How Local is the Local Church?

1 09 2011

As a lifelong Methodist, I don’t claim to have any expertise in Catholicism.  However, one of my Catholic friends once explained their parish system to me in such a neat way that it has always stuck with me:

Because the Mass will be the same at every Catholic church, it doesn’t really matter which church you go to.  The focus is on the Mass, not the priest or the specific church.  So you usually end up going to whichever church is closest to your house.

I know that the church is not a building, it’s the community of believers. But most churches do have a building, which means that they have a very specific geographic location as well as a unique role within their immediate communities. And I believe the church, as a body of believers, has a responsibility to that local entity: to know the neighbors, contribute to the community, and reach out to meet local needs.  For that reason, I do think there is value in living near your home church, so that your spheres of influence (both as an individual and as a church member) intersect in strategic ways.

When we lived in Atlanta, we certainly did our fair share of church shopping, with mixed feelings.  But there was definitely a part of me that felt it would be most healthy and faithful to drop the “shopping” aspect altogether and just settle down at a random church.  After all, if you truly believe that each local church is a microcosm of the body of Christ, then it shouldn’t matter what kind of music they sing or what kind of donuts they serve before the service. Eventually, if you get involved, it will start to feel like home.

We currently attend (and work at) a 101-year-old mainline church, with a congregation that is probably 90% white and middle class.  The neighborhood surrounding the church is ethnically diverse, with mostly low-income residents.  The majority of our members drive a significant distance each Sunday morning, passing several other churches along the way.

Last year our church hired a group of evangelism consultants to research our community and congregation and help us develop a strategy for church growth.  Informally (that is, off the record), one of the consultants commented that we should be training our church members to evangelize the people in their own neighborhoods, workplaces, and schools.  He said that while it was all well and good to focus our mission efforts on the neighborhood around us, we should not expect this outreach to result in church growth.

I’m sure his recommendation was based in real church experiences…but when measured against the gospel and message of Jesus, his dichotomy is misguided at best and dangerous/racist/heretical at worst.

Yes, it’s easier to stay in our comfort zone with people who look and think just like we do.  But Jesus calls us to do hard things.

Yes, we absolutely should be reaching out to people in our own neighborhoods and workplaces.  But that does not absolve us of our duty to reach into other neighborhoods and other workplaces.  If I’m not mistaken, Jesus’ commission should be taking us all over the world!  And the Apostle Paul rejects any kind of “us vs. them mentality” that would even allow for a distinction between “our people” and “the neighborhood people.”

Yes, we like to pat ourselves on the back for providing charity services to the poor folks in the neighborhood.  But Jesus calls us to do more than that: to know our neighbors by name and care for them as individual people rather than as labels.

Yes, integrating the church is slow, hard, uncomfortable work.  But if our church is not attracting the poor and marginalized in society, then we must ask ourselves what we’re doing wrong.

What do you think?  What has your experience been with this ministry/evangelism dichotomy?  How is your church reaching out to its local neighborhood?




6 responses

1 09 2011

I totally agree! But, at the same time, I acknowledge how very difficult and uncomfortable it is. While I’d like to be part of a church that is fully inclusive, I don’t find myself doing nearly enough to further that goal.

3 09 2011

Amen, amen. I totally agree, but realize how hard it is to accomplish this goal unless there are a large number of people in your congregation working toward this goa.

5 09 2011
Terry Reed

I agree with you. However, as a pastor with over 25 years experience I know what the consultant was getting at. The fact is that most people who visit a church do so at the invitation of a friend. Since the people in your congregation are not friends with the folks in the community, it will be an uphill struggle to reach them conventionally. I personally would recommend that you study your community and find ways to minister to them in ways you may not have ever done in the past. This will gain you a hearing. However, to keep them you need to find ways to establish relationships. This will be a very long process. Some churches start separate services to reach the different groups. God bless!
Terry Reed
Small Church Tools

5 09 2011

Terry: Thanks for stopping by! I agree with you…the consultants came to our church about a year ago, and since that time, a group of us started a neighborhood outreach program for middle schoolers. Our main focus has been to establish relationships (mainly with the kids, although in some cases, we’ve gotten to know parents, as well). You’re right that it is a LONG process, full of ups and downs, disappointments and frustrations…but I’ve seen God at work in so many ways!!!

I hope that I didn’t come across as harsher than I intended in this point. But I do think the church has a responsibility to work on establishing that relationship with its neighbors. If our church were located in an affluent neighborhood, part of our charge would be the same: to get to know the people living near the church (although hopefully not at the expense of finding ways to minister to the poor, as well). Does that make sense? What do you think?

5 09 2011

Also…I don’t mean to downplay the importance of teaching our members to share the gospel with the people around them and to invite their friends to church. I think that’s essential, both on a spiritual level and on a practical, church-growth level. But I don’t think it’s an “either-or” proposition; hopefully it is a “both-and” one.

5 09 2011
Terry Reed

Absolutely a both and proposition. It sounds like your church is on track for reaching the community. Also, I would encourage your people to take the advice of the consultant and reach out the their friends…these people are great prospects and may provide the manpower needed to go deeper into the community.

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