By Jennifer Johnson
In 2005, the leadership team at Southland Christian Church, Lexington, Kentucky, read The Externally Focused Church and believed God was calling them to more intentionally move their ministry into the community. The church began hiring new staff, starting new initiatives, and beginning the long-term process of changing the church culture.
Since then, in many places missional has become a buzzword for everything from the occasional community service day to a total rethinking of the church’s purpose. At Southland, however, the mission is clear; over the last eight years it has developed significant goals, determined specific geographic and demographic areas of focus, and learned a few lessons that can help other churches considering a similar transition.
Southland identifies four key components to its strategy: relationships, relief, discipleship, and transformation.
“We build relationships for the long haul,” says Gordon Walls, executive director of outreach. “Our church mission is to ‘unleash a revolution of love.’ That doesn’t happen overnight. If we’re going to change a neighborhood or a city, we have to know it and earn the trust of its people.”
This relationship building not only requires consistent, long-term effort; it also requires the discipline of focus. The church aims for big impact in a few places at a time, and outreach events and service activities are planned to generate multiple “touches” with an area and its families. Potentially good ideas may be shelved if they don’t further the mission in that area.
“We’ll meet a family at a neighborhood cookout hosted by Southland, then connect again through a mentoring or tutoring program in the school,” Walls says. “Maybe later that year we’ll play basketball together, because instead of having sports at our campus we’re now playing at the neighborhood gym.”
As these relationships are built, the relief component becomes crucial. Just as Jesus often healed physical and emotional needs before addressing an individual’s spiritual condition, Southland looks for the most pressing concerns of a group and works independently or with partners to provide help.
“We look for needs no one else is meeting and people groups being forgotten,” says lead executive pastor Chris Hahn. “But if there is an organization already doing good work, we’ll partner with financial resources and volunteers. We’d rather multiply our efforts than compete.”
After relationships have developed and immediate needs have been met, the focus can effectively turn to discipleship. For Southland, service and evangelism are a “both/and.”
“We want to change beliefs, not just behavior,” Walls says. “This means addressing unhealthy patterns and introducing people to Christ.”
“If you only go in and meet needs, you’re just another social agency,” says Hahn. “We don’t leave Jesus on the sidelines, and we’re clear about our desire to lead people through belief, repentance, baptism, and involvement in a local church.”
“But you have to earn the right to be heard,” Walls adds. “We call our members to ‘love God and love people and prove it daily.’ When that happens, we’re influencing others for Christ and developing credibility so we can eventually talk to them about Jesus as the ultimate answer to their needs.”
These efforts build on each other to lead to transformation, the fourth and final step. Here, lives are “reshaped, repurposed, redirected, reintegrated, and redeveloped.”
What They’re Doing (and What They’re Learning)
Currently, Southland is concentrating its efforts among several specific groups of people and in four neighborhoods throughout the city (see sidebar). Church members donate backpacks of food for hungry children at five area schools and also participate in tutoring and mentoring programs. Each week, Serve the City volunteers visit three of the poorest, most crime-infested neighborhoods. The Bruised Reed ministry delivers hot, homemade meals to women who work as exotic dancers in five local clubs. Two medical clinics provide free medical and dental care to uninsured people who meet the federal poverty guidelines, and Helping Through Him shares donated clothing, furniture, appliances, and even vehicles.
Southland opened its first satellite location in Danville, Kentucky, in 2009, and its second in a renovated shopping mall near downtown Lexington, in January. The church’s focus is a constant at each location, while the specific strategy may vary based on the needs of each community.
The leadership team is also considering future locations and thinking through the criteria that should guide these decisions.
“This is just one of many things we’re learning,” Hahn says. “There’s been a huge culture change as we’ve moved toward a more missional approach. Some people left Southland as we made this shift because they didn’t feel their own needs were being met. But our senior leaders and elders are sold out to this vision, and the people who have made the transition are enthusiastic and excited.”
Of course, even the missional church needs to help its members grow; while the list of “programs” may shrink, there must be intentional ways to unite service with spiritual formation.
“For us, small groups are the key,” Hahn says. “We expect everyone who calls Southland their church to be in community with others.”
“Everything fits together,” says Walls. “If you show up to help at Serve the City, it will motivate you to dive into a Bible study or small group. And if you participate in a group, you’ll be challenged to serve. Walking in wholeness as Christians requires both—service is part of discipleship.”
Because of the potential magnitude of changes like these, Walls and Hahn recommend taking time to ensure leadership alignment before beginning the missional transition.
“When we began this process, we had just come out of a pivotal moment in the life of our church and had spent a lot of time praying and getting healthy,” says Hahn. “And that’s absolutely the first step—before you decide to ‘go missional,’ make sure the body is healthy and the leadership is unified. Otherwise it will just be another side program, and when it ends it will cause more problems for the name of Jesus than if you had never started at all.”
The men are equally adamant about the need for reprioritization.
“Realize if you’re going to do this well, you’re going to have to stop doing some other things,” Walls says.
“And don’t try to jump to evangelism too soon,” Hahn adds. “Gordon is friends with the mayor of Lexington, and it would be tempting for us to leverage that relationship with the city council or try to impose our beliefs. But we’re there to serve them and serve with them—Gordon has been wise to just ask, ‘How can we help?’”
However, although they caution churches to move deliberately, even slowly, the two leaders do encourage churches to move.
“It used to be that a Southland member would see a homeless guy at Taco Bell and call the church to ask us to help,” Hahn says. “Now they know we’ll say, ‘Go help him!’”
“I don’t think there’s any question of God calling the church to be on mission and to go where the people are,” Walls concludes. “And our cities and school districts are inviting us to get involved! It’s an amazing opportunity.”
Jennifer Johnson, one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a minister’s wife and freelance writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.