By Debbie Amend
The example and teachings of Christ are, by far, the driving vision and purpose surrounding community outreach for many churches across the country. Churches are making inroads into their communities in many ways, from food pantries and parent respite to medical clinics and support for homeless shelters. These forms of outreach reflect the gifting and skills of the local church members, but are also in response to the needs of particular communities.
God’s people have a long history of service to the community that can be traced directly through Scripture—dating back to Old Testament laws that mandated care for the poor. The embodiment of this idea, though, came through Jesus Christ who often reminded us that not only are we his body on earth, but that his kingdom is “at hand”—or as The Message says in Matthew 4:12-17, “God’s kingdom is here.” Community outreach is one way churches can reveal God’s kingdom at work on earth.
Mountain Christian Church, a large multisite church located in Hartford County, just north of Baltimore, Maryland, gives us one example of a flourishing ministry of community outreach. “We encourage people to think relationships, not projects,” notes Luke Erikson, minister of community impact. In doing so, the goal is to attend to the work that God cares about and is already doing. The church, then, can humbly join in to serve and support, not race in to save the day as a self-appointed hero. It’s in this type of service that God not only grows his kingdom but transforms those who serve.
Areas of Need
Most community outreach falls into one of two categories: youth work and meeting physical needs. Youth work comes mainly in the form of school support—whether after-school tutoring programs or events that support schools. LifeSpring Christian Church, located in North College Hill, Ohio, has been involved in such support through their involvement in Whiz Kids, a local non-profit tutoring agency that serves the neediest of students in the church’s community, offering one-on-one tutoring sessions with an adult mentor.
The church has also been involved with an annual community event started by several area churches to help parents prepare their children for the upcoming school year. “Our goal,” notes Marquita Breckenridge, founder of the North College Hill Back to School Fellowship, “is not to remove the parent’s entire burden of supplying their child with school supplies, but to help them shoulder that burden by giving them help to meet their child’s needs.” Each summer, the B2SF engages in community fundraisers, including movie nights and flea markets, to raise money for the August event. Beginning with a community wide worship service, the event progresses to a lunch followed by a community fair, including games children can play to earn school supplies. This event not only provides outreach into the community but also helps to build relationships among the churches that serve the community.
Another venue of youth work is recreation. Mountain Christian Church achieves this through its work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Not only does MCC offer a basketball camp at the Boys and Girls Clubs Edgewood facility, teaching fundamentals of basketball as well as a Bible lesson and discipleship, they also send volunteers to the club to serve meals, help with homework, and simply spend time with the children who are there after school.
Meeting the physical needs of a community is another area where churches find opportunities for outreach. This is often done through a church food pantry. By collecting and storing nonperishable foods, a church can easily meet emergency needs in its community.
However, churches can be more holistic in their approach to feeding the local hungry. First Christian Church of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, a vibrant and growing church just outside of Lexington, has for several years maintained a community garden. This garden has given church members a concrete way to live out their vision to “Love God, Love People, Serve the World.” While the project is currently on hiatus as the church moves into its recently constructed new home, their garden has fed hundreds of people locally grown fresh produce, providing a holistic approach to outreach using God’s creation as a testimony of God’s provision.
LifeSpring Christian Church also has found a creative way to reach out and meet the needs of the community in North College Hill and the surrounding area by offering a weekly free medical clinic. The purpose of this clinic, started by a doctor who is a church member, is to offer diagnosis and treatment of acute medical problems, health screenings, basic lab tests, and to offer prayer and spiritual counseling to those who need it. The chapel, located next to the patient check-in, is open and often staffed with a volunteer ready to pray and talk with interested patients. The clinic also provides patients with information on local medical, dental, and mental health clinics.
The clinic is open every Thursday evening and requires approximately 10 volunteers per night, seeing up to 10 patients in an evening. Four doctors, a nurse practitioner, and other volunteers from the church rotate on a monthly basis. All supplies are stored at the church. The clinic serves people who are between the ages of 16 and 65, filling a gap in service not met by government programs or other local clinics. This outreach fulfills the church’s vision to see lives changed by God with grace in community through serving; and the lives changed are both those in the community and those who serve.
Launching New Community Outreach
“Love God, Love People, Serve the World” is not only the vision of Mountain Christian Church, it’s a theme that runs through many churches with successful community outreach. Following the example of other churches around the country, MCC hosted an all-day event where the church did projects throughout the community—in neighborhoods, schools, and non-profit organizations. This year ServeFest celebrated its 10th anniversary with more than 120 churches from six counties collaborating to complete more than 180 projects in one day! Perhaps even more important were the doors that opened because of their willingness to serve and work together. “Relationships opened up as a result. Servefest was a catalyst, which then led to our Saturday Serve (a once-a-month project oriented ministry), which then opened the door for a backpack feeding program at a local school . . .
which then opened other opportunities,” says Luke Erikson.
According to MCC’s website, prayer is foundational to their community outreach and has a two-fold purpose of personal transformation and community transformation. Before a church can begin successful outreach, it must know the needs that exist in its community. Prayerful consideration must be given to the talents and skills found within the church as well.
Although a church doesn’t need to go the route alone, it must be able to support the outreach and sustain the work. Patti Moehler, a volunteer with LifeSpring’s free clinic, notes not only that they keep the clinic staffed so that they don’t burn out their volunteers, but that people involved are there because they love to help. “I love to help people who need help,” she explains. “Their hearts are more open and it brings me a lot of joy.” When church members embrace outreach with passion, they are serving at their best.
After prayerful consideration, the next phase is to establish relationships with organizations in the church’s community. MCC began this process through Servefest, which might seem overwhelming to those who minister in smaller churches. However, this can be as simple as First Christian’s relationship with the city of Elizabethtown, which enabled them to use city land to plant their garden. LifeSpring runs the free clinic; partnerships with doctors from a local hospital and with a local lab make the clinic a reality. When working with these organizations, Erikson warns that it is important to remember that the church is there to serve. “Call nonprofits up, see what they are doing, and ask to be a part of it,” he says. “When we send people out, we want to be a part of what these organizations are already doing.”
Debbie Amend is a freelance writer in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Mountain Christian Church (www.mountaincc.org) in Joppa, Maryland has an outstanding community impact ministry, complete with resources for training.
The website www.communicatejesus.com contains a clearinghouse of information and ideas. To access a three-part article on ideas for community outreach, type “community outreach” in the search box at the top of the page.
Servolution: A Church Revolution Through Serving (www.servolution.org) represents the work of a non-profit movement aimed at mobilizing the church toward creating a “culture of service.” Filled with ideas and resources, it is a great starting point for brainstorming ideas.
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A Framework for Understanding Poverty
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The Externally Focused Church
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Eats with Sinners: Reaching Hungry People Like Jesus Did
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How to Smell Like God: True Stories Burning with the Scent of Heaven
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