I have only been the Lead Pastor of 2 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 on both is the importance of community engagement.
Let me throw out the disclaimer, we do not see this as a way to regularly grow our church. We see it as a chance to love and serve the community our church is in. I think of the Babylonian exile in 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. 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.”
I would define community engagement as churches taking part of the community around them and engaging in the life of their community. We did not plan to do this but were almost forced into it. Our church plant was a grass roots movement and did not have financial partners when we launched. In Boston, the church was made up of older congregants who had little to no interest in being involved outside of attending service on Sunday mornings. In both, we needed to engage the community to let them know we existed and let people know there was a church they could attend. Our church plant was a new church, and in the revitalization, most people thought the church was closed and the building was vacant. Because of our lack of resources in both, we needed a way that would allow us to engage and serve the community without it requiring a lot of money and manpower on our part. What we have been able to do is see what is happening in the community and take part in that, which looked different in both contexts.
As a church plant, we did not have a building, so we volunteered to be involved in community events and utilized public places to do our own events. A local neighborhood council allowed us to use their headquarters to put on a game night for kids once a week. Because of that relationship we built with them, we were often invited to community meetings and considered stakeholders in the community. In one meeting, a resident, who identified as a Wiccan, stopped the discussion and said she was interested in hearing what “our” pastors think as she motioned to us.
In Charlestown, God has blessed us with a facility, and I truly see that it is our responsibility to use it as a resource to bless the community. We have opened our doors to multiple 12-step programs, the YMCA, community cheerleaders, a community-based group for at risk teens and hosted our own events. Another avenue we use is to join in established community events and provide a service. It is most often us taking our popcorn and sno-cone machine to events and giving them away to people. It has allowed us to engage people that we normally would not have the opportunity to engage. This has given us a great reputation in the community and has personally given me 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 a couple of ladies who remarked at how much our church does for the community. Our hope is that we can use that reputation to share Christ with people.
Since I like practical application, let me give three ways to get started.
1) Be familiar with your community. What events already happen? Who runs them?
2) 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 benefit but for theirs.
3) Engage the people you are serving alongside. Just like in church, it is often the same people running and volunteering in 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 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.