Seek the Welfare of the City – Engaging the Community

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.

Why Revitalization?

This is a great question, especially since it is much easier to start a church than it is to revitalize one. Church plants tend to get a lot of momentum early and carry that through their first 3-5 years. In most revitalizations and replants it takes 5 years to truly see any sustained growth. If that is the case, then why not just plant churches and let dying churches die?

I think about the story of Josiah, king of Judah in 2 Chronicles 34. After he began his reign, he returned the kingdom to the ways of David. Several years later, workers found the book of the Law in the temple. Josiah’s reign can be seen as a return to faithfulness to God.

Where we are in New England, there are so many church buildings that have abandoned the Gospel and have abandoned faithfulness to the Scripture. Many of these churches have become nothing more than buildings that are a tribute to a past that was once so influenced by the Gospel. That still does not answer the question, why should we revitalize these old buildings?

1)      Location and facilities - Many of these old buildings are strategically placed in the towns and cities where they are located and can provide significant opportunities to reach the community. Our church has been able to utilize our space to do community outreach events and to allow 12-step recovery programs that could not find a home elsewhere. When I was a church planter, these were not possible because we were renting part time space. That is a common problem with church plants, finding space that is suitable to meet for worship.

2)      Accessibility – I have been both a church planter and am now replanting. It is much easier to gain the trust and access of people in the community when you have a reason to be there. In areas where Christianity does not have a significant influence on the culture, non-believers tend to not understand what a church plant is, nor see the reason to start one when there are already established churches in the community. As the pastor of an established church, I have a reason to be in the community, and do not have to explain my presence and hope that people are not overly skeptical of meeting in a school, rented space or living room.

3)      God’s Glory – I know this one seems simple, and the obvious seminarian answer, but it is the truth. Only God can bring life where there was once death. When a church that many in the community believe is dying, or in some cases already closed, is made alive again the only answer we can see is that God brought it back. We have begun to see those conversations happening in our community among people who have no connection to our church.

How can you help? Many of us in replant churches have the same struggles as church planters especially when it comes to resources such as finances and people, with the added burden of a building which usually needs significant maintenance and upkeep. Dying churches also tend to not draw Christians looking to join a team like is often the case with church plants. We all could use much of the same type of support that has gone into church planting, such as prayer, mission teams and regular financial support. It is important for revitalization / replant pastors see need to “play the long game” and have the needed support from others to enable them to do so.

How the heck did I get here?

I want to share a little bit about our journey to revitalization, because if I am honest, I never thought that I would be here. We moved to Boston, Revere specifically, to plant a church after a pretty successful plant in Washington State. The first two summers that we lived here, we had a summer intern from South Carolina named Will. We have really grown to be good friends in the last 4 years, and I am thankful to have had him here over those first summers. What really sticks out is how much God used him in my journey to revitalization.

We would often sit up and talk about theology, life, music and about anything else you could think of after Sarah and kids went to bed. I remember we were talking about our skill sets and our weaknesses one night. I told him that I struggle with being patient and slowing down, which is somewhat useful in a church plant, but would be a tough skill set in a pastorate in an established church, and especially in a church revitalization. I even went on to say that I would never be able to be a revitalization pastor because of that. Sometimes we say things that are really funny in retrospect, this was one of those times. Within a month, I became the pastor of an almost 400-year-old church full (if you call 8 people full) of people old enough to be my parents and or grandparents. God really does have a sense of humor.

In that time, God has really given me a love for the members of our church, and a desire to see people in our community come to Christ. We also have something that many church planters dream of, our own building. To be honest, it is a blessing and we do all that we can to be good stewards of what God has given us, but that’s a blog for another day.

If you’re a pastor, or someone looking to become a replant pastor, let me encourage you today. Your job is to proclaim the Gospel, and the glory of God. He will bring whatever numerical growth he sees fit. Be faithful and preach the Word, as Paul told Timothy, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2 ESV).