There has been no shortage of writing over the past decade about what role any given local church should have in the community. There is, of course, in–solidly biblical and evangelical churches–a spectrum along which different ministers fall with regard to their own personal biblically formed convictions about this subject. On the one end of the spectrum are those who do not wish to make any distinctions about what is a proper cause with which to be involved in the community (provided it fall under the rubric of being beneficial to the community without violating biblical morality); on the other end of the spectrum are those who seek to avoid, at all cost, any involvement that is not centered exclusively on the ministry of the word. In my opinion, both extremes are erroneous. It takes an incredible amount of careful thought to navigate between what is a biblically legitimate cause in which the local church–as the church–should be involved and that which may, in and of itself, be a good cause but one that perhaps only individuals in the church–as individual Christians and citizens of a particular town or city–should be involved. Legion have been the attempts to codify a consistent worldview of the church’s role in the world. Additionally, it takes an incredible amount of care to know what connections a local church should have with other local churches and organizations in their community. Furthermore, it takes much thoughtfulness to know how to motivate the members of a congregation to seek to be involved in their community–both on a congregational and on an individual level. It is not dynamic enough to reduce it down the the “word and deed” categories, or to simply the “word” category, as so many have done. It is a far more complex subject–as are most aspects of our lives.
While great care is needed to enter in on this subject, great intentionality is equally needed. It is altogether possible to raise so many qualifications that we abnegate our responsibility to engage the community out of fear of violating God’s desire for His church in the world. After all, everyone one of us is, in some way or another, engaged in our communities. It may be effective or ineffective involvement, but it is partnership de facto by virtue of our citizenship. Just as it is true that everyone is a theologian–either a good one or a bad one (or perhaps a subpar one), so too every individual is either a good citizen or a bad citizen. Every church is part of the community in which it meets, whether it cares about its place in the community or not. With that in mind, here are a few categories that I have found helpful in seeking to lead our church to be outward focused in a biblically faithful way in order to enter into the community as a church.
1. Build Relationships. The pastor, elders and members of a congregation have a responsibility to build relationships with individuals in the community. The Apostle Paul intimates this when he suggests that one of the qualifications of an elder is that he “must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim. 3:7). Sometimes pastors can have a martyrdom mentality. We can sometimes mistakenly think that if everyone around us is not showing distain for us–then we must be compromising. While it is true that Jesus told us that the world would most certainly hate us, and that we are blessed when we are persecuted for righteousness sake, it is equally true that a godly minister should have a level of respect in the community–especially in Western civilization. The unbelieving world will hate us, but they will do so while have some level of respect for our desire to live godly and sincere lives for the good of the community. Additionally, the Apostle told the members in the church in Corinth, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.” Again in 1 Corinthians 10:27, Paul writes, “If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake.” Note that Paul expects that there will be relationships between believers and unbelievers in the places where we live–and that those relationships will sometimes matriculate into unbelievers inviting believers into their homes for a meal. This idea of building relationships in the community should be fostered by the pastor(s), elders, deacons and congregants of every local church. Most of the opportunities to have your church in the community stems from the relationships that are built with other believers and unbelievers in the town or city in which you live. This is vital.
2. Establish a Presence. The idea of establishing a presence in the community falls within the rubric of being missional (as loaded, overused and misused as that word has come to be). Many pastors of solidly biblical and theologically strong churches only deal within the category of attractional. In other words, they believe that if they simply get up on Sunday and preach solid, expositional and Christ-centered sermons the church will grow. While this is the central thing that God uses in growing His church, it is not the only thing. We find our Lord Jesus Himself going out to the people–on a boat, in a field, on the side of a mountain. He was missional in his deeds of love and mercy and accompanied the ministry of the word. He was, at the same time attractional. People heard about his teaching and His works and they flocked to Him. We need to seek to understand these two categories as we consider what it means to establish a presence in the community in which we live, minister and worship.
There are many ways by which a local church can begin to establish a presence in the community. This is where we must invest more care and thoughtfulness. It is too easy to merely try to plug into any event, social activity, charitable cause, organization in the community just to have a presence. At a fundamental level, it is true that a session of a local church should be eager to seize every opportunity to minister the word in the town or city in which you live. For several years now, the musicians of New Covenant have been asked to play hymns at a regional YMCA dinner. This has come about because of my own personal involvement on the board of the YMCA. While it is not an opportunity to preach the truth to a room full of unbelievers, it is an opportunity to sing the truth to a mixed multitude. After all, hymns are mini-sermons for the soul to sing. Taking the director of the Y up on this opportunity says that we care about our community. It says that New Covenant loves to be in the community and that we long to see men and women in the community come to our church so that they will come to know Christ and be shepherded by Him. It takes time and perseverance to establish a presence in the community.
When the pastor(s) of a local church have the opportunity to serve on the boards of existing organizations in town, serious and prayer consideration should be given. I remember hearing about how the President of my seminary served on the board of the local YMCA near the school. My initial reaction was one of caution. However, when I moved to the Savannah area to plant New Covenant, I had to figure out how to establish a presence in a small, waterfront community. I immediately joined the Y in order to try to meet people while I worked out. Within three years, the director of the Y asked if I would serve on the board. While I have not had an enormous amount of time to invest in the activities of the board, I have had several opportunities to pray at city events that the Y sponsors. This has given me–and New Covenant by way of relationship–a presence. I am often asked to open events–at which the mayor and other city and county officials are present–with prayer.
One simple way to help establish a presence in the community in which your local church exists is to advertise in strategic places. We all have limited funds, so much wisdom and planning is necessary here. Most solidly Reformed ministers shudder at the thought of advertising, chalking it up to worldly marketing–yet, all of these men pastor churches with signs in front of them and a website. A billboard or an ad in a local magazine is merely a more visible sign that tells the community that you are there to reach the community with the Gospel.
Cookouts are also very effective ways for the church to establish a presence in the community. We host many small cookouts in different neighborhoods in our city throughout the year. These are places for members to invite others from the community. We usually encourage them to invite unbelievers or de-churched friends and co-workers. We don’t preach at these events. They are simply a way for those outside of our church to get to see members of our church living together–cooking out, playing games and enjoying each other’s company. The end result is that almost all of them come at least once to one of our worship services. They serve as a platform for relationship and presence.
3. Distinguish Commitments. Whatever events or financial decisions are made to help give a local church a presence in the community, the primary and distinguishing message of the church must be central. For instance, I would never be comfortable doing an “outreach event” in which God’s word would not be, in some form or fashion, included in that event. Jesus was mighty in word and deed, yet the deeds of mercy and compassion were always accompanied by the ministry of the word of God. They served the purpose of pointing to the significance of the central message about the Redeemer and His work of redemption. So too, whatever outreach we enter in upon, the distinguishing commitments of a church need to be evident. Keeping the church’s central and perpetual commitment to the reading, preaching, praying and propagating of God’s word at the forefront of outreach is essential in maintaining the spiritual nature of the church. This will help safeguard from denigrating into a “social gospel” approach to outreach. Deeds of love and mercy, as important as they are in the life of the church and in the lives of believers in the world, are never termed “the gospel ” in Scripture.
4. Define Boundaries. There have to be strong boundaries drawn with regard to what a pastor or session is willing to be involved with in the community. As important as a community may deem such things as parks, environmental advocacy and political agendas, the church must be able to distinguish between proper causes with which its leadership or members should partner. If a pastor joins the board of a particular organization, he is de facto accountable for the actions of that board and/or organization. This carries with it a great need for caution in associations. My dad used to tell me, “Don’t get involved in any organization or serve on any board that you do not have supreme influence in decision making.” His rationale was that you are accountable for the actions of others with whom you bind yourself in solidarity.
Additionally, it sounds pious when pastors and sessions talk about linking arms with all of the churches in a particular town to join in on an ecumenical cause; however, when a church fails to distinguish between churches that are biblically faithful and those which do not preach the true Gospel, the leadership has–perhaps quite inadvertently–denied the central distinguishing commitment of a true church. If a church holds to the tenets of the Reformation (i.e. the Solas of the Reformation – salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, by the Scriptures alone, to the Glory of God alone) I am more than willing to join with them to labor for the spread of the Gospel in the community. Here too, however, there is spectrum to be avoided. On the one end, there are those churches in which the leadership leads into undistinguished co-belligerency with other ecclesiastical fellowships in the same town; while, on the other end, there are those churches that are so segregated from the rest of Christendom that they do not want to hold hands with any other churches on planet Earth. We want to avoid both of these extremes as we seek for biblically sound partnership with other churches and organizations.
We must discuss one other all-important boundary. In one sense, we could have opened with this boundary. We must distinguish between the church–as the gathered assembly of believers called to worship God and serve one another–and individuals within the church. The individuals within the church have a much broader job description than is true of the church as the church. For instance, individual believers may engage in all kinds of activities in the community that are not, in and of themselves, immoral. They may be involved in social or political activism. They may be involved in educational programs in the community. This is not, however, the role of the church in the world. The church’s role is ministerial not political or mercantile. This is the most fundamental of all distinctions. It is not a God-given role for church’s to start businesses. Neither is it the church’s role to start institutions of higher education. It is altogether appropriate for individual pastors, elders, deacons and congregants to serve on boards of businesses or educational institutions, but not for the session of a church to uniquely and exclusively oversee such organizations in the community. This is a controversial point that needs much further clarification.
5. Discover Opportunities.
Asking what are the needs that fit within the distinguished commitments and defined boundaries of the church in any given community is an obvious first step in a church establishing a presence in the community. This is in keeping with the words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Galatia: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). We are to minister within the church, first and foremost; but, then we are to seek to do good to all “as we have opportunity.”
Jonathan Edwards explained the extent to which this command to the church its members extends when he wrote:
We should do good to both good and bad. This we should do as we would imitate God, our Heavenly Father. Matt. 5:45, “That ye may be the children of your Father which is in Heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” The world is full of various kinds of persons; some are good, and some evil. We should especially do good to those that are of the household of faith, or that we have reason charitably to look upon as saints. But though we should more abound in beneficence to them, yet our doing good should not be confined to them; but we should do good to all men. Gal. 6:10, “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” While we live in this world we see many men of very ill properties and hateful dispositions and practices. Some are very proud men, loose, immoral; some are very covetous, close, hard, unreasonable, profane, despisers of God, unjust. But those and other bad qualities should not hinder our beneficence, or prevent our doing them good as we have opportunity.1
With this in mind, the session of a local church might find out what lower income areas there are within arms reach and to recruit a team of members to help meet needs in these neighborhoods, with the goal of laboring to see the individuals that you serve come to worship to hear the word of God and the Gospel. Again, you have limited resources in every church, and, therefore, can’t meet all the needs. Try to single in on one or more need and encourage members to get involved. Crisis pregnancy groups and retirement/nursing homes are great places to start.
Many years ago, I was involved in an evangelistic ministry that was under the oversight of a particular Reformed denomination. Some of the ministers in the denomination didn’t want this work to continue because “it wasn’t growing local churches in their denomination.” I remember the frustration that I felt when I heard this. I told my best friend, who wisely said, “It might not grow your church; but it will grow Jesus’ church.” In many cases, outreach opportunities that members of the local church might get involved did not grow the local church immediately, but they almost certainly grow the universal church. You have to learn to discover opportunities in a non-territorial, non-slot machine sort of way. For instance, starting a nursing home/assisted-living home ministry will probably not grow the particular local church in which you serve, but when the word and Gospel are faithfully ministered there, fruit that redounds to eternity will almost certainly be born there. I have had relatives of members of the assisted living home in which we have a monthly dinner and devotional come to our church because we were ministering to their parents. This is some of the unexpected fruit that you might see if you enter into these less-obviously local church growing ministries.
6. Cast Vision. The pastor(s) and session must constantly cast an outward focused vision before the congregation. It never “just happens” on its own. I have two friends in ministry both of whom had a philosophy of outreach that was entirely “grassroots.” If a member came and said, “We’d like to start this or that ministry,” the session of these churches would come along side to help promote and establish it. The problem? No one came with ideas. These two churches languished for over a decade. Finally, some of the elders realized that they needed to do something. They began taking the leadership reigns. Vision was what was lacking. It is the role of the pastor(s) and session to cast vision. In fact, I would suggest that the senior or lead pastor is to be the primary vision caster. While Presbyterians shy away from this idea because of our deep commitment to the plurality of elders–even Scripture teaches that Simon Peter was the chief among equals in the apostolic band. Never in history has there been a collective group of individuals who together cast vision without some individual in the group taking leadership in this regard.
7. Examine Motives. Finally, the session must diligently labor to examine its motives. If the motivation is simply to grow the local church–and to build a kingdom for itself here on earth, then the leadership in the church will not draw many boundaries, will often give up on distinctive commitment to the ministry of the word and will ultimately compromise for the sake of numbers. Additionally, if the motivation is for money or power, irreparable harm will be done in the long run. It may look like healthy grow, but it is simply manipulated growth. A church that is deeply committed to bringing God glory and to the salvation of those around them through the preaching of the word and Gospel, will see growth as they do these things–and they will also suffer loss. You have to be prepared for the long haul. Motives constantly need to be viewed in the mirror of God’s word. The pastoral epistles and the life and ministry of the Apostle Paul are immensely helpful in this regard.
I certainly have much to learn about all of these things. Nothing in ministry is easy–much less seeking to guide a church full of sinners like yourself–many of whom have lots of different ideas and opinions about these things–to get into the community for the sake of the Gospel. It takes time, thoughtfulness, prayer, counsel, insight, wisdom and a willingness to make mistakes. It takes elders to think outside of the tradition box and take the church forward into what feels like unchartered territory. But, at the end of the day, it takes the blessing of God. The words of the Psalmist ring true in this regard, “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it” (Ps,. 127:1).
1. Edwards, J. (1989). Ethical Writings. (P. Ramsey & J. E. Smith, Eds.) (Vol. 8, p. 210). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.