Over the last few months, I have explored a number of local congregations vitally involved in their communities. There is no single formula but in principle they have found ways of utilizing their own buildings to serve the community in a rich variety of ways. On occasion they are also involved “off campus” in local schools, shopping centres, with the police or other governmental agencies seeking to serve and to build relationships.
It's nearly forty years since I first began to work as a minister in local churches. Much has changed since that time. In very general terms, 40 years ago it was not unusual for local churches to be involved in local communities but it was unusual for evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal (EPC) churches to pick up that kind of involvement. Although there were some notable exceptions, on the whole ECP churches were wary of such involvement seeing it as “the social gospel” as compared with the genuine gospel of personal salvation. The churches that were involved tended to be what used to be called “liberal” or mainstream churches as compared with the EPC fringe.
I think of one particular church that I visited 35 years ago. They were hugely involved in the community with an impressive array of social programmes, everything from luncheon clubs to various kinds of mother and toddler groups, employment initiatives, literacy schemes and much more besides. Most of these programmes were government funded and the employees that ran them were usually employed for their specific skills and not because of their connection with the local church. In other words the local congregation was the locus for these programmes, but other than through their minister they were not actually involved in these community activities other than as occasional volunteers.
35 years later, I can see that that kind of community involvement, impressive as it was in terms of scale did not seem to make any difference in terms of the actual involvement of the church in the local community and today, that particular church has closed.
Is there a warning here for the current trend amongst evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal churches to invest in community involvement? Possibly, but in reality I can see some significant differences in many of the churches that are becoming involved in their community out of a commitment to mission. Three differences at least are evident.
First, those who run the programmes are also part of the local church. This is not a matter of being employed, it is foremost a commitment to mission and along with that commitment comes a quality of care that goes beyond professional competence.
Second, these churches operate their programmes out of a vibrant community life that seeks to demonstrate the gospel in a complex set of relational commitments. The “being” part of community is as important as the “doing” element in the programmes.
Third, because there is a functioning Christian community at the centre, there is also a commitment to share the message of Christ, not in a manipulative or exploitative manner but as a natural outcome of the relationships that are built. Prayer, worship, a life lived with God, all these and more beside naturally arise in the conversations that flow as part of the programmes that function around the church.
This kind of complexity is not easy to maintain but when it occurs it is also evident in vibrant, connected worship – a worshipping community where it becomes apparent that on a regular basis lives are changing, individuals are being set free from addictions, people are encountering the living Christ, wonderful stories of the difference that Christ makes are clearly present and celebrated. Some things haven’t changed in the last 40 years – the intention to serve the local community is a constant – how we do that has changed and dramatically so.