By Eddie Pipkin
Tunnel vision, rabbit holes, wearing blinders, and being unable to see the forest for the trees. These are all ministry problems: we get so locked on a ministry perspective that we lose sight of the bigger picture. For churches with a physical campus (which is the preponderance of churches), this ill-aimed, lopsided laser focus is often the result of our attachment to our own space. The church property, rather than a acting as a base of operations that extends our impact out into the community, becomes an island fortress where people are forced to seek us out if they want to see what we offer – the community has to come to us despite the Gospel’s clear evidence that Jesus called us (and showed us how) to head out boldly into the community.
A friend sent me a copy of a recent edition of motivational speaker and extreme sports enthusiast Larry Janesky’s “Think Daily” blog (and with all due credit to Larry, his blog on this day was short and to the point – this quote is the whole thing):
When I was a kid, and I’d say to my Mom “There’s nothing to do.” She’d say “Go outside.” I thought she was trying to get rid of me, but she was wise. We went outside and always found something to do.
Last weekend for example, there was nothing to do. So we got in the truck and drove. Get breakfast here? Cool. We drove some more. What are those people doing at the boat ramp in February? Frozen Lake. Walk out on the ice? Cool! Oh look, ice fishing! Cool. Walk out farther around the bend. Look someone made a snowman on the ice. I bet we can make a bigger one. Cool! Snowball fight. Fun! And on the day went.
Go explore the physical world.
My friend, who is into the outdoors, as am I, signed off with a winking emoji. Yes! Escaping the claustrophobic confines of cinderblock walls for the glorious revelation of God’s infinite creation renews the soul, sparks gratitude and creativity, and parts the clouds of despair. That’s a boost for each individual who ventures outdoors to practice nature therapy. But what works for one works for many and not just in the sense of reconnecting with God’s grace and imagination through nature. There’s a profound sense of connection to our neighborhood that comes only from spending time physically exploring the neighborhood. (We see firsthand what’s beautiful AND we see firsthand what’s broken.)
Although, I am a runner and a bike rider, I had taken some time off in the past month-and-a-half to nurse an injury, and I just got back to running in the past week. It was a revelation. On my regular runs, I explore routes through all the surrounding neighborhoods, and I had not realized just how much I had missed this window into the lives of my neighbors: the waves to couples walking their dogs, the thumbs-ups to skateboarding kids and driveway chalk artists, the cataloging of home improvements and spring plantings, the details of life unfolding from street to interesting street.
My conversation between my blog-forwarding friend and I shifted from our own recollections of outside afternoons as kids to talking about the ways that church leaders miss these opportunities to explore their neighborhoods and the greater community. When church leaders get together (for church events themselves and for the planning of those events), we are generally focused on our church campus. Most of our conversations revolve around the ways people will come to us to experience the wonderful things we have to offer.
This a topic we have written about before, generally with an emphasis on how the local church is called to take ministry to the “streets,” but in this blog I want to think a little more about how we form perceptions about our relationship to the community and how “getting outside” can change those perceptions. While we tend to think, “Of course, we know the neighborhood – after all, we live in it,” these are individual perceptions and experiences. When we sit in a room planning ministry, we each bring our filter of what the neighborhood means to us. This is a valuable process if we are taking time to unpack those perceptions, understanding the ways that our insights (based on our unique experiences and circumstances) differ and intersect. But this is not our normal process. Our normal process is that we assume everybody thinks about the neighborhood (and greater community) in the same ways we think about it.
Even when we do have a thoughtful process for comparing and contrasting our individual perspectives, it is far rarer that we share any group experiences of the neighborhood / community.
It is an entirely different process if we take opportunities to explore the neighborhood / community as a group together and then unpack those experiences.
Here are some ideas, and you and your teams can try some of these ideas either as a one-off, on a limited temporary basis, or as a permanent shift in thinking:
- Plan EVENTS (of course) in the Community.
Let’s move ministry out of the church building and directly into the community. From VBS in the park to Bible studies in people’s homes, there are endless ideas for how to get off campus and into places that are less threatening to people and more geographically relevant to their everyday lives. Serve people where they live. Jesus modeled a great mix of people coming to him for teaching and him going to where they were to heal and teach. Our campus should be a safe space, an inviting, welcoming, hospitable (and fun and fulfilling) island in the community. But it should be a home base from which adventurous disciples are launched every day.
- Move Meetings into the Community.
Try out a month in which you ban meetings in the familiar spaces in your building(s). Hold your leadership meetings in public spaces and use these meetings as an opportunity to see and be seen. No doubt, you are already regularly meeting folks one-on-one at the local coffee dispensary or lunch spot, but we’re talking here about team meetings. And it doesn’t have to be a lunch venue. Imagine that you get together at a table in the local park, in the meeting room of the local library, in the garden at the local hospital, while kayaking the local lake, in the common area of the local nursing care facility, or adjacent to the playground at the local elementary school. Imagine as part of your agenda, you had a brief guest speaker from the institution you were visiting. The strategy of getting together in the community as a group can open up entirely new perspectives on ministry priorities. It can reveal things you had not noticed before, free people up to talk about things they had never before mentioned, and spark new ideas. Also, it gives people in the community a chance to see you and know that your community connection is not just a matter of lip service.
- Hold a Trustees Meeting Across the Street.
Give the people responsible for your church campus a different vantage point to from which to appreciate your church campus. Get in a van together and practice approaching the property from the different possible streets. Do people walk to your church or ride bikes to your church? Why or why not? Can they / do they take public transportation. How is each experience of getting there different? What are people’s perceptions? What about people who arrive in cars? What are their first impressions? Go really bold! Ask a neighboring homeowner whose property adjoins your church if you can meet in their backyard, and invite them to share what it’s like living next door to your campus. Use this feedback as a jumping off point to ask your neighbors (your literal neighbors) if they’d like to see any changes or how you could help them out and support the neighborhood.
- Meet in People’s Homes.
I have been involved in a couple of church start-ups, and once the work of establishing an official church property has been completed, we always look back a little wistfully at the early stage when we had no choice but to convene in people’s homes or the local school or anywhere we could find to gather. There’s something intimate and authentic about those gatherings that dissipates once the institution is fully realized and everyone is meeting in generic rooms with folding chairs. Don’t forsake getting together in one another’s homes. It is a terrific way to get to know people better and to get to know their individual neighborhoods better. It’s a great reminder that we all come from different backgrounds, culturally and even economically. And even though we are big proponents of the pandemic-related cultural shift of doing business by Zoom, it will still be important to get people together in a shared physical space once in a while.
- Prayer Walks.
Prayer walks or prayer drives or prayer bike rides of prayer hayrides (whatever sparks your enthusiasm) are a way to profoundly change our thinking about our immediate communities. We should be encouraging this activity in the life of every single disciple under our influence – it really adds oomph to our thinking ways to relate to our neighbors. But we should also be doing this as leadership teams, walking or driving our church-adjacent neighborhoods together, sharing stories of the people we know in them, sharing ideas for prayer, and actually praying – not an abstract statement of our intent to pray, but prayer as a real-time practice. If we do these excursions together, we discover many topics to discuss that can influence ministry decisions.
- Potent Partnerships.
One of the best ways to expand our presence in our neighborhoods / communities is to pursue partnerships with organizations that are already doing good work. Too often local churches seek to meet a perceived need by replicating work that is already being effectively done. Food pantries are an excellent example, but really for almost any social service need, someone in the community is already hard at work to provide help. Local churches lean towards wanting to establish their own version of these ministries so that they have ownership of what’s happening, but imagine the profound difference it would make both in our effectiveness at addressing fundamental needs, as well as our perception in the greater community, if we – instead of going it alone to do our own thing – partner with effective community advocates. Such partnerships have numerous benefits: they multiply our effectiveness (because we can’t build houses on our own, but we can send teams to support the work of Habitat for Humanity), and they allow us to pinpoint our resources. Rather than building a lot of infrastructure to administer programs from scratch, we can instead be connecting people and financial support directly to the work being done.
- Prudent Purchases.
Let’s spend money with businesses in the neighborhood, and let’s be vocal in support of those businesses. This is a natural pathway for such businesses to reciprocate support for our events and community outreach as well, but it’s not the motivation. The motivation is that we want to make our community healthier by supporting local business owners rather than anonymous corporate behemoths. By the way, if social justice is a big deal in your congregation, here is an excellent way to show support to minority-owned businesspeople.
- Purposeful Pathways.
Find out what causes are important to the communities around you, and to the extent that they align with your overall ministry vision, support them wholeheartedly and advertise your support to those communities. If environmental concerns are important in your area (creation care), commit to policies on your campus that support creation care and make that part of the face you show your surrounding community. Host creation care events and give people who care about this issue a chance to be involved on your campus and through your programs. This approach can be replicated with any issue, from social justice to financial literacy to strengthening families. There is a wonderful overlap between biblical priorities and neighborhood strengthening initiatives. Why shouldn’t your church be an integral part of supporting the health and well being of the people who live all around it?
How are you and your leadership teams regularly getting outside into the community? If you did this on a more frequent basis, how might these excursions change your ministry thinking? What are the greatest drawbacks to implementing such a strategy? How do direct community connections affect the life of the local church? Share what you know below!