Churches emphasizing internal and external service will find it leads to growth and a restored connection of the church with the community.
By Jennifer Matenaer
Preaching, teaching, small groups, praise team—churches rarely struggle with providing internal ministry opportunities. But what about involvement outside the church? When unbelievers don’t come through the church doors, will the church knock at theirs?
A recent Lifeway Research study revealed more churchgoers serve regularly in their churches than in their communities. According to U.S. Protestant pastors, on average, 42% of adult churchgoers volunteer in their churches, but only 27% volunteer in their communities.
Recognizing the importance
As we see in Acts and are taught throughout the New Testament letters, Christians should focus on serving in the local church. Although a believer’s ministry starts there, it should continue beyond those four walls. Members who step outside their buildings and reach out to their communities discover even more value in serving.“Although a believer’s ministry starts in their local church, it should continue beyond those four walls.” — Jennifer Matenaer Click To Tweet
A church faithfully reaching out to its community will be seen in a new light. Neighbors will remember the folks who gave their kids school supplies, packed meals for the homeless, or passed out bottled water after a hurricane. The meaningless steepled building at the corner of 5th Avenue and South Street transforms into a place of familiar faces, kind words, and hope. When a person faces a crisis, they will know where to turn.
Additionally, actions speak louder than words. Neighbors are more likely to listen to a believer when their conduct supports their message. Sharing canned goods today could lead to sharing the gospel tomorrow.
With less than half of adult churchgoers involved in volunteer roles in their churches, some may question the value of emphasizing outside involvement. But a growth in community involvement could lead to an increase in church involvement. A single housing restoration project led by a few congregants could ignite the entire congregation to renovate a low-income neighborhood. And that excitement could spill into more regular volunteers on a Sunday. Although churches must recognize the importance of ministering to the body of Christ, that recognition doesn’t have to come at the cost of ministering to unbelievers.
Understanding the discrepancy
As Lifeway Research’s report reveals, however, a discrepancy exists between the two areas. Two shortcomings could explain the reason for the inconsistency: a lack of leadership and a lack of creativity.
Few members have the initiative needed to jumpstart a project on their own. Like sheep without a shepherd, churchgoers without a leader overlook the needs in their neighborhood. Conversely, church leadership usually does well at fostering internal volunteering—from advertisements for the upcoming cleanup day to signup sheets for potlucks and picnics. But without that same drive for community service, Christians rarely take the first step.“Without ingenuity, congregants struggle to think outside the box—or the church building—to meet the specific needs in their city.” — Jennifer Matenaer Click To Tweet
Additionally, a creativity deficit results in an outreach deficit. Although some believers may notice outside needs, questions like “Where would I even start?” or “What can I even do?” loom too large for church members to initiate anything. Without ingenuity, congregants struggle to think outside the box—or the church building—to meet the specific needs in their city. A lack of leadership and creativity has contributed to a widening gap between inward and outward involvement, resulting in a greater disconnect of the church from the community.
Bridging the gap
This discrepancy has led to a dichotomy between church service and community service. Through an overemphasized distinction between the two, the church has atrophied in its ability to care for neighboring areas. The church must seek to overcome the neglect and rebuild its connection with the community.
The church’s external involvement begins with church leaders. Pastors, staff, elders, deacons, small group leaders, event coordinators, ministry directors—anyone in a leadership role—must lead the body by example. Their words and actions should reflect an emphasis on assisting people outside the church. From there, leaders can both encourage and challenge congregants to get involved in the community. Church leaders can provide a vision for the members to follow.“God has equipped the local body of Christ to care for its specific community.” — Jennifer Matenaer Click To Tweet
The plan of action should include creative opportunities for involvement in the community. When churchgoers ask, “Where would I even start?” leaders can narrow that scope by considering the specific needs in their vicinity. Since every context differs, the approach to service should also vary. And when members wonder, “What can I even do?” church leadership can help each person discover their unique giftings for reaching out to their local area. God has equipped the local body of Christ to care for its specific community.
Creativity in ministry
Creativity in ministry does not necessarily mean starting from scratch. Churches can partner with nonprofit or parachurch organizations. Other valuable resources include the chamber of commerce, the local newspaper, and other churches.
Creativity also comes into play for those with limited helpers, resources, and time. Smaller churches can find ways to combine church and community volunteering. They could work together on a service project, such as signing up for a park cleanup day or providing food for a county fair event. Or they could host a community event, such as a blood drive or free carwash. With a little ingenuity, the possibilities for ministry are endless.
Finding a balance between caring for believers and reaching out to unbelievers doesn’t happen naturally. But those who commit to emphasizing both areas of service will find it leads to growth in their churches, their communities, and themselves—and to a restored connection of the church with the community.
For permission to republish this article, please email Marissa Postell Sullivan.
Jennifer Matenaer is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. She serves as a missionary in a small church in rural Iowa along with her husband. Read more from Jennifer at JenniferMatenaer.com.