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.