Future Church: Food trucks and Revolving Doors

Tomorrow evening, I will be meeting with the Executive Council of the Diocese of Milwaukee to discuss with them the results of the diocesan strategic planning process which I served as co-convenor. I’m also thinking a great deal about the future shape of ministry and mission at Grace as we continue to discuss our master plan process and begin to take the first steps toward implementing the architects’ plans.

Two pieces I read (and watched) today have helped to clarify my thinking, or raise new questions as I prepare for tomorrow’s meeting. The first is from Day1.org, a brief video on “Food Truck Faith” or what churches can learn from the success of food trucks. Rev. Lori Birkholz says that food trucks do one thing very well and that churches should seek to emulate them, rather than megachurches which seek to be all things to all people:

One of the characteristics of food trucks is that they go where the people are, out on to the streets and public squares of the city where people congregate. In many cities, they are tightly regulated because of fierce opposition from traditional restaurants (sound familiar). They rely on low overhead and high demand to succeed. But they are by definition transitory and may not develop long-term relationships with their clientele (although I’ve got my favorites in Madison).

But church membership is itself becoming more transitory. A piece today lays out some of the implications of a mobile society for churches. Cynthia Weems writes about “The Church’s Revolving Door:

My initial assessments draw some conclusions about how the current church operating system must change. First, we can no longer anticipate that people with long years of church membership will be the only ones in leadership positions. If the current model continues, there may be no one left who qualifies!

In a new model, leaders will constantly be lifted up, rather than joining committees that remain intact for several years. Projects may be managed by a more mobile group of people who are willing to meet, problem-solve and strategize for the time they have to give to that task.

Both pieces describe the changing relationships with churches, raise important questions, and offer intriguing possibilities for further exploration. For example, what might a ministry that takes food trucks as its model look like? Birkholz points out that often food trucks congregate together–they do in Madison on the Capitol Square, the Library Mall, and on specific evenings in other neighborhoods. Food truck ministry would be ministry that takes the gospel to the people, rather than expecting people to come in, but it would also be narrowly focused on what it does well, whether that be worship, or bible study, or outreach, and leave much of the rest for others to do. It would also be very closely attuned to the needs and desires of its target audience.

Are there drawbacks to this model? Sure, but over and over again as I read congregational development materials, one of the central pieces of advice is to focus on the few things a congregation does well and passionately, and leave the rest aside.

The transitory nature of church membership is a reality here in downtown Madison and I could list as many or more individuals or families who have come and gone in my four years at Grace. We do need to think carefully about how this reality changes leadership patterns and leadership development. At the same time, I’m mindful of recent studies that suggest Americans are less mobile now than they have been in the recent past. I often wonder whether we contribute to that mobility by failing to provide nurturing soil in which people can begin to grow deeper roots. Certainly approaching members or potential members as if they were in line at a food truck is probably not the best way to develop deep, long-term relationships.

5 thoughts on “Future Church: Food trucks and Revolving Doors

  1. This food truck piece is interesting. I talked about it a bit on my Facebook page today. My parish (All Souls, Berkeley, CA) is working on a move from 2 to 3 services. This move involves more involvement of all members of the church in its ministry. An image of the congregation in its various ministries as the food trucks works better for me than the church (clergy-led?) as the food truck itself. So it becomes not one food truck among many, but a wealth of offerings from many such trucks.

  2. Pingback: Future Church: Food trucks and Revolving Doors | Fr. Jonathan's Blog | Church Leaders

  3. It reminds me of something done traditionally in Southern Baptist churches called “visitation”. On Tuesday evenings, people get together an car pools – with lists of church visitors and people of various needs. Then the groups travel to the homes on the list, and knock on the door. If invited in, they all sit around for conversation and share the food, clothing or whatever they brought. Finally, there is an invitation to join the new friends in church on Sunday. Of course, its hard to imagine mainstream denominations doing this, but its still interesting.

    Rick Warren once said, “People are not looking for a friendly church; they are looking for friends.”

  4. One example of this (although only done once a year) which should be expanded is the Ash Wednesday which the Bishop of Newark does at the train statiion, It seems to be popular and although it is a short time hopefully it is helping some of the people who think they are too busy and will get them to think more of their church roots and get them back to chruch more regular.

  5. There’s always the Alcoholics Anonymous model. A.A. is composed of member-founded groups that usually meet once weekly – this can be anywhere – so that people who need spiritual support can get together and talk about what’s happening in their lives and how they’re staying sober and alive.

    It has its own sort of liturgy, in various formats; ordination – or even “leader” status – is not required to lead meetings; in fact, A.A.’s leaders are, by its own charter, “but trusted servants.” Individual meetings are led by a temporary chairperson (but can be led by anybody in that person’s absence); the rotation is usually 3 to 6 months. People come and go as they need to, to find help and healing; the meeting dissolves into nothing at the end of the hour. The group has no real corporeal presence anywhere, actually; it simply pops into existence once weekly, like Brigadoon as people gather – and then disappears. It’s then carried around by its members, who work out their own recovery on a daily basis, according to the 12 Steps, and according to what they learn from others who’ve been on the same path.

    People make a lot of telephone calls outside the meeting itself, and meet in coffee shops to talk.

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