Connecting to Your Community
by Travis Spencer
Travis Spencer is a Family Life Pastor at First Assembly of God in Mattoon, Illinois. He’s been on staff there since 1999. He loves God, his family, his church, and his community. You can always hang out with Travis at www.callmetravis.com.
I love my community.
When I drive up and down the streets of my town, I dream of how lives will be changed, families will be strengthened, businesses will boom, and my church will explode in growth.
I believe the church should deeply care about the community it belongs to. I believe as ministry leaders we need to partner with our communities to build a strong coalition of care for people’s lives. I believe we need to be strategic in ways to connect the church and the community together to make a positive difference in people’s lives.
Over 10 years of ministry, I’ve seen firsthand how connecting the church to the community is a crucial collaboration.
An Open Door
In 2001, when the World Trade Center towers were toppled by terrorism, communities across the United States were filled with scared people. Schools were filled with frightened students. And we became a culture with many questions, fears, and uncertainties.
For more than a year I had been asking God how I could be an influence in the local school system. Two weeks after 9/11, I booked our first assembly in the local schools. Through connections with a multi-media school assembly program and a friendship with the local school district safety police officer, our church was able to communicate a message of hope to every student from middle school on up.
We presented five school assemblies in one day, and then held a community-wide event that evening in our local shopping mall. More than 400 kids came to hear how Jesus could be their hope during uncertain times. The response was overwhelming.
Besides the individual spiritual transformations that occurred that night in kids’ lives, another incredible result was the numerous connections that were established with local officials.
Building connections into the community is one of the most important ways to make a difference outside the walls of your church. Churches that build big walls and isolate themselves from the culture and community only hinder their effectiveness of impacting lives.
After the school assembly, I found myself known as someone who cares about the local schools. School principals, teachers, and even the school district superintendent knew who I was, and knew our church was available to serve the local schools however we best could.
I began to look for opportunities to meet and greet the local school officials. At sporting events I would take the initiative to reintroduce myself and make a contact. When I walked the halls of the schools doing various volunteer work, I would keep my eye open for any opportunity to build more connections. It didn’t take long for these connections to transform into tangible serving opportunities.
I Am Available
I had to adopt the mentality that if someone in the community called, then I was available. With this comes the possibility that you will end up doing some diverse things.
I spent a day video recording a health class doing drug prevention skits. I drove two hours to help the safety officer pick up inflatable games for an after-school event. I taught a sixth grade class how to write a research paper. I stood on home plate and prayed an opening prayer during a Little League baseball World Series tournament.
I tagged along on a school field-trip to chaperone a group of students. I helped design the cover of a yearbook. I helped set up chairs for special graduation services. I read to second graders during library hour. I threw trash into dumpsters during a community clean-up day.
I opened a county-wide community leaders’ breakfast in prayer. I presented a social studies class with information, pictures, and stories from Latin America (all taken on a missions trip). I judged poems in a writing contest.
I said yes. I made myself available.
We Are Available
I didn’t build this bridge to my community alone, but always made an effort to include people from church when the opportunities arose. It’s very important to expose our church to community service opportunities.
Part of our media team set up for several school assemblies that we presented for the school district, and some of our high school students presented a “Stomp” drama for a middle school assembly. In addition, our church families purchased and delivered Christmas gifts to children in our community who have a parent in jail. Parents and children work once a month to help sort and distribute food at our community food pantry.
My favorite experience is when a few of us from church helped as small group leaders during an all-night middle school lock-in. We connected with teachers and administrators all night long, not to mention we met a ton of students and plugged our youth ministry. We established great connections during those long, crazy hours of 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. in the morning.
The Return on Investment
When you take the time to invest your time and energy into a community, eventually there will be great return on your investment. All the connections, meetings, and service projects build a foundation for community belonging and trust.
Today, the community calls on our men’s ministry twice a year to help with the city-wide clean-up project. The community even gives a donation to the church, which we turn around and use for other outreach projects.
We built a great relationship with the school system. The schools continue to call us and ask us to be involved in school assemblies and leadership training. Because of our relationship, the church was able to rent an elementary school auditorium and gymnasium at a largely discounted rate.
One time we pulled a few family members out of school because a relative was in a life-threatening situation at the hospital. I made one two-minute call, and they were waiting for us ten minutes later when we arrived to pick up the students.
Another outstanding opportunity was when a large community foundation hosted a summit on helping children and youth reach for a better future. We were invited to sit and participate—all expenses covered—and developed incredible connections during that two-day gathering.
Two different agencies that specialize in children and youth social work asked us to serve on their boards. These connections have proven priceless. Because of this, we have access to incredible speakers, services, and counsel when it comes to parenting, children’s resources, and family counseling situations.
The community has financially supported our church when we are involved in special projects. Many businesses supported a kids’ mini-golf tournament, a local coffee shop donated all the coffee and dispensers for this year’s Easter weekend, and local audio technicians have loaned us equipment for special media projects we were working on. Recently, a local store donated more than $1,000 in toys so we could give them to children in our church and the community.
When your church makes itself available to the community, the community will make itself available to you.
Connect with a Purpose
Partnering with the community is a must if you want to make a difference outside the walls of your church, but we must stay focused on the purpose. It’s easy to get sidetracked in local civic popularity. It doesn’t take much time to build some name recognition as a church or as a leader when you make yourself available to serve. Instead of being motivated by pride and popularity, be motivated by purpose.
We must stay on target. We must serve and connect to the community because we want people to see a living example of a loving God. “Why do you do this?’ I’ve been asked. Because God cares about people, and so should we. May we intentionally build bridges and strategic connections into our community so we can impact more lives. May we love God and love people. Our communities need to experience Christians who model their lives after Jesus. May we be the hands and feet of Jesus into our community.
Take a drive through your town. Drive up and down the streets looking at homes, schools and businesses. Ask God to help you fall in love with your community.
May we all say, “I love my community.”