By Kate Riney
The Church is, by definition, countercultural. That doesn’t mean, however, our churches should be ivory towers cloistered away and out of touch with the needs of the community.
To reach the lost and broken with the gospel, each church needs to be aware and reflective of its community’s assets and needs. Here are five ways your church can do that.
1. Take a walk and talk.
Map out a radius around your church based on how concentrated the population is in your area. For urban churches, tackle the 2- to 3-block radius of your church location. For more suburban or rural churches, you may want to take a 2- to 3-mile walk or drive.
Walk around the area with staff leaders and key volunteers. Meet people hanging out at the bus stop, coffee shops, local eatery, the gym, etc. Ask these people about their lives and take notes. Get to know them and the challenges they face.
Try to take on the posture of a missionary who has recently arrived on the mission field. By starting without assumptions, you’ll be better prepared to hear some surprising revelations.
Ask open-ended questions: How does the surrounding community affect their lives (positively or negatively)? What is their involvement in any spiritual community? What’s the familiarity and impression people have of a) religion in general, b) Christianity, and c) your particular denomination or tradition?
Ask about the history of the community. When did the community get its start and under what circumstances? What historical or cultural events and landmarks are important to the community? How has the area evolved?
The answers to these questions will be powerful indicators to you of how your church fits into the community and the unique challenges you’ll face reaching the people in it. You’ll also have better insights into how to develop authentic relationships with those in the surrounding community.
2. Identify community assets.
As you walk, take note of medical facilities, homeless shelters, day cares, schools, libraries, different types of housing (high-rise apartments, single-family homes, public housing, mobile homes, etc.), religious and civic organizations, public transit, gas stations, grocery stores, shopping malls, green space, recreation facilities, etc.
Next, identify these assets on your map. Look first for assets, second for patterns, third for needs.
Every community is different. A university town will be filled with research facilities, dorms, and libraries. A suburban community might have many grocery stores, dry cleaners, and restaurants.
Hotels and offices may predominate in a downtown area, with few people living nearby. Maybe your area has lots of outdoor recreation, wildlife, and parks.
Write all these patterns down and begin to draw some conclusions about the nature and identity of your community. Only then can you assess the community’s physical, relational, and spiritual needs.
3. Assess community needs and begin developing your strategy.
Perhaps there are no grocery stores in your church’s area, only corner stores. Maybe you could offer a farmer’s market in your parking lot to bring quality, nutritious food to the local residents. Are there many day cares, but mainly overcrowded or underfunded preschools?
Consider starting a church school for all those tots about to age out of day care. If the area lacks public transit, the church might offer a shuttle ministry to allow more people to attend worship services and church events.
What cultures, ethnicities, and languages are represented around you? Try to see past the obvious and easily visible demographics of the neighborhood.
Many elderly people may live in an assisted living or retirement community you’ve never noticed. They might love to be a part of your church family if the opportunity is available.
Are there many people with different abilities in your community (those with cognitive disabilities, issues with mobility, sight or hearing impairment, etc.)?
Consider making your church highly wheelchair-accessible, providing sign language interpreters, and tailoring your worship service production to the needs of all those in your community.
4. Filter and prioritize.
After your group shares its thoughts on the community’s patterns or needs and you do some “blue-sky thinking,” pray and begin to prioritize those assets your church wants to offer based on what your community needs most.
Some initiatives will be simpler than others to start, and you may find you can easily implement two or three projects at once.
Outreach projects are best started one at a time, usually one a quarter. Try to stagger launch dates so the community isn’t confused by an onslaught of announcements and invitations that pull their focus in different directions.
5. Begin setting or redefining your church culture.
This is potentially the hardest thing to do in any established organization, but it is possible. As you assess the community and begin implementing your findings, know that the DNA of your church will naturally change.
You’ll need to constantly reassess how new projects are received and what your reputation is in the community.
It’s worth it to make small adjustments strategically, rather than cutting whole initiatives and programs at once when they don’t go as expected.
As in your initial walk and talk, you need to have your “ear to the streets” to gauge why a service your church offers isn’t working well. Perhaps it needs to be moved to a different time or people need child care in order to attend.
Make small adjustments, reassess, and watch things evolve over time. The smaller the gap between community needs and the church’s offerings, the more people will be attracted to and enriched by your spiritual leadership.
If your church truly desires to reach the lost, and grow and send disciples, then you need a clearly defined mission, vision, values, and strategy based on the community you serve. You cannot lead those to a life in Christ without knowing their unique needs and gifts.
The Shepherd knows His sheep by name. Do you?
KATE RINEY (@KateMRiney) serves on the Candidate Relations Team at Vanderbloemen Search Group, a pastor search firm that helps churches and ministries find their key staff.