in their book clusters: creative mid-sized missional communities, 3DM Publishing, 2007. We have since been working to understand and implement:

faith + community + action = church

This is a profound change! A community of faith equipped and ready for action will make people with no church connection thirsty for what it has. For those who are used to a priest-centred way of operating this can be a very uncomfortable change, for both the priest and the people.

Part of my strategy is to have our staff leaders spend more time in the community during the week

To pursue this new operating system I have a two-part strategy. The first part is to decentralise as much as possible. When we started out we had monthly dinners for the whole congregation to attend. We are now beginning to identify and train leaders who will host these kinds of dinners for their neighbourhoods instead of only church members. It takes a lot of encouragement for someone who is used to asking the priest about almost everything to begin thinking about what is the best kind of activity to serve their own neighbourhood. It is, however, the way to faith + community + action.

The second part of my strategy is to have our staff leaders spend more time in the community during the week. Our children's ministry team leader is gearing up for an adaptation of the 'Messy Church' approach. Our youth ministry team leader is preparing to volunteer in the local high school to meet students who know nothing about Jesus.

It takes a long time to change the operating system.