In mid June, on the second day of her first real job, Melissa Barber and two co-workers took a train into downtown Chicago to meet with an architect.
They discussed designs for something they were calling Missions Place, a sort of retail store for missions that TEAM planned to open in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton. As far as anyone involved knew, the project — along with a similar store being opened in Tennessee — was the first of its kind for a missions agency.
Barber’s job was to make it work. She accepted the position as Wheaton site manager fresh out of college at Moody Bible Institute. She had spent hours combing over the relatively sparse documents detailing the vision for the concept, agonizing over what certain words like “accessible” and “inviting” really meant. The still-under-construction Missions Place in Maryville, Tennessee, offered some guidance, but Barber knew the course she charted in Wheaton would have to be very different than what was underway there.
“I realized very quickly that if I didn’t have a very good understanding of the Missions Place, of what this concept should be both on paper and in reality, I was going to sink,” said Barber, whose beyond-her-years self assurance belie how much pressure she was under. “This is such an experimental thing.”
When the Missions Place opened on September 13, no one knew how many people would come, if anyone. TEAM had secured prime real estate for the store in downtown Wheaton, adjacent to a Caribou Coffee that is popular with locals and across the street from a busy train station. But the Missions Place was not offering lattes. It was a lot more abstract, essentially a giant lounge where people could somehow interact with missions by hanging out or attending an event. “Picture travel agency meets coffee shop, except there’s no coffee and there’s no sales pitch,” Barber said.
It was encouraging, then, when a crowd of more than 300 showed up at the Missions Place for opening weekend, which included art exhibits and a forum on human trafficking that was standing room only. “We had no idea what to expect,” said Kelsey Wales, who oversees TEAM’s mobilization in the Midwest. “We had no clue.”
In fact, the Missions Place venture is just the most visible part of a larger reinvention of how TEAM mobilizes missionaries in general. For the past year, TEAM has been retooling its entire recruitment infrastructure, decentralizing its mobilization efforts away from the offices in Carol Stream, a suburb next door to Wheaton. Instead, the ministry is developing “hubs” of mobilization staff around the United States and Canada, structured to focus the efforts of each missions coach — missions speak for a mobilizer — locally instead of spreading them across an entire region. As with a Missions Place, the goal is to give TEAM a presence in communities like never before.
TEAM has already placed coaches in dozens of communities and is adding more by the month. But it is not opening Missions Places everywhere — so far Wheaton and Maryville, TN, have one each. The ministry’s focus is not real estate, but real people, and coaches are the key. Under the typical model of the past, a missions coach may have lived and worked in Wheaton but had responsibilities that spanned across North America. That was great for racking up frequent flier miles but otherwise left coaches stretched thin and made it difficult to develop personal relationships with pastors and churches.
Now, the ministry is focused on getting coaches into the fabric of communities, working mostly locally and building deep relationships with pastors, college ministries and students. The strategy requires the addition of more coaches. Most coaches are found locally and bring with them a deep set of contacts they’ve already cultivated. “We don’t put somebody in Atlanta and ask them to cover Nashville,” said Josh McQuaid, director of hub development for TEAM’s mobilization efforts. “The place where the person lives is their home base. You can think of it as a circle radiating out from there. They try to spend most of their time as close to home as possible.”
Ironically, as TEAM’s mobilization infrastructure grows larger, it’s part of a quest to feel smaller and more intimate. Wales has already seen it working in profoundly simple ways. On a recent Friday, she said, a prospect with substantial missions experience got in touch with a coach on her team. The coach called him back on Monday and set up a face-to-face meeting for that week — an act in itself that floored the potential missionary and was only possible because the coach lived nearby and focused on a small geographic area. The last missions agency he worked with had taken weeks to get back to him. “He was like, ‘I don’t even care where I’m going to go, I’m going to go with TEAM,’” Wales said.
Offering quick turnaround and personal customer service is challenging enough in the for-profit sector, let alone for cash-strapped nonprofits. TEAM believes that personal is better and worth the investment. The ministry is also leaning on modern contact management software systems; it’s using those to enhance rather than replace intensive human interaction. “We are redefining the word ‘contact,’ making it personal and face-to-face instead of just an electronic process,” Barber said.
Organizing mobilizers in regionally focused hubs also allows individual coaches to put their own creative spin on how they recruit, adapting their approach to ways they know will work best in their own neighborhoods. In downtown Chicago, missions coach Peter Hanson is prepping miniature vision trips of sorts in the city’s various ethnic neighborhoods — picture coaching a prospective missionary interested in serving in East Asia while walking through Chinatown, or discussing a person’s calling while befriending a restaurant owner over Szechuan cuisine. A missions coach in Nashville has built a relationship with an alternative Christian college program for missions-minded students, connecting them to service opportunities at TEAM. “Every coach we’ve hired has some kind of a story, a way that them coming to TEAM has really been a blessing to TEAM,” McQuaid said.
The hub and Missions Place strategy is so new, according to McQuaid, there isn’t much to evaluate it against to measure its success. But it may already be making a difference. In the last year, TEAM commissioned at least 20 more missionaries than it had projected. “It really hasn’t been done before in this form,” McQuaid said. “But everyone that we’ve talked to about what we’re doing…they said, ‘This is great; we think it will work; how can we partner with you?’”
A STORE FOR MISSIONS
There’s nothing new about regionally based recruiters, of course. Plenty of missions agencies, colleges and for-profit companies have them. But what’s different about TEAM’s mobilization strategy is that it aims to be collaborative. TEAM coaches don’t want to just grow market share and recruit more for TEAM, they want to help all agencies and churches steer more people to answer Christ’s call to go to the nations.
Perhaps nothing illustrates that more than the Missions Places. On an afternoon in October at the Missions Place in Maryville, a bearded young man sat at a desk behind a laptop, preparing for intensive language and culture training he would undergo before deploying to serve in a Muslim-majority country. But he wasn’t going with TEAM. He was a missionary with Pioneers who happened to be visiting the area. The Missions Place offered him free wi-fi and surroundings with like-minded people.
“Yes, we are the Missions Place by TEAM, but first and foremost we are the Missions Place,” said Barber, who believes the goal is that people associate a Missions Place not just with TEAM. She wants them to see the store as a one-stop shop to find answers about all things missions. “There are a lot of agencies out there who are being and building the body of Christ, and it would be a shame for us to not collaborate with them,” she said. In Wheaton, mobilizers from six missions agencies met in late October to pray and strategize about how to promote missions more effectively in the Midwest.
Collaboration, however, is not always an easy sell. It can be complicated. Missions Places invariably draw the unavoidable comparison to the Apple Store, the American archetype of a concept retail space. In fact, when the Missions Place concept first began circulating at TEAM in emails early in the summer of 2012, the Apple Store was clearly the inspiration. But unlike an Apple store, missions places also promote other “missions brands.” And unlike the Apple Store, visitors to a Missions Place don’t walk away with anything in a shopping bag (unless they happen to purchase one of the handful of books or fair-trade crafts available for sale there).
“The problem with the Apple store analogy is that, if you walk into an Apple store, the product they’re trying to sell you is an iPad, and you can pick it up,” McQuaid said. “The problem with a Missions Place is that our iPad is in Chad or in Italy. Ours is more of a relational experience. We’re trying to get you to pick up something that’s halfway around the world.”
Creating that experience has not been easy. Designing the Missions Place in Maryville, staff worked through various concepts of how to display oversized photos and encourage visitors to walk among them, creating an immersive experience without breaking the bank and over-investing in technology or custom exhibit materials. Even when the team agreed on a final concept, it was nearly re-imagined all over again at the eleventh hour before the store’s grand opening in July.
Even communicating in simplest terms what a Missions Place is has taken a lot of refining. The first time Barber met with a pastor in his Wheaton office to explain the Missions Place, he listened politely to her pitch. “Why do we need the Missions Place?” he asked, according to Barber. “No offense, but why? What is the need here?”
Barber was taken aback. “Shoot. He’s right,” she would admit later. “It was so important for me to really own (the concept), then say, ‘OK, this is an idea that I think could work.’”
She’s gotten a lot better at it since then, and more and more pastors in the Chicago suburbs are catching on to the idea of the Missions Place. On a given week, local pastors plop down in the Missions Place’s couches for meetings with parishioners, as the facility offers a friendly space away from the noise of the Caribou Coffee next door. And pastors are increasingly bringing high school and college students by to introduce them to missions coaches.
Part of the success has been to avoid competing with churches or trying to attract events that should be happening within a church setting. In Wheaton, America’s quintessential evangelical college town where people walk through the grocery store with their Bibles, Barber is careful to not step on the toes of the many other established ministries. “We’re not trying to be something that Wheaton already has, which is a million churches,” Barber said. “We’re not trying to be in your face. It’s very much just, we are here, we are in and of the community. If you want to stop by, great. If not, no problem.”
In Maryville, on the other hand, the Missions Place is a bit more one-of-a-kind. Despite being firmly in the Bible Belt, the small southern town doesn’t offer as many venues as Wheaton for missions-minded individuals to walk in off the street and explore their dreams. McQuaid thinks that’s why he’s seeing families from local churches bring their children to nearly every event the Missions Place has hosted — they just want to be exposed to missions. That curiosity factor is also why he’s having conversations about missions with walk-ins who do not even know who God is.
“I think about the folks that have encountered missions here in the Missions Place and think, where else would they have had that kind of experience in this area?” McQuaid said. “Probably nowhere else.”
-Written by Andy Olsen
-Photography by Andy Olsen and Robert Johnson