I have only been the lead pastor of two churches: a church plant in a rural-to-suburban community in Washington state and a replant/revitalization pastor of a church in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. On the surface there seems to be very little common ground, but something that I have learned in both roles is the importance of community engagement.
Serving Your Community
Let me throw out the disclaimer – we do not see community engagement as a way to regularly grow our church. We see it as a chance to love and serve the community our church is in.
When I think of Christ’s Church in the world, I think of the Babylonian exile in the book of Jeremiah. The Israelites were exiles in a foreign country. As Christians, we are also exiles from our homeland: Peter refers to us as sojourners, and Paul tells the Corinthians to be ambassadors for Christ.
So how should we act in the world? Jeremiah instructs the Israelites to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This is good advice for us, as well. As churches, we must engage in the life of our communities.
As a pastor, I did not originally plan for community engagement but was almost forced into it. Our church plant in Washington was a grassroots movement and did not have financial partners when we launched. In Boston our church was made up of older congregants who had little involvement outside of attending Sunday morning services. Most locals thought the church was closed and the building was vacant.
In both locations, we needed to engage the community to let people know there was a church they could attend. Because of our lack of resources in both churches, we needed ways to engage and serve the community that didn’t require a lot of money or manpower. Our solution – which looked different in each context – has been to discover what is already happening in the community and take part.
As a church plant, we did not have a building, so we volunteered to be involved in community events and utilized public places for our own events. A local neighborhood council allowed us to use their headquarters to host a game night for kids once a week. Because of the relationship we built with them, we were often invited to community meetings and considered stakeholders in the community. We saw this very clearly in one meeting when a resident who identified as Wiccan stopped the discussion and said she was interested in hearing what “our” pastors think while motioning to us.
In Charlestown, God has blessed us with a facility, and I truly believe it is our responsibility to use it as a resource to bless the community. Consequently, we have opened our doors to multiple 12-step programs, the YMCA, community cheerleaders and a community-based group for at-risk teens, in addition to hosting our own events.
Another way we engage the community is by providing a service at established community events. Often we take our popcorn and snow cone machine to events and give away snacks. This has allowed us to connect with people that we normally would not have the opportunity to engage.
Our involvement has also given us a great reputation in the community and has given me, as the pastor, opportunities to pray at public events and have Gospel conversations with people that I would not have met otherwise. At our breakfast with Santa this year, one of our staff members overheard a conversation between two ladies who were discussing how much our church does for the community. Our hope is that we can use that reputation to share Christ with people.
Are you interested in doing more to engage your community? Here are three ways to get started:
Be familiar with your community. What events already happen? Who runs them?
How can you serve in those events to bless your community? Remember, we seek the prosperity of our city – and part of that is seeking to bless and serve the community. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet not for His own benefit but for theirs.
Engage the people you are serving alongside. Just like in the church, it is often the same people running and volunteering in the community. You will have a great opportunity to build relationships with them.
Community engagement is both important and necessary, no matter the length of time your doors have been open or the size of your congregation. Even if people never step foot in our church, they know that we love and care about them and the community as a whole.