By Ann-Margret Hovsepian
It’s no secret there’s much brokenness in American neighborhoods, but Marvin Williams, lead pastor of Trinity Church in Lansing, Michigan, believes the Church holds the answer.
“The gospel truly is the hope of the world, and our outreach is not just good deeds or altruistic behavior,” he says. “It’s celebrating that God is alive in us! Any church that is not moving forward is doing a disservice to its community and disobeying God.”
There should be a vision for outreach and a strategy, even if money is limited, he adds. “We have time, we have a mandate, and we have the power of the Holy Spirit!”
The Future of the Church Study by Facts & Trends and Lifeway Research surveyed Protestant pastors across the United States about their churches’ ministry in their communities.
The majority (64 percent) indicated that ministry in their communities had increased in the last five years and even more (85 percent) say they expect their community involvement to increase in the next five years.
Why does this matter, and how are churches increasing ministry in their communities?
Trinity Church in Lansing is involved in North School Elementary School, where there are 53 different nationalities and most of the students are refugees. “They don’t have coats and boots, or don’t speak the language,” says Williams.
“America is the land of opportunity, but it can feel cold. Who is going to give the hospitality this group needs?”
The church started with North School. Volunteers painted walls, held parties for teachers, tutored students, and organized coat and boot drives. When the principal moved to Gardner Middle School, he called on Trinity and asked them to help again.
“The school was a mess,” recalls Williams. “We released 200 to 250 volunteers who painted, removed gum, and washed walls and tables and chairs. Several teachers and school administrators are now attending Trinity because we, the kingdom of God, showed up. We brought the love of Jesus and the power of the gospel. That becomes irresistible to people.”
Ray Pritchard is a fairly new member at Lenexa Baptist Church, about 15 miles southeast of Kansas City, but he has nearly 30 years of experience pastoring churches in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Chicago. He’s also president of Keep Believing Ministries, which encourages pastors, Christian workers, and missionaries around the world.
While memorizing 1 Peter, Pritchard noticed how often Peter talks about the difficult world we live in. “We’re pilgrims, we’re passing through. Peter talks about how the real battles are not going to be won by big proclamation but by the way we live our life.”
Pritchard says the Church hasn’t changed but that culture has turned against the Church.
“Our position is more tenuous,” he says.
“The difference between light and darkness is going to get more pronounced. Our sermons alone are not going to save the world; the church is going to have to show the living difference that Jesus makes in families and in broken homes. The hope of Chicago is not Democrats or Republicans; it’s churches out on the front lines where the bullets are flying, caring for people and binding up the wounded.”
Churches are not only setting up food pantries and clothes closets, but also getting involved with crisis pregnancy centers and foster care.
Pritchard knows of one church that has decided to adopt a whole city: “They want to provide trained foster parents so there are no kids without safe parents. I think that’s fantastic! That kind of stuff was not happening 20 or 30 years ago.”
Worship vs. Outreach: Not Either-Or
Christian author Randy Petersen says that while worship is central in church life, it should send people out into the community to minister, to make relationships, to invite people in. “Everything—the sermon, giving, worship—changes us and propels us and creates an event that outsiders might be interested in joining in.”
He says churches may focus on worship but must also allow that worship to energize people.
“It’s not either-or,” says Petersen. “If there’s no community outreach, something’s wrong. But if there’s only community outreach and no worship, then it’s more like a pyramid scheme, and I’ve seen that happen.”
Churches don’t have to choose between building their ministries and caring for their community. “You should do both,” says Pritchard.
“Caring for your community is building your church. You’re doing the work of Jesus. I do think we have to keep the gospel central, but I don’t think slipping into social justice is the major danger. The major danger is that we will become inward-focused. Pastors, dip your toe in; start small and make a difference. God will lead you, and the people in your church will be willing to follow your lead.”
For Williams, it has to be a “both-and” approach. “God has invited individuals to be kingdom citizens, to go into communities and restore what was broken, and that becomes a doorway by which we can proclaim the gospel.”
He points out that today’s skeptics are drawn to people loving them and showing them that the Good News is more than believing what the Bible says.
“We’re in a post-literate society and close to a post-Christian society, and some people don’t even know the Bible,” says Williams.
“We need to go back to being who we were in the first century, when the church shared their possessions. The church should be viral in our neighborhoods. People should know there’s something different about this neighborhood because we’re in it.”
While some churches view evangelism as “a very particular dispensing of the gospel message and getting people to respond in a particular way,” Petersen says he prefers to step back and say evangelism could be “the sharing of God’s love with people around us and inviting them to participate with us in various ways that might eventually lead them closer to a knowledge of God and salvation. Some might call it pre-evangelism. I like to see it all as a process that fits together. Sometimes it’s just being Jesus for someone.”
Starting Small and Finishing Well
Smaller churches may find ministry in their communities more of a challenge than larger ones do since their budgets and pool of volunteers are also smaller, yet there are still many opportunities for them to have an impact in their neighborhoods.
“If you have nothing, you can love,” says Williams. “You can do something even if you can’t do all that you desire. Take a bag of groceries to someone who’s struggling. Get to know people in the neighborhood, school, community, the gatekeepers, and the most influential people, the ones with the most emotional coins in the bank.
“They can open doors for you that you couldn’t open yourself. Ask them what the greatest needs are and offer to pray for them. Listen to what the needs are.”
For Pritchard, there are three simple principles to remember when ministering to one’s community:
It won’t happen by accident. “Centrifugal force is so strong in established churches that, even with the best of intentions, you’ll spend all your time just keeping the church going, with no time left for people.”
It won’t happen by preaching. “We’ve all laid down the eloquence, the guilt. It doesn’t work. It will only happen if the leaders lead the way, if the pastors, elders, and deacons go outside the doors and meet neighbors, make friends, attend high school events. . . I learned 50 years ago that evangelism is better caught than taught.”
Don’t try to reach the whole world. “Start in your own little corner. Make it a better place. You have to crawl, then walk, then run. Sometimes churches start too big and it doesn’t work. You can do less in one year than you think you can, and you can do more in five years than you think you can. Miracles take time. Plant the seeds, water them, and give God time to work.”
Petersen emphasizes: “From first to last, be genuinely loving. If you aim to love, then evangelism will happen. Maybe not that day, but the sharing of good news will come naturally. If you try it the other way—aiming to save souls but not loving—then you are enacting the first part of 1 Corinthians 13. You’re just a clanging cymbal. As love is shown, people blossom. Allow the Holy Spirit to work.”
Ann-Margret is a freelance writer, author, and illustrator in Montreal, Canada, where she serves at Temple Baptist Church. She is also active in mission work in Armenia, her ancestral homeland.