Does the name Kirk Christiansen mean anything to you?
Born in Denmark in 1891, Christiansen was a carpenter by trade. By mid-life, however, he grown tired of doing the same old jobs over and over again and so he decided to put his carpentry skills to work making toys. There was just one problem, making toys out of wood was time-consuming and expensive. And so in 1947, Christiansen made a fateful decision, he could either focus on his methods (carpentry) or his goals (creating joy for children). He started making his little blocks out of plastic and he re-named his company after the new product. He called them “Legos.”
By the late 20th Century, Lego was one of the most successful toy companies on the planet, but as a new century began technology began to dominate the toy business. In 2003 Lego toys started suffering losses and within a few years the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. The company hired a new CEO named Jorgen Vig Knudstorp. When he took the job all his friends thought he’d made a huge mistake. No one wants to buy Legos anymore; you’ve got an impossible task in front of you. But Vig Knudstrop recognized something about Legos that most people did not. He had played with legos as a kid, and he remembered what it felt like to be able to put himself into his own story by building something with his own two hands.
“I don’t think our problem is that kids don’t want to build things anymore, I think our problem is that we’re just not paying attention to the stories kids want to be telling.”
That’s when Lego started looking around at the stories that were captivating children and looking for ways to be a part of those stories. In short order, Lego lined up a set of partnerships with Pixar and the Toy Story movies, with Lucas Film and the Star Wars Franchise, and with Peter Jackson and the Lord of the Rings. Almost overnight, Lego went from the verge of bankruptcy to once again being one of the most successful toy companies on the planet and now the Lego story is considered one of the top turnaround stories in corporate history.
As a pastor, I sometimes found myself getting frustrated at the fact that the ways we were doing Church didn’t seem to be as attractive to people as they used to be. If you’re serving in congregational ministry, you’ve probably experienced the exact same frustration at some point. There was a time when “Church” was so central to American culture that we could take for granted that people would want to be a part of it. The question wasn’t IF people would come to church, it was a question of WHICH church.
Today, there’s a different question we should be asking. It’s NOT whether those days are ever going to come back. They won’t. Not in an American context. No the question is, are we going to spend our energy worrying about why people don’t want to be a part of our stories anymore, or are we going to figure out how to be a part of theirs. The Church has thrived the most when it focuses on meeting real human needs.
The first great expansion of the Church took place during and after a series of pandemics that swept across Roman civilization in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. Christians were among the only people offering care and hospitality amid fear and death.
In more recent centuries, the Evangelical Revival that swept over England in the 18th Century coincided with the massive disorientation of the Industrial Revolution. The Church didn’t just preach the gospel, it embodied the gospel in efforts to fight poverty, provide education, and abolish slavery. Globally, that same impulse meant that the growth of the global Church as an outgrowth of the modern Missions movement often coincided with the building of hospitals and schools.
A basic task for any congregation that wants to move beyond the frustration of feeling like “what we’re doing doesn’t draw a crowd anymore” is to stop focusing on what we wished they wanted. Instead, we should start focusing on what they need.
When is the last time you did a demographic survey of your ministry context? One of my colleagues is working with a church that for years has been focused on their desire to attract young families. That congregation is a located in a part of their city that, during the 20th Century, was a neighborhood filled with families. When they did a demographic study, however, they discovered to their amazement that more than two-thirds of the people living within two miles of their congregation were single adults. The question they had to ask themselves was “why are we focused so much on young families…because that’s truly the need or because it’s more about what WE want than about what our ministry context is suggesting?”
Has your congregation ever interviewed key community leaders to ask for their sense of what the community most needs? In both strategic planning and the pastoral transition work that we do at the Center for Healthy Churches, we ask teams to interview people such as public officials, school and hospital administrators, social workers, and counselors, as well as people from the prominent businesses and organizations that have been present in the community for some time. Taken together, the information that emerges from these interviews is often highly revealing. One congregation in Houston discovered that, despite their location in a largely white-collar part of the city, there was a massive unmet need was for mental health resources. Another congregation in Nashville discovered that they are located just a few blocks away from the most diverse high school in the state in terms of the languages being spoken at home. Both congregations are making plans on how to respond, but they never would have realized the needs without the conversations they started having.
The congregations that are thriving even though, in the 21st Century, the culture is no longer tipped towards the Church are the congregations that put consistent energy into discovering and meeting the needs of their ministry context. They might not be interested in what we’ve been selling for the past century, but when we’re more focused on their needs than ours, theirs a good chance they’ll invite us to be a part of their story.