Exploring what God may be calling you to as church in community
“Make straight paths for your feet.” (Hebrews 12:13)
There are several approaches that a church can utilise when it comes to participating in its community and developing community outreach.
Here’s a taster to see if there is a way forward that may suit your local context.
1. Conduct a community audit
Why is this important? Simply because it’s helpful, when you are trying to reach out to your community, to know who your community is! So a community audit is a research-based approach. There’s little point in starting a playgroup or a young mothers’ support group if your church is in the middle of an area where the average age is 50.
Here are three key steps to consider:
- What do we know about our communities?
- What do others know about our community?
- What does our community think about itself?
2. Join in with an already identified community need
It is important here to recognise that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel or “go it alone” when engaging with community needs. If you have heard of it, the likelihood is, so have other people. There may already be projects starting in your area – keep an eye out for those.
Find out whether there are residents’ associations in the area around the church – go to them and listen. Ward meetings are also useful to find out what concerns people locally. These aren’t the only places – it’s amazing what you can find out while you’re waiting for the bus.
If there is already a project working on community concerns – go along and see how you can help – it may be that offering space for meetings in your church would make a big difference or boosting the number of volunteers. Support community projects, be the person who is always there, be reliable, build relationships, be visible as a church, active and interested in the local area.
It is important to remember choosing to engage with local needs and opportunities is about responding to what you learn and hear, sharing resources, and building relationships… all Gospel stuff.
3. Participation in an ecumenical community project
How is the “Churches Together” group doing in your area? Is it well attended? Do you go to the meetings? If not, why not?
If these meetings have fizzled out due to lack of enthusiasm – be the enthusiasm! Either invite other church groups to your events or try and regularly go along to other churches’ coffee mornings/cake sales etc. Find the joy in being together.
If “Churches Together” is doing well – is there a new project you can all work on together (see community audit on page 14)?
Are there ecumenical bodies working across a bigger area you are located in, for example your town/city, that you could engage in? Food banks can offer a good example. Coordination of a food bank can often be the best way to offer the most to an area in simple ways such as ensuring food banks are open on different days of the week, sharing out food from those who collect the food to those who distribute it, sharing volunteers’ skills, praying with and for each other, and collecting data and real stories from those attending the food banks so that longer term solutions can be sought and policy makers challenged.
4. Participation in a secular community project
The best dialogue for church is with those who do not recognise themselves as church.
Could your local church engage with a secular community project? Since the gospel and serving the community go naturally together, linking in to existing or new secular community projects is well worth exploring. There are some things to consider on your mission journey from church to community…
Identifying a suitable project
Are there things that your church already has an interest in? There will be more energy and enthusiasm for a project that resonates with a local church’s core values and interests. So, the first step will be to have a discussion within the church. It will work best if the whole church gets behind the initiative and there is a sense of ownership.
Engage in a search for an suitable project:
- Ask the congregation and other people in the local community
- Check the local press
- Check with your local volunteering agencies, charities, NHS, local government agencies (social services; police; etc)
- Search the web
If a new piece of work is envisaged, with the church and a secular partner, first gain clarity within the church about your vision for the project and then look for a suitable partner. Internet searching will usually uncover some possibilities.
5. Consider relocating to a community space
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)
You don’t need a big fancy building. It may be that your church building is no longer viable – either it is too big or too broken to carry on being useful to your smaller congregation. Have you considered instead holding your services somewhere else?
Going to a place where other people already meet may open new opportunities for mission and partnership working.
Perhaps your big and useful building could be used as a community building by others and become a resource for the local community? Time to give thanks and close the door, or open it wider and let God’s people and kingdom in to enhance what you are already offering?
Buildings can be a great resource or a heavy burden. Look around your community… is there already another building that is a great resource which you can join in and use your energy to engage with people rather than fixing leaking roofs and fundraising for high energy bills?
This list is not exhaustive so be creative. Be inspired by others’ stories but remember what works best is prayer and finding out what is unique to your location and church.
6. Seeking a vision for church
“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.” (Habakkuk 2:2)
When we seek a vision, we are looking to discern God’s will for where we are going as church in the long term (10-20 years and beyond). Each church vision will therefore be different and unique. Here are three statements that demonstrate different visions for church:
“To know Christ better and to make Christ better known.”
“A Place to Belong.”
“To be a welcoming church, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, focused on outreach and support within our local community and beyond.”
Common themes for a church vision:
A faith based process
Spiritually led in worship and prayer
Looking to the future
Always striving to improve
Developed over a well-researched process
A solid core of the church family is committed and involved from the outset
Worship, nurture, extending to others
Considers the use of buildings, as both asset and liability
Process to develop a church vision:
Each church, led by the Spirit, will design its own process for developing its vision. As a stimulus, the following example, from St James’s, Alnwick, outlines the process embarked on by that church.
A daily prayer was written and distributed to everyone in the church family.
Next, a full day’s elders’ meeting, led by a member of the Synod team, was held to take stock of where the church was as a family and to share dreams on building the church of the future. These dreams were captured on wooden bricks to be built around “Christ, as the cornerstone”.
Led by the same member of the Synod team, a half day’s church meeting was held, including adherents and young people, and the process from the elders’ meeting was replicated. House meetings with elders’ pastoral groups were subsequently held to engage more people in the process to discern their views on the church of the future.
In tandem with the house meetings a community audit was conducted, including an audit of the community engagement of other churches in the community.
Subsequently, a team was appointed to draft a vision for the church, based on all the inputs.
The draft vision was presented to elders and church meeting and accepted as…
“St James’s will be a welcoming church, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, focused on outreach and support within our local community and beyond.”
The daily prayer for St James’s:
“Eternal God, we thank you and praise your name.
“We give thanks for the many people who have given of themselves over the years to serve you in this church and we give thanks for the fellowship we have found here. We pray for all those in our church who give of their time and talents to serve in your name.
“As we seek a new vision for St James’s, may your lead and strengthen us. May we discern your will and your way to be a vital presence in our community through service, fellowship and witness. May we reach out beyond the walls of our church, caring for your children around the world, this we ask in Christ’s name. Amen.”
7. Pursuing your agreed vision
“Watch the path of your feet and all your ways will be established.” (Proverbs 4:26)
Depending on its size and structures, each church will pursue its agreed vision in different ways, although some aspects may be common to all churches:
- Pray daily for your church’s vision and the mission that extends from it.
- Share the vision with all the church family and user groups.
- Decide who is most likely to be attracted to what you offer as church, while remaining open to receive all who are seeking to know more about the Christian faith.
- Identify the key local needs from your community and competitive audit.
- Discuss and agree the mission of the church in elders and church meetings, based on your community audit.
- Develop a plan to pursue your mission, including the necessary human and financial resources.
- Uphold your vision in worship; prayer and house groups.
- Discuss how you can be a more welcoming church.
- Consider whether your buildings are fit for purpose to deliver your vision and mission.
- Engage with partners who use your building, e.g. inviting them to special services.
- Seek funding from the mission and property funds, if required.