One of my favorite restaurant chains is Rosa Mexicano. It is not one of the order-by-number kind of Mexican restaurants, but a fancier kind of Mexican restaurant; the “bring around the cart and make the guacamole at your table” kind of place.
At Rosa Mexicano, when the waitress/waiter comes to your table, they ask if you are familiar with their menu and then always, and I do mean always, say, “We are known for a few specialties I will point out for you. Our drink specialty is our pomegranate margarita and our appetizer specialty is our guacamole which is made table-side to your preferences.” Part of this is just smart business. If you order both of the specialties, you have already added around $25 to your food bill! I am not sure how they decided these would be their “specialties” but by drawing attention to them, everyone who comes in knows immediately what they consider to be the best they have to offer.
Scientists tell us that in an eco-system where resources have become scarce, all living things become more specialized. Herds with many common traits all begin to live and feed in areas best suited for their uniqueness. There are not enough resources, so their tastes change in the foods they eat. This keeps too many from one species from competing for one food or water source. It becomes their specialty, the difference that allows them to continue living.
It is called the “competitive exclusion principle”, which states “no two species of similar requirements can long occupy the same niche (coexist).” A study was done with a group of warbler birds that all migrate to the same forest. These birds look very similar to one another, but while looking the same, they are not competing with each other. “A careful study of the foraging behavior of these five types of warblers found many differences in the way they made use of the habitat. For instance, they differed in what part of a spruce tree they frequented, whether they captured insects on the wing, from needles, or under bark, and so on. The conclusion was that each species occupied a distinct niche.”*
When the church was a more mainstream component of our cultural identity, there was no scarcity. Today, for many churches, there is a scarcity of leaders, funds to pay for buildings, and people attending on a regular basis. Many of our churches desperately search to find ways to get back the numbers they had in the 1950’s 1960’s and 1970’s. They want everything they had before, but the reality is that the resources are too scarce to recreate what once was. No fancy programming, no going door-to-door, no part time position in youth and children is going to cause the church attendance numbers to go back in time.
However, this is not a discouraging word. It can be an exciting opportunity! Just like with the warblers, scarcity creates specialization. It allows us to be more precise and effective with the ministry we do. Not every church must have every type of program. Many churches want to be like the big church in town, only smaller. But why be just like them? They’ve got that niche filled. Why not, instead, prioritize what you do have to offer?
If you are a small church, make the most of that. Whittle down the list of volunteers you are recruiting to the essentials to keep the church running and then do those essentials very well. Plan events that you could only do in a small church.
Perhaps your congregation is much older. One leader once shared with me the idea of starting new churches just for retired folks. We have the idea that we must fixate upon young families to keep a church going, but there are always new populations of retired and older people to keep a church running. Do a ministry to those folks and do it well!
Think about your church’s location, history, special gifts of leaders and ministers. Create your specialty around that. Find new energy in doing what you do well, and do it even better!
Just like the warblers, find new ways to access resources and clearly identify what resources really need to be accessed. Just like the restaurant, find your specialty and make sure your church members know what it is. Each time they describe your church, they should be able to say what the specialty is. They should have a clear understanding of who they are attempting to reach and what the specialty of the church is.
This challenging time is your unique chance and opportunity! Find the menu and find your specialty. Create your niche!