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Building Bridges Between Church and Community

BUILDING BRIDGES BETWEEN CHURCH AND COMMUNITY

Overcoming the barriers to holistic ministry requires an intentional effort both to
welcome the community into the church, and to bring the church out into the community.
Here we give seven suggestions for cultivating an outreach-minded congregation.

1. Welcome whoever walks through your door.
A good place to start in cultivating the congregation’s commitment to reach out to
the community is by loving the people in the community who come to you. “We need a
theology of welcome to tear down the fences that have come to separate ‘church’ and
‘mission,’” asserts Kathryn Mowry.

A friendly face can go a long way in a person’s evangelistic journey. An elder at Life
in Christ Cathedral of Faith gives this testimony of the power of a welcoming congregation:
“One of the things that made me want to stay here is that when I first came to the door,
before I was delivered from drugs, there was a guy there who greeted me with this great,
huge smile. . . . I was down to 130 pounds, I really looked a mess. . . . He greeted me with
a hug. That made me think, ‘Man, I like this place. I want to stay here.’” A welcoming
congregation looks past the barriers to see each person as a potential bride of Christ.
It is human nature to view encounters with people in need as annoying interruptions.

Encourage the congregation to welcome opportunities to minister informally to the needs
that present themselves. Examples of this kind of every-day compassion abounded in our
case studies. One day at First Presbyterian Church, a woman came to the office looking
for a volunteer who had told her about a local business that was hiring. When the
receptionist found out that the woman didn’t have a car, she put down the envelopes she
was stuffing and drove her to the prospective job site.

A member of New Covenant literally welcomed the homeless woman with two
children who knocked on her door. Over the weeks of the woman’s stay, the member led
her to the Lord. The guest began attending New Covenant and was hired to help with the
job of painting the church building, though she had never painted before. Now she is a
self-supporting master painter. Bishop Robbins and his wife welcomed two at-risk children
from the community into their home and raised them as their own, and have encouraged
others at Life in Christ to do the same. Such acts of loving hospitality may be overlooked
by news crews and grant-makers—but they form the warp and woof of a church’s
transforming presence in a community.

2. Network in the community.
Networking is the exchange of information, ideas and resources. The goal of
networking is to build relationships as you gather information, scout out potential allies, and
let others know about your church. Another benefit of networking is that it builds the
church’s reputation in the community, says Carl Dudley. “Others will see your church as a
concerned neighborhood institution. The people you contact begin to think of the church
as a potential partner in the area of shared concerns. They will treat the church differently
and include the church in community meetings it has not been invited to before.” (See What
is our ministry setting? for more on networking.)

So get to know the executives and staff of key community institutions. Offer to take
people out to lunch, arrange to meet for coffee, or ask for a tour of their facilities—and
leave a packet of information about your church. Institutions to target for networking include
other churches (and non-Christian houses of worship); social service agencies; schools;
police; social security and welfare offices; businesses; health clinics; and foundations.
Bakke and Roberts suggest a useful conversation starter in networking with other
congregations is to ask, “What is the most important lesson you have learned about being
a pastor in this community since you have begun?” Every church leader can network in the
community in the area of his or her ministry—for example, the youth pastor might connect
with public school principals and teachers, the director of the local Boys and Girls Club, and
people associated with the juvenile court system.

3. Cultivate a sense of belonging to the community.
“Your people shall be my people,” said Ruth to Naomi (Ruth 1:16). In the same way,
help the congregation to think about residents of the community as “our people.”
Cultivating a sense of belonging is a transformational process that unfolds through
many small steps. Help the congregation become familiar with the community by leading
“field trips” to cultural events and restaurants, preferably together with a hosting team from
the community. Invite community leaders to your church’s Christmas party, and attend the
dedication for the new elementary school. Host town meetings, AA meetings, community
theater productions. Become a sponsor for the community’s little league team. Display
artwork in the sanctuary that reflects the community’s ethnic heritage. Print church
bulletins, clean the carpet and purchase office supplies using local businesses. Write letters
to the editor about issues affecting the community.

Be a presence in times of tragedy or outrage. For example, when a local home for
the developmentally disabled was vandalized, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church wrote
an editorial for the local newspapers, and organized members from various congregations
for an overnight prayer vigil at the home. Find ways of identifying with the struggles of those
in the community (Heb. 13:3), and express your sorrow over the things that cause God and
your neighbors grief. But do not focus exclusively on what is different or dysfunctional.
Encourage the congregation also to identify with everything in the community that is
delightful. Give thanks for all its assets—from block captains to children’s smiles—as “good
and perfect gift[s] from above” (James 1:17).

These small steps contribute to a process of becoming friends with the community.
In the beginning stages of holistic ministry, invest in later initiatives by building up the
congregation’s visibility and reputation. Developing a profile as a community-oriented
church, for example through wise use of media contacts to publicize church events or by
consistently sending representatives to community meetings, increases the likelihood of
winning support from the community for major new ministry projects. Becoming known as
the church that gets involved in local issues will help open doors to resources and
collaboration. Recognition is the first step toward trust.

4. Incorporate a commitment to outreach mission into church life.
How much does a concern for community outreach enter into the life of your church?
Here are some self-examining questions:

  • Do the songs sung in worship services mostly talk about our personal
    relationship with Jesus? Or do they also reinforce a message about God’s love
    for the whole world and the church’s calling to serve and reach out to others?
  • What do the art or religious symbols visible in your church communicate? Is
    there anything that conveys the biblical themes of service, evangelism,
    restoration, transformation?
  • Do the needs of people outside the church and the issues faced by the
    community or other lands around the world regularly find their way into
    congregational prayers? Is information about community events promoted via
    church bulletin boards or bulletin announcements?
  • Do the literature available in the foyer and the books in the church library or
    bookstore address issues of mission, or are they solely directed at the spiritual
    and personal development of Christians?
  • Is the concept of “mission” used in such a way as to imply that it applies only to
    foreign missions? For example, if you have a missions bulletin board, are the
    pictures and letters all from overseas missionaries?

Consider ways to enfold a loving awareness of the community of ministry into
“ordinary” aspects of church life. The church should be a refuge for members from the
bruising realities of the world, but not a fortress where people go to shut out the world.

5. Interweave the interests of church and community.
A Christian speaker told of the time God convicted him of not taking seriously
Christ’s command to love his neighbor as himself. Sure, he occasionally did nice things for
people in need—but did he love others as himself? So he set up a jar in his home marked
“For the Neighbor.” Whenever he bought something non-essential for himself, like a soda,
he put an equivalent amount of money in the jar. His family got used to saying, “Here’s one
for me, and one for the neighbor!” When a crisis arose in a neighbor’s life, he went right to
the jar, dumped out the money, and was able to help meet the need.

In a similar spirit, a church might link its internal care to outreach. When the church
raises funds for new carpeting, raise an extra “tithe” of the amount to donate to a local
housing organization. When the youth group plans a ski trip, invite (and pay for) a youth
from a homeless shelter to come along. Hold a congregational meeting in the local
community center, and afterwards repaint it. Think of the things you are already doing, and
dream up ways to turn them into an opportunity to connect with others (see Tool # 34 ).
Such actions help to develop the habit of talking about inward ministries and outreach
ministries in the same breath as all part of the church’s mission.

6. Take the church out into the community.
A congregation cannot hope to build loving relationships with the community,
particularly those who are most needy and vulnerable, by “sitting in the four walls of the
church. You’ve got to actually get out in the community,” says Bishop Dickie Robbins.
Instead of always waiting for the community to come to the church, your church can “take
its show on the road,” moving out into the community.

This does not entail starting a new ministry program—just relocating some of the
existing ones. One of the simplest things to do is to hold a regular weekend worship service
outdoors in the summertime. (Just make sure you don’t annoy the neighbors by blasting
your music into their windows early on a Sunday morning!) Tenth Presbyterian Church’s
Sunday school classes overflow their building, spilling out into the community—meeting in
local nonprofits and and restaurants. “I love the idea of being outside of the building,” says
the Sunday School coordinator. “Everybody says, ‘But we want to be in the building!’ And
I say, ‘The building is not the church.’”

A success story of ministry relocation comes from New Covenant Church of
Philadelphia. Rather than holding the traditional Vacation Bible School at the church, New
Covenant decided to tell families, “We will meet you right where you are.” One summer,
120 VBS groups met in homes, public facilities, and community nonprofits. The
decentralized format requires more organization and congregational support, but it also
allows the church to reach far more children than if it held a single VBS at the church’s
facility. Another impact of moving the program out of the church and into members’ homes,
explains a church leader, is that now “families in that community see those homes as a
place of refuge.” People in the community who would not dream of calling the pastor to ask
for prayer feel more free to ask at the home where their child went to VBS.

Routine interactions and chance meetings also provide opportunities for members
to represent the church to those outside the congregation. One day Rev. Richard Smith,
pastor of Faith Assembly of God, was walking with a lay leader through the neighborhood
around the church. A little girl who did not attend the church passed by, and Rev. Smith
greeted her. She stopped, because she did not recognize them. “Who are you?” she asked.
Rev. Smith answered her, “I’m your pastor!” Members take the church out into the
community when they adopt the incarnational understanding that wherever they go, they
are the church.

7. Support the relocation of church members into the community.
If your church is cultivating a relationship with a needy community where few of the
church members actually live, encourage members to consider a calling to relocate there.
John Perkins, the co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association, calls
passionately for relocation, which "transforms ‘you, them, and theirs’ to ‘we, us, and ours.’”
This ministry is essential to breaking down barriers and developing a healthy sense of
belonging to the community.

The book of Nehemiah provides a wonderful model for relocation. Nehemiah had
completed the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, but the city was still in ruins and the
local economy was a shambles. Few residents remained in the city to complete the work
of restoration (7:4). Those who had fled the city were naturally reluctant to return to such
an unstable, unsafe environment. So the people of the outlying area came up with an
innovative solution: they “cast lots to bring one out of ten to dwell in Jerusalem” (11:1). In
other words, they tithed their population to relocate to the city! The Nehemiah model
encourages congregations to anoint those who dedicate themselves to living in the
neighborhood as the church’s ministry representatives (11.2). Those who have relocated
become community liaisons who help others in the congregation understand and connect
with the community.

Besides nurturing an affinity between the church and the community, relocation also
lays an important foundation for effective holistic ministry. Bob Lupton writes of the
importance of “achieving neighbor-leaders” who “bring living, personal modes of hope back
into a disheartened environment. Achieving neighbors bring resources and skills into a
depleted neighborhood, along with fresh energy to deploy them.” Seeding a community with
strong Christian families strengthens the fabric of community life.

On the other hand, without a strong community presence, a church’s success in
transformational ministry can actually undermine the overall quality of life in a distressed
community. As maturing Christians get their lives together, as they get a better job and
higher income, and as they develop a healthy family life, they often move out of the
community. By empowering persons, the church might be helping to drain the community
of its best assets—stable Christian families. Encouraging church members to relocate helps
to counter that trend. It sends a strong message to residents of the church’s long-term
commitment and serves as a symbol of hope.

These seven measures can help strengthen your congregation’s commitment to
outreach. They will also make the church and its gospel message more appealing to the
world on its doorstep. If the church is consistently cultivating a sense of belonging to the
community, incorporating an emphasis on reaching out to the community, stressing its
hopeful vision for the community, and modeling its dedication to the community through
relocation, it will be better able to attract and keep Christian families from the community
who share the church’s mission.

If love is not the heart of the matter, these bridge-building activities and relationships
can easily become just a means for self-promotion, a kind of community public relations (1
Cor. 13:3). This is why spiritual formation and social outreach must go hand-in-hand. The
more a congregation loves God, the more God can love a community through the
congregation. The more your congregation yields to God’s will and relies on the Spirit’s
power, the more it will identify with God’s mission in the community. The more your
congregation enters into the life of your community, the more the life-giving Spirit can flow
through you to your neighbors.

 


Adapted from Ronald J. Sider, Philip N. Olson and Heidi Rolland Unruh, Churches That Make a Difference:
Reaching Your Community with Good News and Good Works, chapter 7. Used by permission of Baker
Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, copyright (c) 2002.

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