“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8, NIV).
I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone by now that the pandemic has negatively impacted our communities, particularly affecting our already-vulnerable populations in devastating, life-altering ways. An increasing number of our neighbors have urgent physical, emotional, and psychological needs. What a time to be the very hands and feet of Jesus to those in our community who need the love of Christ, possibly more than ever before! As our Savior did, we have the calling and the opportunity to care for the whole of human beings, not just their souls.
I believe that God has already given us three principles that we can apply as we seek to engage our communities, to build relationships, and ultimately to share the love of Christ with those around us in tangible ways.
This first step is the most important. It’s always a good idea to begin by asking your community for forgiveness and permission before you start asking about what they need. Even if your church has been in the neighborhood for a century, it’s important to realistically assess your role in the life of the community. Have you maintained close relationships with families and organizations in your own backyard? If so, how? If not, why? Were there specific events that led to disengagement? These conversations will give you a clearer understanding of your church’s reputation and standing in your local community. Consider this question before you move forward: If our church closed its doors today, would the community notice?
Seeking information is vital as you endeavor to come alongside your community. When you see your community is a gift, it’s easier to look for and focus on its strengths, not weaknesses. Seek to discover the good things that are happening and then build on them. Be humble enough to listen to community members, and remember that no single person or organization has all the answers. By listening to community members, you will learn what they have and what they need more of.
In addition to community members and leaders, it would be beneficial to take time to talk with schools, homeless shelters, prison ministries, or food banks to become more aware of local resources. It’s also important to talk to other churches and individuals in the neighborhood. They can bring you up to speed on what programs or services are already available and effectively operating in the community. By talking with neighbors, you get a real pulse on what life is like in that community. At this point, you can begin thinking and praying about any gaps in services you could help fill or ways that you could help to strengthen and support work that is already underway.
It would also be a good idea to connect with secular organizations and churches of different denominations and religious backgrounds that may be doing meaningful work in your city or town. Even if you don’t end up working together, it’s beneficial to know what other resources are available so services are not duplicated by your respective groups.
Knocking traditionally takes place by physically walking through the neighborhood and knocking on doors, but in the midst of a pandemic, “knocking” by mail, email, or social media is safer. “Knocking” can be your church sending a postcard or letter introducing yourself to the community, letting them know about what you are hoping to do, and how they can get involved. One option is to host a virtual town hall or neighborhood Zoom meeting. (Have people register for the event online or by phone.) If you choose to engage in this way, make sure to get detailed contact information for each person or organizational leader; these individuals will become your community partners. Phone calls and text messages are a great way to follow up and keep in touch.
Once you and your community partners have developed a plan and you’re ready to begin, getting the word out via social media is the cheapest and easiest way to go. Facebook posts can be targeted for your specific neighborhood. Postings can be added to community event boards or to other organizations’ websites and social media pages. You may even find that area schools will help you get the word out through newsletters and social media posts, especially if you’ve chosen to partner with one of these groups in your endeavor.
Remember, “knocking” is not forcing your way in the door with a tract. It’s asking permission to enter into a long-term relationship with your community. My mother is from Jamaica. Jamaicans have a simple proverb that says, “Do more, talk less.” The church should not just talk about what’s wrong but work to make things better. The church should be a beacon of hope that sees and meets people where they are, and lovingly builds on the assets our communities already possess.
Ideas are based on Asset Based Community Development (ABCD).