Who doesn’t love the close feelings of familiarity that spring up in a congregation of people who have been together for decades? Surely this sense of togetherness is the kind of community Jesus calls us to be, isn’t it? Perhaps, but the formation of community is never at the expense of our purpose as Christians: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Over and over again, people in our churches are unfamiliar at best and disengaged at worst with the core purpose of a community of faith. This core purpose is the transmission of the gospel to those who have not heard, believed, and accepted this new way of life. Granted, some of those who ‘haven’t heard’ have been sitting in the pews for years; the mission field can exist inside our walls as well as outside our walls. Yet when the church’s focus is mainly inside our walls, we miss out on a crucial connection: The community in which we are located.
It really doesn’t matter if the church’s neighborhood has changed; this has always happened, and will continue to be the case. It doesn’t matter if the church is located downtown, in a highly urbanized area; as long as there are people around our church, we can only thrive by connecting our lives with the lives of the people in our midst.
The irony is that the more connected we get within our church family, the harder it can be for new people to enter in. Our formality, our insider practices in worship—making visitors introduce themselves, people sitting in the same pews each Sunday, poor signage and/or parking, singing songs known by those raised in the church, but unfamiliar to outsiders, no name tags, etc.—all make it difficult for people not raised in the church to make entry.
Additionally, many of us post signs like “no skateboarding or bicycle riding” or “no trespassing.” We bar our doors and windows, sometimes even putting ourselves behind a fenced wall. Sadly, many people in our own neighborhoods may not even know we are there. (Test it out: Take a survey of businesses and households within a three-mile radius of your building and see how many of them can tell you where the church is located.) All of this creates barriers with the people we are called to serve.
Here’s the good news: The more our church connects with the community outside its walls, the less we have to worry about any kind of vandalism or outside threats. The community itself begins to take an interest in us, and our ministry, when we truly make ourselves available. Here are some simple ideas to get started:
- Know the demographics of persons within a five-mile radius of your church. Learn their spiritual backgrounds, and what they are hungry for.
- Know your public schools and get involved with them: Reading programs, after-school enrichments, summer lunches, baby-sitting during back-to-school nights, etc.
- Host monthly birthday parties for the children within a three-mile radius of your church. Advertise the party to the schools and neighborhood. Have games, piñatas, simple prizes, even small gifts for the birthday child if you can afford it. If not, cake and ice cream is fine!
- Gift baskets of homemade goodies to police, emergency rooms and/or fire fighters in your community on every holiday with a great card or letter of appreciation. Keep it up for a year and then see if it’s made a difference.
- House painting for the poor homeowners in your community. If your congregation can’t do it alone, involve other churches in your area.
- Establish community clean-up days, with your church leading the way.
- Coordinate neighborhood walks/watch with church folks in local church t-shirts.
- Clearly visible outdoor festivals and celebrations for the whole community: Easter egg hunt on Easter morning (maybe they’ll stay for church!); outdoor picnics, Trunk or Treat, water games, outdoor movies, impromptu Christmas pageant for children, Valentine’s Day party, etc.
- Non-invasive, door-to-door surveys to identify community concerns and needs.
- Church booth in established community events with inviting, inclusive banners publicly displayed on booth or property.
If you need help making any of this happen, contact us at churchfortomorrow.com!
Dr. John Flowers loves ministry with the poor, watching “dry bones breathe,” teaching, mentoring, and coaching congregations. He was the 2005 graduate of the year award winner for St. Paul seminary who recognized his work in social justice.
Rev. Karen Vannoy is a United Methodist pastor who has served as a District Superintendent in the Desert Southwest Annual Conference, as well as a local pastor for thirty-five years.
Their book, Adapt to Thrive, is available on Cokesbury.com in print and e-book formats.