Seeing Outreach Through the Lens of Belonging

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NOTE: The Building Blocks of Faith describe four spiritual needs everyone has that are met in Christ. Addressing these needs helps faith to flourish in people of all ages. For more in this series, see How the Building Blocks of Faith Can Shape Your Outreach Ministry and Neighborhood Engagement.

We all want to belong. Addressing this universal need can help your outreach team explore incarnational approaches to community engagement, transforming ministry "to" and "for" into ministry "with." Here are a few ways to think about how to communicate to people a sense of belonging to Christ and his body as your team assesses your outreach endeavors or seeks to create new initiatives in your broader community.

Begin by recognizing that your congregation belongs to the neighborhood. Churches can look like exclusive clubs that are only for people who already attend, even if the sign says “All are welcome here.” But God has gone ahead of us, and we are simply joining what God is already doing in our community. In other words, our congregations belong to our neighborhoods because our neighbors belong to God. An important question to ask is, How does your congregation contribute to and support what is lifegiving in the neighborhood? 

Authors Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen’s book The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community (IVP Books, 2014) paints a compelling picture of what can happen when congregations see themselves as integral to their neighborhoods. “Humans are meant to share life together, to learn to fit together as a living body in relationship with God, with one another, and for the place to which they are called . . .” (p. 17).

Here are some practical ways to let your community know that you belong to them:

  • Share your space. While meeting space has always been at a premium in most communities, many organizations lost their leases during the pandemic and need new places to meet. How can your congregation communicate that it wants to be an asset to the community by sharing the church building’s often-empty spaces during the week? 

  • Share your volunteers. Churches are often known for their robust and reliable volunteer force, but they can be reluctant to release their volunteers to programs that aren’t directly run by the church itself. What a great way to demonstrate God’s generosity and lavish grace: collaborating with other organizations that are working to create a healthy community. 

  • Share your relationships. Be intentional about making room for friendships beyond the congregation and offering neighbors the opportunity to live life deeply with others. One congregation had a regular practice of throwing parties where they would intentionally mix church members and neighborhood friends. That way if a neighbor later wanted to join in a congregational activity or attend worship, there were familiar faces to greet them. 

Once the neighborhood begins to recognize that your church belongs to them, find ways to invite them to belong to your congregation. 

  • Create safe paths to belonging. Don’t use outreach efforts as “bait” to get people to join your church. An invitation to join a community kitchen or to receive aid from a food pantry is best extended as pure grace—no strings attached. Having said that, congregations can sometimes adhere to “no strings attached” so tightly that they neglect to create pathways for people to become part of their church family if they wish to do so. Find appropriate ways to let people in the neighborhood know that there are many places in your congregation where they can connect. 

  • Create ways for neighbors to contribute to the work your congregation is doing. Congregations who offer food pantries or clothing closets can communicate belonging by inviting the neighborhood to volunteer in those areas. Most people want to contribute or pay back generosity with generosity.

  • Share your specialties. Take an inventory of the assets that God has given your congregation. What does your congregation do particularly well? One congregation with a plethora of teachers offered classes of all sorts: from tutoring, to English-language help, to classes in literature or woodworking. Thanks to a well-equipped Cadets room, another congregation filled with excellent tradespeople became a hub for learning how to repair household appliances.

  • Create a space for healing and solace. We all belong to the COVID-19 “survivors club,” and many will need a place to talk about and heal from the trauma that the pandemic has created. Rick Warren (in a podcast with Carey Nieuwhof on April 9, 2021) predicts there will be a tsunami of grief unfolding over the next few years. Here are resources that might be helpful in communicating to your neighborhood that we are in this together:

As we invite people into belonging to our congregations, we’re also called to invite people to belong to God in Christ.

  • Create accessible spaces for faith formation. One congregation regularly creates art installations on faith themes. They’re open to the public and usually have an open house to introduce the art and artist to the neighborhood. Volunteer docents and pamphlets direct people to related programming, such as a short-term small group that will explore the theme more deeply. Folks who invite their friends and neighbors to come to the opening are committed to helping them find other places to explore faith and are willing to walk with them in that process. 

  • Be curious about others. When you meet someone new at an outreach-oriented event, ask what drew them to that particular gathering. They may ask you the same question in return, opening an interesting conversation. One pastor regularly prays that someone will ask him why he shows up at various events. He is rarely disappointed, and he talks about the rich conversations and pure listening opportunities that result.

  • Be ready to share your story. Don’t assume that people can tell from your actions or your participation in certain activities that you are a follower of Christ. Be ready to connect the dots when people ask what motivates you, and be courageous if you sense that they are open to hearing the good news of Jesus.

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