A few weeks ago, I was in Atlanta for the CBF General Assembly. It was a great time to see old friends and be inspired with new visions for ministry. It was also a great time to visit Rosa Mexicano, a tasty Mexican restaurant in Atlantic Station that I love. 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. It also has a very large tasty gluten free menu and I may or may not have eaten there three times during the course of the week.
At Rosa Mexicano, when the waitress/waiter first comes to your table they ask if you are familiar with their menu and then 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 25.00 to your food bill! I don’t know how they decided these would be their “specialties” but by drawing attention to them, it lets everyone who comes in know immediately what they consider to be the best they have to offer. It also says they are a restaurant that has become an expert at something, their specialities, setting them apart from other restaurants in a tough market.
Scientists tell us that in an eco-system where resources have become scarce, all living things become more specialized. They become more specialized in what they eat or herds with common trait all begin to live and feed in an area that is more specifically designed for their unique trait. There are not resources everywhere 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 thing that allows them to continue living. They are not living in the same place they once were or in the same location they once were or eating once they once were.
Scientists call it the competitive exclusion principle, which states “no two species of similar requirements can long occupy the same niche (coexist).The niche of a species includes all aspects of its habitat, how it makes a living, and the physical environment in which it is found.” A study was done on a group of warbler birds that all migrate to the same forest. These birds look very similar to one another but even though they look the same, they are not competing with each other. “A careful study of the foraging behavior of these five warblers found many differences in the way they made use of the…habitat. These species 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 aspect of our cultural identity, families attended on at least a semi-regular basis and there was no scarcity. Potential church members were everywhere. Today, there is a scarcity of leaders in our churches, funds to keep them open and running and a scarcity of people attending on a regular basis. So many of our churches want to find ways to get back the numbers they had in the fifties, sixties and seventies. They want to have the family and children ministries they once had that they believe drew young families to the church. They want a youth ministry, they want Bible studies, 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 allow the church attendance numbers to go back in time.
However, this is not a discouraging word. It can be an exciting opportunity! Scarcity creates specialization. It allows us to be more precise and effective with the ministry we do. Not every church has to 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, monopolize on 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 just the essentials to keep the church running and do those essentials well. Plan events that you could only do in a small church.
Perhaps your congregation is much older. Bob Dale, a leadership guru here in Virginia, once shared the idea of starting new churches just for retired folks. We have the idea that we need 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 recite 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 is your unique chance and opportunity! Find the menu and find your specialty, find a new way of getting the bugs out of trees and what bugs you want to eat. Create your niche!