College Listened to Its Community

“My Take” by Jennifer Johnson

I love many things about Lipscomb’s new Spark center, including the school’s willingness to put down roots in a new part of town and its multifaceted approach to professional development. But I think the best part of this new initiative—and the reason it’s been wildly successful even in its opening months—is its attention to the felt needs of a specific demographic.

The Spark Café offers refreshments and light meals.

Executive Director John Lowry says the center’s design and its services reflect current research on how adults learn and work together, and the idea for Spark developed after Lipscomb saw the need for more business and technology training in the local workforce. So the project meets the biggest continuing education needs of a specific population, was built within a few minutes’ drive of that group, and offers a schedule designed for these customers.

It seems so simple—find out what will make your customers’ lives easier and better, then offer it with excellence—but of course we can all point to examples of organizations ignoring the biggest needs of their constituents. Lipscomb could have fallen into the same trap, insisting that the programs the school considered most significant or easiest to staff be the options offered. Instead, Lipscomb listened to what the community needed, then found ways to leverage its own resources to offer a solution.

Most of us don’t lead ministries with the financial backing or talent pool of a large college, but even the smallest church has members with special training and a community with unique needs. Last year Barna reported that very few adults or teens intentionally take breaks from cell phones or computers, but 42 percent of adults and 33 percent of teens would be open to a Christian perspective on technology and family life. How can the church speak to this issue? How could your church, with your people?

Teen girls have babies every day. Involvement in the local pregnancy crisis center is great, but how do we help these girls after they’ve chosen life? Do they need mentoring . . . child care so they can spend a few hours with friends . . . life skills classes? I have no idea, but a church willing to ask these questions and respond to the answers could make a major impact on at least two generations.

In my part of the country, Gallup reports that only 58 percent of residents eat fruits and vegetables regularly. Is it because they can’t afford to buy produce or because they don’t have time to prepare it? Immediately I think of community gardens, cooking classes, church cafes sourced by local farms, and lots of interesting conversations about our relationship to God’s creation, the connection between physical and spiritual health, and the biblical precedent for sharing meals together.

Of course, each church has to wrestle with whether an initiative supports its mission or just creates one more “program” to run. But the discussions are worth having. Spark’s success reminds us not to continue our legacy ministries without questioning both the assumptions behind them and the needs of our neighborhoods.

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