Here’s a question: What are the greatest challenges facing your church at the moment?
Here’s another question: What would your church’s next door neighbour say were the greatest challenges facing your community at the moment?
Third question: Do the two answers have anything in common?
I was listening to an episode of the podcast Seminary Dropout recently in which the story was told of how an orphanage in Africa expressed frustration with short-term mission trips. Because while it was nice for the kids to play with people from a different country for a couple of weeks, the orphanage had now been painted several times (in different colours), which was a job that could have been given to a local contractor. And that’s not to say there’s anything wrong with going on mission trips, but if they’re about meeting needs then those have to be actual needs.
Now, the smart answer to this is obvious, because you’ve probably been to Sunday School and know that the answer’s always Jesus. But look at the gospels – how did Jesus engage with people?
He healed people.
He fed people.
He told people stories.
He confronted people, he comforted people.
He got people to give up most of their money.
He got between a woman and a bunch of rocks that would have been heading her way.
In all these different cases, he engaged with an immediate need. And yes, he taught them too but the teaching was often rooted in how he met the need.
The moral of the story is that we can’t genuinely, effectively meet the needs of the community around us if we don’t know what they are. And the people we’re trying to engage understand what they need, they know their hopes and fears and opportunities and all the things that keep them up at night.
And if we don’t talk to people, if we don’t ask questions, if we think the communities around us are going to be impressed by three hour church council meetings about the colour of our church carpet then our buildings, which should be embassies of God’s Kingdom, will end up nothing more than boarded-up relics that used to have a Poke-stop in the car park
Or, TL:DR – do stuff with people, not to them and we might become a genuine part of the community rather than an interfering group that occasionally parachutes in from next door.
If we talk to people, if we listen to their stories, if we sit with them and pray with them, then we’ll know organically what needs our churches need to meet. And that might not match up with our ideas of rockin’ worship or increasing tithing, but it will be bringing the Kingdom of God into the spaces around us.
And, once we’re there, we should prepare to be surprised. Because there’s a good chance the Holy Spirit was already there, waiting for us to show up.