Years ago, my wife and I planted a church in the suburbs of Chicago. When I say we planted a church, I mean we got together with a dozen other people, met for more than a year, totally burned out emotionally, and then gave up. Now we joke that we can tell you 20 ways to be unsuccessful at church planting, but at the time it was exceedingly painful.
While we made a lot of mistakes, the most important one was this: We somehow thought that if we just got the word out, people from the community would magically show up. No one ever did. When was the last time a lost person showed up out of the blue at your church asking how they could be saved? Yeah, that doesn’t seem to be the way God normally works.
This article is the third in a five-part series on the future of Church. In this series we’re examining two questions in particular:
"What will the church look like after Covid-19?"
"How do we attract the 30-something crowd?"
I believe the answer to both questions is remarkably similar. By embracing five truths about church, we can take advantage of the current challenges to rethink, redesign, and redeploy our congregations to bear more fruit. We looked at the first four truths in the first four posts. Here’s truth number five:
5. Community engagement is essential.
I’m not sure who first asked the question, “Would your community care if your church disappeared?” but it’s a good one. Why should anyone in our community be interested in hearing us share the gospel, if we haven’t been interested in sharing our lives? People have all kinds of needs: physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, relational. And the gospel speaks to most of those needs. But, if we aren’t engaged with our community, we’ll never be able to help them connect the dots between their needs and God’s Word.
Community engagement is both the biblical and the historical model for outreach. Jesus gave us a glimpse into his mission on earth when he said, "I must preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God in other towns, too, because that is why I was sent." (Luke 4:43 NLT) As he travelled, he preached, but he also met practical needs—healing the sick, casting out demons, and feeding the hungry. When he sent his disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom, he gave them the same pattern. They preached and met practical needs. (Luke 10:9)
After Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the early church continued this model. (Acts 3:6-7; 4:29-30; 9:33-35; 14:3; etc.) Indeed, we see the saints throughout history following in this way. Christians invented hospitals and universities; cared for the poor; and helped end human sacrifice, infanticide, and slavery. Until quite recently, believers simply assumed community engagement was part of their calling. It’s time we reinstate that notion.
Covid presents us with unique challenges when it comes to community engagement, but there are also unique opportunities. If, when we think of community engagement, we imagine large social projects, then maybe we need to fine-tune our thinking. Remember that programs are not ministry (truth number two). We needn’t create expensive, time-intensive programs to engage the community. Instead, we need to invest in the natural relationships God has given us.
One of the deepest impacts of Covid is the sense of loneliness and detachment people experience. In fact, even before Covid the National Institutes of Health declared loneliness an epidemic that caused as much damage to a person as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to a recent Harvard University study 36% of adults in America report feeling lonely frequently or almost all the time. And 61% of those were young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.
Engaging in authentic relationships is one of the most important ways we can get involved in our communities. Let’s not let the busyness of running the organization called “church” get in the way of bringing about real transformation through relationship-based ministry among the lost.
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