By Eddie Pipkin

June 23, 2017

When our kids were younger, we were one of those houses that was the neighborhood hangout.  There was always a gaggle of kids splashing in the pool, bouncing happily on the trampoline, or piled up on the couch playing video games.  We liked the idea of being a safe space where our kids’ friends could have fun and we could know what was going on in their lives—in fact, we consciously set out to help make that happen.  Isn’t that exactly the attitude that the church should have?  And shouldn’t we, as leaders, be doing everything we can to create that atmosphere?

I recently received a newsletter from the Houzz web site which included an article titled, “How to Be the Neighborhood Hangout,” and included some specific ideas on intentionally building a home that gives a vibe that says “welcome” to the neighbors.  It’s a fun and fast read with some great pictures, so check it out, but I will summarize here for you, pointing out the ways in which congregations and ministries can make this advice their own:

  • Be a bright spot in the neighborhood.

From the street view as people pass by, our congregational and ministry homes communicate a lot about who we are and who we aspire to be.  Do we seem friendly?  Do we seem fun?  Do we seem inclusive?  Do we care about the world and what’s happening in it?  What can people tell about us based on what they can see?

  • Put a fun feature out front.

Do we have an equivalent of a neighborhood front porch swing for all to see?  If we have playground equipment or sports fields, do they communicate a “members only” or a “y’all come” vibe?

  • Start a weekly tradition.

Some congregations have embraced this idea by hosting regular food truck gatherings.  That’s a great idea, along with outdoor community movie nights, parking lot fitness workouts, pickup kickball games, free concerts, lemonade and ice cream distribution, free car washes, and dozens of other ways to become a gathering place for grace and fun.  Such gatherings don’t have to be an all-hands-on-deck production either.  Sometimes, individual small groups within a congregation will embrace such project, sometimes just a few like-minded individuals are sufficient to get something rolling.

  • Make dining outdoors a regular thing.

Rolling it back old school to an occasional “dinner on the grounds” gives the community a visible sign of your love of food and fellowship.  Throw a picnic and invite everyone to come.  Be sure that you have fellowship areas (outside tables, garden spots, and comfy seating spaces) that embrace the glory of God’s creation, regularly enjoyed together.

  • Be where the good treats are.

Always have something tasty on hand (and not just on Sunday mornings).  This is for many congregations an under-utilized ministry opportunity.  Baking is a wonderful talent and a profound opportunity to make people feel warmly connected, at ease, and welcomed.  Cookie ministries are a real thing!

  • Offer some tempting low-tech fun.

Have some “manipulatives” around whenever people are present (and even use them to encourage people to be present), so there is a natural outlet for fellowship (fellowship being the fancy church term for hanging out).  Frisbees, hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, balls, checker and chess sets, craft supplies, book carts, and anything else you can think of that people can do together make a great addition to your gathering spaces.

  • Get your garage open for business.

At first glance, this idea of converting a home garage space into a certified fun space doesn’t seem to directly translate for congregations, but there are lots of spaces in our facilities that have been reserved for somber uses and utilitarian functions.  Imagine if we were intentional about freeing some of those spaces up for fun and fellowship and multiple uses.  Sure, it can be chaotic to have multiple groups using the same space, but multiple groups mean more people doing more ministry!  Some churches limit the number of people on their property because of draconian restrictions on who can use what space.

  • Set rules that make you happy and relaxed.

This is a carry-over from the paragraph above.  Think of the rules that govern your ministries and your spaces, then filter each of those rules through the criteria that people feel welcome, comfortable, valued, and empowered.  Which rules of governance and usage enhance that goal, and which choke it off?

  • Say yes to imperfect gatherings.

Yes, of course, the Boy Scouts are going to get rowdy right outside the Seniors Bible Study, and, yes, the ball team practicing on your field is going to leave some trash.  Every community engagement is going to involve some sort of hassle.  But it’s holy hassle.  It’s the perfect opportunity for us to flex our spiritual muscles, test our commitment to discipleship, and make use of the fruit of the Spirit.

  • Gather round the fire.

Every church facility should have a fire pit, and churches should look for opportunities to use it and make it available to the wider community.  Good things happen around the fire.  Of course, your facility and location may have unique features of their own.  Leverage them.

Phil and I wrote about this idea of becoming the community hangout spot in our Connect! books.  In that case, we cited the story of Kristin Schell and her Turquoise Table movement.  She wanted to get to know her neighbors more deeply, so she set up a turquoise picnic table in the front yard, sat at it and engaged her neighbors in conversation, and thereby flipped the normal American dynamic of isolating ourselves in our private sanctums.

Following Jesus (as evidenced by following Jesus’ and the disciples’ examples from the biblical narrative) is an inherently social undertaking.  We can create an intentionally inviting environment in our own homes (proactively loving our neighbors), and we can create an intentionally inviting environment at our church and ministry campuses (proactively loving the neighbors who pass by every day).

What steps has your congregational or ministry leadership taken to embrace this philosophy of the overt welcome?  What success stories of your own can you inspire us with?  Have you tried things that worked out in unexpected ways?  Share your stories with us.  And check out practical resources for building healthy discipleship communities at the Excellence in Ministry Coaching (emc3) web site.