Helping Neighbors Help Neighbors
The power of partnership-minded ministry
Christmas is a time of giving and serving. It is an annual reminder of the biblical truth, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Your church is likely planning ways to invest in and serve your community this season and beyond. But how do you make the most of your limited time and resources?
When I first came to Church of the City in Franklin, Tennessee, where I serve as executive pastor, I was pleased to find the congregation was already engaged in a robust ministry to the area. This included reaching out in practical but gospel-oriented ways. It wasn’t something the church adopted when it reached a certain size. It was a part of the DNA from the start.
Church of the City has always pursued a neighborhood church model. With five campuses in four locations today, that looks a bit different than it once did. Yet the founding principle remains the same: a local church in a local community doing local ministry.
Every church has a local mission field, a neighborhood, a context, and a God-given calling. Every church must prayerfully determine how to reach its community with the good news of Jesus Christ — and serve it in ways that point people to Him.
Frustrations around effective outreach usually come from a lack of direction rather than a lack of desire. In many cases, churches either don’t know where to start, or they aren’t sure how to follow through on their plans.
When planting Church of the City, leaders took a look at how most churches do community engagement and then evaluated the potential effectiveness of each model in our context. They found there were two main approaches.
The more traditional approach, what I call ministry-minded outreach, keeps everything in-house. Whether starting a prison ministry or opening a thrift store, the church manages the entire effort internally, including recruiting volunteers and planning a budget.
At first glance, it might seem like retaining control would make it easier to stay on mission. However, the reality is no one church can do all things well.
After all, a pastor who is leading a congregation and preaching weekly probably doesn’t have the time and expertise to run a food pantry or afterschool program. Finding volunteers with the capacities to manage a new enterprise may not be realistic either. As outreach expands, you run the risk of doing many things with mediocrity.
The second approach, partnership-minded outreach, is the path Church of the City took from the beginning. Instead of building something from the ground up, we hit the ground running by identifying organizations already in place that were already doing things well. We provided volunteers and, in some cases, funding, while the organizations gave us a platform and opportunity.
This is a more sustainable strategy. There were feeding programs that were already successful. There were clothing drives that were already meeting needs. The community didn’t need another one of those. What it needed were people willing to step up and help out.
Partnership allows each party to leverage strengths to cover deficits. Two of the most difficult and time-consuming challenges for any organization are raising funds and filling volunteer ranks. We can provide help in these areas, while also promoting health and growth among our people.
Despite some success, our initial approach was not as intentional as it should have been. The heart of what we were doing was right, but the way we were doing it needed more thoughtful planning. That realization led to the development of a missional partnership strategy.
We took four practical steps to ensure our partnerships were not only mutually beneficial, but also on mission for what God had called us to accomplish.
1. Identify the mission. This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to matching up your church with any organization. To have a missional partnership, you first need to know your mission.
Of course, your church’s mission may change, and the strategy you employ to accomplish it is fluid. To really understand who your church is at the core, first consider your values. Those are the unchanging principles, the nonnegotiables that make your mission possible.
We view our missional partnerships through the lens of our values. One of those values is generosity. In a culture that often fixates on accumulating wealth and possessions, we pursue the Kingdom principle of giving and serving generously. That helps drive our outreach model as we consider partnerships.
Another value is worship. Not every outreach opportunity presents a time of traditional worship. However, when we worship, we invite the presence and power of Jesus into the circumstances and realities of our lives. That can also happen as we give and serve, and as we celebrate what God does through us.
2. Start simple. Is there an elementary school nearby with a great need? Schools are among the easiest places to begin meeting needs and forming missional partnerships.
Tony Evans at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas started by reaching out to one school. He visited with the local superintendent to ask what needs the church could meet.
This simple gesture showed school leaders the church was serious about serving. It was not a volunteer visiting or a minister making a phone call. It was the senior pastor showing up in person. This set the tone for a successful partnership.
Every church has a local mission field, a neighborhood, a context, and a God-given calling.
That meeting didn’t lead to massive assemblies on campus. When Evans asked what the school needed, the answer was simply, “Men. We need men to come on campus and read to our kids and eat lunch with them.”
And that’s what the church provided.
A school is often the best place to start developing missional partnerships. Schools represent an important mission field. They have kids, families and people who are in need of the gospel. If you go in with the intention of meeting one basic need, you will likely find other needs to meet as well — both tangible and spiritual.
3. Seek small wins, and build on them. When you discover a need you can meet, try to meet it. The pastor of one of our smaller campuses developed a relationship with the local chief of police.
In conversation, the pastor learned there was an issue with attempted suicides in the jurisdiction. When officers responded, the procedure was to place the individual in the back of a patrol car, just as they did during an arrest.
The officers needed a special van for transporting suicidal people with a greater level of care and dignity. Though the police department’s budget had not yet allowed for the purchase, our church was able to spring into action and buy a van for them.
Not only did we strengthen our relationship with the police force in a tangible way, but we also built on that so whenever there was a need, the department would feel comfortable calling on us.
When you develop trust through partnerships, you can become a solution to the next need. People will see the value your church adds to the community, and they will be more likely to help out when you need them.
4. Refine the strategy. Don’t be rigid in your approach. Instead, be willing to adapt as needed.
When we build big strategies, we may not see wins because we’re constantly working toward that one goal. Be willing to shift and adapt so your team can pick up smaller wins, gain momentum, and grow in confidence.
Develop a strategy you can scale to serve more organizations. We began by tithing 10% of our total offerings into a fund we now use to form these missional partnerships. We hope over time to increase that to 12%, or even 15%. As we scale up, we can reach more needs through different organizations without having to start from scratch.
To manage this, we formed an advisory council from our membership to vet each organization and decide on the best approaches. Within the first year of creating that structure, we were able to bless 24 different groups. We can also bring each need to our congregation with confidence because we have built trust.
It’s important to develop a system that can withstand pressure. Each person on our advisory council works with an organization we support — not just for accountability, but to walk with our missional partners.
Members ask how they can pray with partners each week, and what needs they and their organizations are facing. When we tie a person to a need in the community, it strengthens the bond.
Be sure to brand and promote your outreach, articulating what you do and why. This keeps service opportunities in front of your congregants and builds credibility with people inside and outside the church. It lets those who have never been to your church see how you are serving the city.
Internally, we tie our strategy to small groups. Each group chooses which organization to serve. This gives the groups a greater sense of purpose and encourages intentionality in serving.
One of our campuses remodeled the teachers’ lounge at the school where it meets each Sunday for worship. That wasn’t a space our church uses on the weekends; it was just a way to give back. Being there for our community means being there for those who support the education of our children.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we weren’t able to meet in the schools for worship. Naturally, that was difficult for our congregation. But we were also concerned about how the crisis was affecting our community.
Some kids were missing out on in-person instruction. In response, we decided to help fund a local tutoring organization that could do what we could not: offer immediate assistance to students who were struggling academically.
We also hosted food drives to provide relief to the many unemployed individuals and families who were having a hard time buying groceries.
Church is about more than meetings and sermons. It is also about reaching out, and stepping out, to make a difference in the world around us.
The words of James challenge us to put our faith into action: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:15-17).
Partnership-minded ministry has given us the margin to pivot quickly to meet needs as they arise. It has also allowed us to build strong relationships within the community, which makes it easier to work alongside others and maximize our outreach efforts.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”
Together, we are stronger. Through partnerships, we are making a difference, loving our neighbors, sharing the compassion of Christ, advancing the Kingdom, and bringing glory to God.
This approach to outreach has been a huge blessing for all of us. Rather than building and managing a large-scale outreach, we have gone all in on several fronts. This gives us room to breathe as a staff. It also gives us a larger footprint in our world.
We can reach more people for the gospel — our main goal. And we can keep bringing people into the Kingdom by meeting immediate, tangible needs.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 edition of Influence magazine.