by Meghan Hatcher
At the United Methodist church where I grew up, the season of Advent can’t happen without the annual live nativity. Every year the same wooden frame, with last year’s hay still clinging to it, is set up in a field next to the parking lot. Whichever family welcomed a new baby in the last year is elected to represent the Holy Family and other church members are cast in the minor roles. The church has maintained this tradition for decades, but I’m curious about its purpose in 2023.
In their book, Bearing Fruit: Ministry With Real Results, veteran ministry leaders Rev. Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr., and Rev. Tom Berlin write that the two most important words for ministry are “so that.”
“Using the two important words “so that” has the power to change the way leaders work with their congregations so that everything that God’s people do is shaped toward mission and results in fruitfulness.”1
In Phase 4 of the Innovation Lab’s Theological Innovation Process, Innovation Teams from churches around the country reflect on a crucial question related to a ministry’s “so that”: What transformations do you hope to see in people’s lives through the innovative ministry you develop? In other words, what is the “so that”?
Planning for Advent is the perfect time to assess whether a ministry tradition is still serving its intended purpose and leading to transformation in people’s lives. But this is hard work at a time of year when nostalgia is at an all time high. Every ministry, event, program, and traditional way of engaging people in this season can feel too sacred to let go. We can become attached to the form of a ministry, rather than its function.
And yet, God is not calling us as leaders or as the church to create ministries and traditions that continue into perpetuity simply because they always have. The work of the body of Christ is to develop ministries the Holy Spirit can use to transform people’s lives. This means we aren’t in ministry alone (praise God) AND we should hold loosely to our traditions, always open to whether they need to shift as time passes.
Ask these seven questions to help you determine if a long-standing ministry is still offering people a transformative encounter with the Gospel, or if it’s time for a change:
- WHO was this ministry originally intended to engage? Be as specific as possible!
- Are these people still present in your church and wider community?
- How have people’s needs and thoughts about church potentially changed since this ministry was originally developed?
- Are you making any assumptions about the people you hope will attend and participate?
- How might attending or participating in this ministry feel to someone entirely unfamiliar with scripture or your church’s traditions and rituals?
- What do you hope people DO in response to participating in this ministry? Note: If the answer is “join our church” take a moment to go deeper and ask yourself, “why?”
- With questions 1-6 in mind, fill in this prompt: “Our church is hosting/offering this ministry SO THAT _________________ happens.” Note: What you write in the blank space should be about transformation in people’s lives, not simply your church’s growth!
Advent is a time to mark new beginnings and welcome new people into the community of faith. And yet, it often becomes a season of going through the motions and unintentionally excluding. As you plan for Advent this year, getting clear on a ministry’s “so that” will spark new life into old traditions and inspire innovative ideas so that more people have a transformative encounter with the radical love of the incarnate Christ.
Unsure how to respond to any of the questions in this article? The Innovation Lab’s Community Discovery Package can help your faith community get to know people in your community, move beyond assumptions, and explore your context as you develop new ministries. The Community Discovery Packages provides the process and tool you need for engaging this work with intention. Click here to learn more.
Meghan is the director of the Innovation Laboratory at CYMT. She holds degrees in journalism; sustainable development and applied sociology; and a Master of Divinity. Meghan has served diverse faith communities through pastoral leadership, youth ministry, new church development, community engagement, and ministry innovation.
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- Berlin, T., & Weems, L. H. (2011). Bearing Fruit: Ministry with Real Results. Abingdon Press. ↩︎