The third of North Point Community Church’s Seven Practices of Effective Ministry is “Narrow the Focus.” After we “Clarify the Win,” that is, after we identify that which we are trying to do so that we know that we have done it when we have done it, and begun to “Think Steps, Not Programs,”that is, after we identify the processes involved in achieving our desired telos, we will find ourselves with some pruning to do.
In previous posts in this thread, I have noted that North Point’s ministry strategy is highly teleological. They have an end in mind for their people. This complex end is described in their literature as, “Intimacy with God, Community with Insiders, and Influence with Outsiders.” They way I’ve talked about this in my own ministry context, is in terms of crossing three lines. The first line we cross as Christians is our commitment to God. When we cross this line, we become recipients of God’s grace through Jesus. This is the line some churches call “getting saved.” Though this is definitely a line worth crossing, it is not the stopping place. When they speak of this stage as “Intimacy with God,” North Point is clearly including more than a mere salvation experience, that punctiliar event that so many preachers urge us to walk the aisle for. “Intimacy” is much more than just being forgiven. It hints at an ongoing relationship of increasing depth, the kind the Psalmist alludes to in Psalm 25:14, “The LORD confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”
The second logical step – though it is frequently the first temporally – is the commitment to a particular group of people. This is commonly called – and trivialized as – church membership. God is after more than our eternal destiny. God in concerned about our current locale. As we read in Ephesians 2, God’s goal is to break down the barriers between peoples (paradigmatically, those between Jews and Gentiles, by extension, whatever other barriers we find in our social worlds). As followers of Jesus, we find that it is our relationship with Him that defines our identity – not our race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, political affiliation, etc. In line with his aims since the call of Abraham, God has been working to call together a people who are his very own, his peculiar people. Within the common life of this people, the world can glimpse God’s reality, holiness, justice and mercy. Our commitment at this stage is always to a particular group of people “warts and all” not just to an idea of the church, or some theoretical, invisible entity.
The third commitment, which I usually call a commitment to joining God’s mission, North Point terms “Influence with outsiders.” In New Testament terms, we all start as outsiders. While one entered Israel by birth, the New Israel, the church, is composed of adopted, not natural children. God’s goal for us is more than spending eternity with him in heaven – or growing in intimacy with him here and now. God’s goal for us is more than joining a church – or growing in community with a particular set of fellow believers. God’s goal also includes incorporating us into his mission of drawing others in, of influencing others toward faith in Jesus.
North Point assumes that God’s mission includes taking people somewhere – at his point the picture become recursive as it reflects back on itself, much like Jesus’ command to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you,” includes the teaching of obedience to that very command.
Because we fulfill God’s mission in the context of commitment to a particular group of people, we usually find that group immersed in their own history, whether a very short history, like NPCC, or a much longer history like Pittsburg FUMC. There is no escaping this history. Our choice is about what role this history plays in our ministry.
Perhaps the most common role for a history, particularly a ministry history, is to set the agenda for current activity. What we did in the past is what we do today. Do we need to know what to do next? All we need do is look at what we’ve done in the past. This is the arena in which we say things like “We’ve always done it this way,” or, “We’ve never done it that way before.” The advantage of this method is that we always know what to do. The disadvantage is that over time, there is a tendency for a disconnect to develop between what we do and why we do it. Once upon a time, churches had Sunday evening services. In the early 20th century these functioned as “seeker services,” less formal and more evangelistic events where non-Christians could come and hear the Gospel in a way that connected more with their needs and culture. After a generation or two, however, the function of the Sunday evening service changed. Now it was the “old timey service” – the service where we sang the songs of our childhood and remembered the good old days when the churches were full.
North Point’s third ministry practice, Narrow the Focus, comes into play at exactly this point. Once we have identified what we’re trying to do and the steps to make that happen in the lives of people, we will find many activities that have no connection to our mission, things we do simply because we’ve always done them. Narrow the Focus is thus a method of deciding what not to do. Narrow the Focus is not a claim that these activities are bad: they might be very good. The principle simply claims that insofar as they don’t contribute to the mission of the church, it is ok to stop doing them.
One example offered in the text is Vacation Bible School. NPCC doesn’t do VBS. Some of us – who inhabit churches where VBS is a cornerstone of summer activity – are shocked by the idea. How can a church that claims to be evangelistic fail to do VBS? VBS is our evangelism strategy – it’s how we reach the kids of the neighborhood. Or do we? The NPCC folks are not against VBS and no one hearing or reading their presentation should think that’s what they’re advocating. What they’ve pioneered is another way to reach children, a way that draws in their parents. Their method – Kidstuf – works throughout the whole school year, not just for a week in the summer. So instead of being committed to a program – VBS – NPCC has identified a telos, children growing in intimacy with God, community with insiders and influence with outsiders – and developed a step that works better in their setting with their audience.
Narrowing the Focus is one of the hardest practices for traditional, established churches, so many of which have their glory days in the past. We humans need emotional support. We thrive on good vibes. In a church that is not only not winning many to Christ, but also failing to win its own children or keep its members when they join, it can be very comforting to center on a set of activities that make us feel like we’re doing ok. Because our very existence is so often threatened, we hang on to ineffective strategies, structures and programs, long after we’ve forgotten their original purpose or they have ceased to be effective in fulfilling that purpose.