How to Change Your Community

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I had the joy of visiting with a hot-hearted young pastor who delighted in sharing what God is doing in the church he serves. He’d been in this, his first pastorate, for six months. He spoke of leading people to Christ, performing his first baptisms, a wedding, and yes, a couple of funerals. He is clearly enjoying the people and the work of an under-shepherd. But what I wanted to know was whether he had the community on his heart.

I asked, “Does your town have a manager, or just the mayor?” He said they had a mayor and city council. “What’s the mayor’s name and what is he like?” I asked. He told me his name and mentioned having lunched together. I continued to ask him about others in his town. We talked about the police and fire chiefs, the school superintendent and principals. We talked about the banks and businesses, the editor of the city paper, and the pastors of other churches in town. This young pastor had already met all of these people, knew their names, and was forging friendships with many of them. He was building relationships within the church, but he was also establishing friendships in the community that will deepen his witness and ministry opportunities far into the future.

In light of that, consider this: the work of the pastor is not to build a great church in the community, but rather to shepherd the church toward building a great community. Better to work for community transformation than to spend all our efforts building one local church. Oh, please don’t get me wrong! Strong churches are the heart and soul of the city. The Church is the means God has chosen to rescue the lost and salt the earth. But churches are strongest when they impact the broader community through a network of relationships.

Let me share with you some assignments that will help you, as a pastor, connect with your community (laypeople, don’t quit reading, because I’ve got some ideas for you as well!). First, pastor, get to know other leaders in your community. These include school and governmental leaders, other pastors, social service organizations and health care providers. If you have a youth shelter, pregnancy center, adoption services, or Boys and Girls Club, get acquainted with those folks. Do the same with bankers and employers of various kinds. You will want to know the newspaper editor and reporters. The manager of the grocery stores and department stores can become great friends. They often have large hearts and great interest in helping with feeding and clothing ministries.

Every city has people who love it and who desire to make it better. A wise pastor will get to know them, whether or not they are members of the church he serves. And remember, if people like you, they will work with you. If they don’t know you, they have no reason to like you or partner with you in ministry. But never, ever ask for personal discounts from business people! This is a real turn-off and sends the wrong message. We want to partner with them in ministry and build community, not receive personal favors from them.

What if you are not the pastor in your church? What can you do to help your church be a transforming presence in the community? There is much you can do, but one of the best things is to help your pastor get to know the people that you know. Introduce him to your friends. Help him meet the Rotarians and firemen and service providers. Pastors need friends who introduce them to others. The membership of your local church is already connected to all aspects of community life. Help your ministry leaders build these connections, which will facilitate important relationships and friendships.

Our Catholic friends assign their priests to a parish, which speaks not only of the membership of the church, but the people living in a particular area. I like that. As pastors, we are not simply assigned to the membership of a certain local church. In some sense, we are responsible for all the people in our area.

I knew we were making progress when the mayor, who was not a church member or even a Baptist, told me that he recommended our church to others. He said, “I invite them to my church, but I tell them, ‘if you don’t like our church, I would go to First Baptist.’” Why did he do that? We were friends.

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