When I was in Dayton, Ohio, I discovered that individuals struggling with substance abuse or who were mentally challenged but desiring to transform their lives would journey to Cincinnati, Ohio, because the city had developed a well-organized, systematic approach to help homeless people become self-sufficient and self-supporting within a year or two.
As they journeyed from their home to Cincinnati, they passed through Dayton, Ohio, about 50 miles north of Cincinnati. When they stopped in Dayton on their way to Cincinnati, they would contact the churches in the community for help (such as for food, clothing, gas, and a place to stay). Individual congregations would respond to those in need. But as we observed the situation, we noticed that some were not so truthful about their situation and were going from church to church, taking advantage of any compassionate ministry.
So, we united some Adventist entities together and contributed financial support to assist the homeless people in Dayton. We then approached local businesspeople (private sector—grocery stores, gas stations, motels, etc.), asking them to support our effort. We would pay one dollar for their two dollars’ worth of contribution. More often than not, the merchants said we were doing a good work, gave us five dollars’ worth of service, and we provided them with a simple donation letter. The free service vouchers we received from the merchants were then disseminated to the local police and fire stations (public sector). We asked them to distribute the vouchers according to the needs.
So, how does that work? When a homeless person contacts a local church, the church directs them to the nearest police or fire station for vouchers for free services. What happens? Only individuals honest about their needs show up at the police or fire station for the vouchers. This model eliminated duplicated services through collaborative efforts. Soon, other faith-based groups joined the project, more merchants became involved, and it became a citywide, whole-community program. We simply connected the dots between the public, private, and nonprofit sector/church organizations.
A faithful presence
Ask yourself, “If your church were to close its doors, would anyone in the community notice or even care?” I believe that church is where disciples get developed, educated, equipped, and sent out to the local neighborhoods to make a difference in their immediate communities.
We, the church of God, must be careful not to forget our chosen responsibility as others before us sadly forgot their chosen role. We are to be God’s recognizable, tangible, and visible witness and a foretaste of His dream for the world.
No longer can we stay inside the four walls of the church and shout at the community, ''Come and see.''
That is why Jesus said, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16, NIV). In fact, the thought that we could ever relate to another person in a way that glorifies God—that is an incredible privilege and sacred trust.
Therefore, God’s calling should affect how we think and work in every aspect of our lives. So, instead of asking, “How do we attract people to what we are doing?” we should be inquiring, “What is God up to right now, right here, in our neighborhoods? What are the ways in which we need to change to engage the people in our community who no longer consider church a part of their lives?”
Our Lord Jesus Christ’s earthly work was a lifetime commitment to the community—a matter of building relationships. Therefore, we must establish a faithful presence for God in our communities until the second coming of Christ. Christianity is the church connecting God with the community by using life-on-life evangelism.
Thus, I share with my colleagues that their church properties are not their presence in the community. Rather, their engagement in the community is their true community presence. Instead of asking people to “come and see,” let’s change the questions. What are we known for in our communities? How are we relating to one another and to our communities? How have we positioned ourselves in our communities? We have to change our ways of thinking and working.
A new model
Buckminster Fuller is quoted as saying, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”1 Therefore, changing the questions will help us shift our manner of thinking, transform the way we work, and alter the results, not only in quantitative success but also in the qualitative and collective impact. Where your measure is, there will your heart be also.
We cannot confine or limit the church just to a worship program. It is not just a place and time where we meet for a weekly appointment. Nor is the church only about keeping the traditions and maintaining the status quo. In fact, we must plant our feet on the tradition but then grow out of it. If we do not expand beyond our own traditions, we will be ineffective and inefficient.
We have to change our conversations. Instead of asking, “How big is your church?” or “What is your worship attendance?” we should inquire, “What is your church’s collective impact in the community?” As this happens, heaven will be more populated with people from every nation, tribe, race, and language. Where there is change, there will be greater hope for the future of our faith. Therefore, instead of asking, “How can we be the best church in our community?” we should ask, “How can we be the best church for our community [with our community]?”2
A missional model
The church must be a missional movement. Every congregation, educational institution, and health-care facility must be missional. For the most part, people are not coming to us—we have to go to them. Being a missional church requires that we continually adopt new ways of thinking and working. No longer can we stay inside the four walls of the church and shout at the community, “Come and see.” We need to remove this passive mentality from the church and be engaged proactively for our communities and with our communities.
How can you be a missional church? A Pathfinder club3 could approach a small, local grocery store to help the owners develop an innovative marketing strategy. The club members could also, with the aid of church members, renovate the stores. Those involved could include young adults and college students from various majors, such as engineering, interior design, and social work. They could work together to improve the condition of the store and its efficiency and to discover areas of community service the store could provide.
This relationship could be a lifetime commitment between the church and store owners. Perhaps, if we continue this type of engagement with community members, we will soon begin to see the impact and positive results in student learning experiences, institutional reputation and growth, and the betterment of the community.
Questions to ask
Again, instead of asking, “How many people did we serve?” or “How many socks and underwear have we distributed?” we should consider the following questions when, for example, Pathfinders volunteer at a homeless shelter as a way to implement the critical consciousness of service-learning:
- Knowledge—What were your first impressions of the shelter?
- Comprehension—How was this shelter similar to or different from what you expected?
- Analysis—What parts of the experience have been most challenging for you?
- Synthesis—What have you personally learned about yourself from this service?
- Evaluation—What ideas do you have to help the situation of homelessness?
Truly, it was God’s inspiration that led us to this framework and the strategy we implemented in Dayton, Ohio.4 We challenged ourselves with bigger questions. Where is our compassion to end poverty? Where is our vision to stop world hunger? Where is our dream to stop human trafficking? Where is our desire to build happy homes? Where is our commitment to a life of integrity and humility and peace? Through this immersion in the community, I was privileged to receive the award, “40 under 40, Dayton’s Brightest Young Business Leaders.”
As Jesus reframes His mission in Matthew 20:28, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (NIV), so God has chosen us to serve Him and His people. Let’s change the questions so as to change the world.
- J. Baldwin, Bucky Works: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for Today (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 1997).
- Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw, The Externally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church for the Community (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010).
- A Pathfinder club is a coeducational group within Seventh-day Adventist churches that helps develop the cultural, social, and religious knowledge of children and early teens.
- Tania D. Mitchell, “Critical Service-Learning as Social Justice Education: A Case Study of the Citizen Scholars Program,” Equity & Excellence in Education 40, no. 2 (2007): 101, 102.