Growing a church and impacting a community are not mutually exclusive. In fact, these two complex endeavors are highly interrelated. However, a strategy to grow your church may or may not have an impact on your community. In contrast, an intentional plan to impact your community will be highly likely to help your church grow.
I don’t think this is an ecclesiastical “chicken or egg” conundrum. But it is often an unintentional strategic error on the part of many churches to allow these two to become prioritized incorrectly.
The first goal of community impact is not church growth. Church growth is a natural byproduct of serving the community and giving yourselves away.
It was probably 10 years ago, or more, that I read this question for the first time. I don’t know who first posed it, but it’s powerful. “Would your community miss you if your church no longer existed?” That has stuck with me ever since.
Are we as Christian leaders doing things that matter? Do our actions and investments make an eternal impact outside the walls and halls of our churches? That’s a significant question we all should have the courage to answer.
Here are some observations to consider as you reflect on where your church stands in light of this idea.
The majority of Jesus’ ministry was in the community, not in the Temple.
Jesus consistently took his ministry to the people. The gospel accounts are filled with his interactions out among the people. It’s true that he didn’t have a modern church to lead and organize like you and I do, but he certainly had his own pressures to deal with and yet always remained with the people.
There is a great tension here because it seems like the larger and more successful our churches become, the more we are drawn inward to manage the daily affairs and programs of the church. It is true for me and perhaps for you too. It’s important for us to intentionally leverage our time, energy and resources, along with whatever “success” God grants us, back out into the community rather than become fully consumed with those who already know Jesus.
The greater potential your church has to make an impact in the community, the greater the potential you will receive resistance.
The Enemy loves it when churches become a little comfortable or inwardly focused. These churches are not much of a threat in the spiritual realm. But when a church begins to make a big impact in the community though dozens of possibilities from compassion to justice to simple intentional acts of kindness, the Enemy notices and problems seem to increase. It’s amazing how many battles can arise when you are attempting only to be kind and generous to those around you who are in need.
The Enemy sees genuine life change in the name of Jesus as a threat, so we should expect a fight.
When your church gets involved in the community, the people are more receptive to your mission and your message.
There is a huge variety of possibilities including options like a local food co-op, or a foster care agency, or Habitat for Humanity, or support of a local elementary school, or addiction recovery house, or a homeless shelter, and that just scratches the surface. The bottom line is that when people begin to see, sense and experience that you care about them, their perspective changes about who you are. That impacts their receptivity to your mission and the gospel message. Perhaps many individuals may never attend your church, but observation and experience says that God is pleased with this kind of ministry, and ultimately it does draw people to your church.
When a church gets involved in the community, people are more receptive to the mission and message.
You grow a church on your terms, you impact a community on their terms.
You get to decide what structure and programs make up the foundation of your church. The key leaders have the privilege and responsibility to make the major decisions that determine the culture of your church. But when it comes to impacting the community around you, people require that you meet them on their turf, on their time and their terms. For example, rather than create your own church sports league of some kind, why not go out into the community and volunteer to lead, coach and invest financial resources into sports leagues that already exist?
You can grow a church on history and tradition, but you must become relevant to impact a community.
Don’t confuse relevance with style. Relevance is not about your choice of worship or how casual you may or may not be, that is about style and preference. Relevance means that what you do matters. Relevance means that your ministry changes things, people are different and the surrounding community notices that they matter to you. They experience that you care firsthand.
It’s true that Christians in particular will come to your church because what you offer is tried and true and comfortable. There’s nothing wrong that. It’s a simple reality that when churches get larger and really good at what they do, they often attract more Christians. But when you serve people who are hurting, and/or far from God, that expression of compassion may not directly help your church, but you are definitely aligning with the heart of God.
Reaching the unchurched and impacting your community requires out-of-the-box thinking, compassion, challenging the status quo and change.
So, what do you think? What would God have you do differently to make a greater impact in your community?