A pastor of a local church recently shared an experience that he had. His church held a funeral for a neighborhood member that died rather unexpectedly. Having known the family he reached out and offered to help, and the family quickly agreed. The day of the funeral came and many members of the family, also a part of the neighborhood, commented how cool it was that there was a church in the area and that they had driven these streets often, but never noticed the church.
An entire extended family admitted that they drove by the church and never noticed it or wanted to participate.
The temptation may be to keep reading, but I think it’s important to let that last sentence sink in.
Often, within the church world, we talk about ways to be more effective, to make more of an impact, or to do ‘outreach.’ These are noble and desirable goals, something that the church should strive for, but I think we often miss the point: the vast majority of people today aren’t looking for a ‘church’ they are looking for a place to belong. What they want more than anything is to know that they can be accepted and loved. They want less a place of worship for God and more a place of welcome.
Community advocates get that, and the single greatest thing that they spend their time doing is create community.
I live in Denver, a bustling city and vacation hotspot. Recently, Denver has announced the upcoming dates for it’s annual “Denver Days” a week long festivity and ideas and opportunities for neighbors to connect. They’ve put together a PDF document of possible ideas and have waved park reservation fees. The idea is, “Creating community through neighborhood activities and volunteer projects.” The whole goal is to bring neighbors together because they know that stronger neighbors build stronger neighborhoods and strong neighborhoods have lower crime and report a better quality of life.
For the city, it’s an easy thing, wave a few application fees in exchange for a lower crime rate and happier citizens. Losing a couple of hundred dollars on the front end of the week can save them several thousand on the back end.
I’ve only got one problem with it: it shouldn’t be the city organizing these events. Ice cream socials, barbecues, block parties, park activities, those should be the the core mission and vision of the church: to create a community where people can belong, participate, and feel welcomed. A safe place to talk about faith and what it means to follow God. The opportunity to, as one guy famously put it, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Churches often plot some rather grandiose ideas of outreach. They spend time, money, and people power on designing a slick brochure that tells people to “visit us sometime on a Sunday between 9 and 11.”
I’m growing more and more convinced that without careful planning and oversight, it is extraordinarily hard to call any program an ‘outreach’ if it takes place within the context of the church building. Outreach doesn’t happen in the church, it happens ‘out there’ in the community.
Service projects shouldn’t have to be organized by the city, but they are because the church has for too long neglected this mission.
Block parties shouldn’t be hosted by a community liaison, but they have to be because the church has decided that it would rather be safe inside church walls than be out there with ‘the sinners.’
[pullquote]My friend lamented that his church has seemingly missed a golden opportunity to be a light to his community. Hiding behind walls, the church could proudly proclaim that it ‘did outreach’ but in never actually went out anywhere.[/pullquote]
We often teach our children early in the church what it means to be a Christian. We give them songs to help them remember, and children everywhere are known for singing, “…hide it under a bushel, NO! I’m gonna let it shine….” The greatest obstacle to hiding our lights is not bushels or Satan ‘blowing it out’ but church walls, where congregations gather together Sunday after Sunday and hide behind the safety and security of brick walls, instead of living a life in the streets. Our greatest guilt has not been a lack of effort, but a lack of mission. We’ve made it easy for people to forget about us. To drive by day after day on their walk or their drive to work, and the city has been left to pick up the pieces of missed opportunity.
And my prayer is that we will someday reclaim this great opportunity.
*Many will want to interject something here about sin. “But you said nothing about sin!” There is a time and a place for that. Sin affects all of us. It has marred everything in creation and has left the world in it’s wake of destruction. Sin is important to talk about, but it should never be the first (or loudest) thing the church talks about. Jesus’ own invitation was to first, “Follow Me.” a command to come and belong, to participate in community, and to see what life with God is like (John 1:43). Numerous other scriptural examples support this, see Matthew, Zacchaeus, and the woman in Luke 7 as just a few examples.