By Chris Barras
On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake struck southern Haiti. Like many Americans, our community was shocked by the news, and we were glued to our televisions as we waited to hear the latest updates about the catastrophic natural disaster. Our church began praying for the victims and started considering whether there was any way we could help.
The very next day the principal of our local elementary school called me to talk about Haiti and asked, “What are we going to do about this?” She wasn’t asking for my opinion about what her school could do for disaster relief. She was asking what our church’s response was going to be and how her school could partner with us.
There are a lot of strange details about that conversation. First of all, the principal of a public elementary school was calling a church plant that was just two years old at the time, asking how we could work together to help people thousands of miles away. Secondly, the principal of this school is not a Christian (she’s Jewish), so for her to call a minister was a bit of an odd thing. But to me, the most significant detail about the story was this: do you know why she called me in this situation? Because she had my phone number.
Walk the Talk
Let me back up. Our church, Area 10 Faith Community, was planted in urban Richmond, Virginia, in September of 2008. In the first two years of the church we saw modest numerical growth, which included about 30 baptisms and an average attendance of about 240. But the other number we track as a church is community service hours. And in those first two years we had logged about 2,400 hours of service in our community. That’s a lot of volunteering in schools, homeless shelters, foster care agencies, food banks, and other community organizations. And because of our consistent work in the city, we developed a reputation as a church that “walks the talk” of our faith.
In those first two years, we built a great partnership with our local elementary school. The principal and I became friends. We built a loft for one of their classrooms. We did a ton of cleaning and landscaping projects. We provided child care for kids and a free espresso bar for parents at their back-to-school night. (The principal told us that because of our involvement, she had the best back-to-school night in the city!) We brought Stop Hunger Now to the school on a Sunday morning and worked with PTA members and students to package 10,000 meals for the hungry.
By the time the earthquake in Haiti hit, we had already done a lot of work together, so our church was one of the first phone calls that the principal thought to make.
Be the Best for the City
Jesus tells us to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. For our church that has meant intentionally doing everything we can to get outside of our four walls. Too often our tendency in the church is to view “outreach” as something more like “in-drag,” so people strategize ways to drag others into our buildings to hear the gospel. I’m not saying our church doesn’t do that, because we do. However we try to spend as much time, money, and energy on going into our city to serve it as we do in asking our city to come to us.
To keep that vision in front of us, we have a few guiding statements that remind us what we are here for. One is: We want to be the best church for the city, not the best church in the city.
What does it look like for our church to be for the city of Richmond and not just in it? Well for us, it looks like pouring a lot of time, money, and energy into organizations that are serving the needs of the city. It doesn’t mean we create a whole bunch of new organizations. It means we work with existing nonprofits to help them fulfill their missions.
One of those local nonprofits that we support is a foster care and adoption agency. We have encouraged members of our church to step up and become foster parents. Not everyone in our church can do that. But everyone has the call from James 1:27 to look after widows and orphans in their distress. So for us to be the best church for the city means we help our city’s most vulnerable citizens: widows, orphans, victims of human trafficking, and people experiencing homelessness, to name a few.
Enact True Relevance
To be the best church for the city, you have to think differently about the city you live in and about how your church fits into that city. If our goal was to be the best church in the city, then all of our time, energy, and money would be poured into bringing people into our building so they could meet Jesus there, become followers of him, and then use their time, talent, and treasure to help us build a bigger and better church that reaches more and more people.
But to be the best church for the city, we have to start with our city. What does it need? What is broken about it? What needs fixing? What relationships are damaged that could be repaired? In Richmond these are not hard questions to answer. Racism, a high abortion rate, bad public transportation, human trafficking, poor public schools—these are all significant issues in our city. As a church, we want to be the people who step in to help.
This brings me to our second guiding principle: If you constantly ask, “What does my city need?” you will never struggle with being relevant.
As I look at church websites, the word I see frequently among contemporary churches is “relevant.” Now I understand what they’re trying to communicate. They’re trying to say, “Our worship service is not boring, and it will speak to the world you live in.” I’m in favor of that—in theory.
We should be relevant to the world people live in. In our culture, with its spiritual confusion, sexual confusion, and moral confusion, the gospel is more relevant than ever. But what if we looked at relevance a different way? What if we thought about relevance, not in terms of a catchy sermon series title or using a song that’s popular on the radio, but instead as addressing the needs of our city?
Jesus prays in Matthew 6:10, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Perhaps the question we need to ask is this: What part of my city does not look like Heaven? Start there. That’s how we as a church will stay relevant—we will simultaneously meet the needs of the city we live in while proclaiming the gospel in our worship gatherings.
Seek the Shalom
Someone will perhaps object here and say that the church is not a community service organization. The church has marching orders from Jesus and a call to make disciples of all nations. I don’t disagree with that at all. I didn’t become a minister of Jesus Christ to make better public schools. I’m not here to make sure everyone in our city has a nicer journey on their road to Hell. I’m here to help people know their Creator through Jesus Christ. However, we should note well what God told the exiled believers in Babylon:
Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
God didn’t just tell the Israelites to start synagogues and huddle up every week for worship. He told this discouraged group of people to get out there and do the regular stuff of life. Build houses, have kids, seek the peace, the shalom, of the city that you are living in, because as that city prospers, you will prosper too.
For our church, when hard times hit our city, it is our hope that school principals, city planners, homeless shelters, and other organizations around town will call us because we can be counted on. They will call us because we are a people who are truly seeking the shalom of this city. They will call us because they actually have our phone number.
Chris Barras is a minister in Richmond, Virginia.
Be a Joiner
It takes a lot of time and energy to create and maintain programs that help the community. Rather than figuring out ways your church can do new things, first find out how you can join or add to the existing good things going on. Find programs like these in your community and ask how you and your church can support them—then listen to the response:
• school tutoring
• hospital visitation
• community celebrations
• library programs
• adult education programs
• community gardens
• homeless shelters
• drug rehab clinics
• neighborhood cleanup projects
• programs to help immigrants
• homes for abuse survivors
• meal prep for the ill or elderly
• teen mentoring
• community art projects
• legal aid organizations
• small business special projects