A Church With the Community
What’s the difference between a church in the community and a church with the community? Marshall Gonzales, Adventist Community Services Director for the Southwestern Union and Texas Conference, says that a church can exist in a community and never engage with anyone outside of its own membership. A church in the community expects people to come to it.
But a church with the community is one that has embedded itself into the functions of everyday life in its community. The church with the community humbly kneels down and washes the feet of those in need. It learns about the people in the community, and responds to their needs with love and compassion as a reflection of the love and compassion that God has for his precious creation.
Of course, when we talk about a church, we are not talking about a walled-in facility. We are talking about people, the body of Christ. We are talking about you and me, the members who sit in the pew and pray in Jesus’ name for God’s will to be done.
Adventist Community Services is known for the assistance it provides in times of major disasters—providing essential cleaning supplies in their famous yellow ACS buckets, warehousing donations and organizing distribution of necessary items, working with local emergency management teams to provide help in whatever way is needed. They are there to help when disaster strikes—hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and, most recently, snow storms, and affect large geographic areas and impact the lives of many. This disaster relief is vital and life-changing.
However, we can’t wait until a disaster happens to become a part of our communities. We must be consistently and lovingly interacting with out neighbors. According to Gonzales, it’s of utmost importance that the church is known to its community before disaster strikes, so that in cases of major disaster, the church will be the first place people turn to for help.
Gonzales gives the example of the Beaumont Seventh-day Adventist Church, in Beaumont, Texas, a church that has become known in the area for it’s love and compassion. Because of their community involvement, they were recently contacted by nationwide organization to distribute food and water during Winter Storm Uri.
“Disasters happen every day in the lives of the people around us. A house fire that leaves a family on the brink of homelessness; a family whose husband abandoned them and they’re suffering; a guy who got laid off in the middle of a pandemic; the single mom who just learned she has terminal cancer—these are all the every day disasters that are affecting people. We all know people in our communities who are hurting. And we can be caring for these people in truly meaningful ways if we let God use us,” he says.
How can a church make the change from in to with? “Get out into the community,” Gonzales says. But how? Gonzales shares that there are specific actions that church members can take.
First, pray for God’s guidance as you begin the process of becoming an integral part of your community. Then, Gonzales says, get to know people. Find out who the city and county officials are, city council, county emergency services, volunteer organization leaders, first responders, and others, and make an effort to introduce yourself. Make it clear that you are looking for ways to serve the community, and that includes serving them.
“Make a special effort to reach out to first responders and social workers. When incidents happen and there is a person or family in need of help, these individuals will often reach out to their inner network for help. They work hard to find donations and items that can help alleviate the situation. Wouldn’t it be great to say, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that’ to them? Commit to be a part of the group who they can call on to provide assistance, it takes a great burden off of their shoulders,” says Gonzales.
Discover the need
Learn what the community actually needs. Gonzales says that oftentimes churches will try fit the community to their ministry, rather than fitting the ministry to the need.
One way to understand the needs better is to get to know people and ask questions. Another is to research the demographics of your area, as well as the resources already in place. Is there a need already being met by other resources in your area? Find areas that aren’t being met where you can provide assistance.
Gonzales also shares an innovative tool available to churches, Link2Lead. This website allows a church leader to answer questions about what the church has to offer, and provides a report on the true needs of the community.
“The reports are very helpful in understanding your community. It’s eye-opening to see your report after you complete the questionnaire. You say you don’t have a daycare? Well, the community says it’s one of their top priorities. You say you don’t have a food pantry? Well, that’s another need. You say you have Bible studies, well, that’s low on the list of priorities,” says Gonzales. This tool helps churches reevaluate their outreach programs with a focus on being relevant to actual needs.
Get creative, Be Consistent
Now that you’ve introduced yourself and you’ve done the research to know what the true needs are in your community, what will you do? Work together with your fellow church members. Have a brainstorming session with them, letting them know what you’ve discovered and asking for support. Again, pray for guidance as you come up with a concrete plan of what you will do. Once your plan is in place and your ministry is in motion, maintain consistency and communicate clearly about your program.
Remember the Why
We don’t do these things to give ourselves a pat on the back for a job well done. We don’t do them in order to commend ourselves for having visibility in the community. We do them as an expression of love for all of God’s people. We do them to love them. “With these connections made, the people we serve will come to know and trust that we have their best interests at heart,” says Gonzales. “We love them and pray for them, and when they come to us with questions about who we are, we’ll be ready.”
Did You Know?
The North American Division provides annual grants to conferences in order to support church participation in community service activities. Churches must report their community service activities to their conference’s Adventist Community Services departments in order to be eligible for these funds, but only a small percentage of churches report their activities. Talk to your local conference ACS department to learn more about this funding available from the NAD.
By Jessica Lozano, Southwestern Union Record Editor and Communication Director