You can’t impact your community if you ignore its pain
If you were to close the doors of your church tomorrow, how would your community feel about it? Would it miss your presence, or even notice you were gone?
Parklawn Assembly of God in Milwaukee, the church I formerly pastored, is 113 years old. Churches don’t die of old age like people do. A church can slowly die of irrelevance, however, especially when it fails to address the felt needs of its community.
Six years ago, I realized we were dying in impact and relevance to our community. In fact, we were shocked to realize we had already essentially died in its eyes because we had neglected our responsibility to build relationships, get to the root of human problems, and share a gospel that was good news. If we had closed our doors, the community would not have missed us.
My discoveries began on a hot August afternoon in 2016, when a young Black male was shot and killed by a police officer just three blocks from our church campus. The hours that followed were filled with community unrest, riots, looting and burning buildings.
As the lead pastor, I felt compelled to provide leadership and healing for our neighborhood. So, I assembled a group of pastors and parishioners. We walked down to the spot of the shooting and unrest and engaged those who were gathering in the streets.
On the first night, some of those crowd members asked me questions that sifted my motives and challenged my priorities: “Why are you here? Why are you allowing the police to use your parking lot to harass us as we protest?”
The most piercing question of all was this one: “Where has the Church been?”
Churches don’t die of old age like people do. A church can slowly die of irrelevance, however, especially when it fails to address the felt needs of its community.
This last question packed a punch that awakened me and our church. We were ashamed to realize we had been absent from the pain in our surrounding community.
We are a primarily African American congregation in an urban setting. It is no secret that division, tension and pushback over issues of race exist in every community and congregation across the country, whether urban, rural or suburban.
In our own community, our church was exposed for not demonstrating that all lives matter. People should not have had to protest to call this to our attention. The Bible mandated us to love our neighbors, but our emphasis was on loving the ones who came to the church on a consistent basis.
If we would have remained focused on the Great Commandment and Great Commission, there would have been no need or space for organizations that are leading a false narrative on issues of race. Organizations like these exist because the Church has grown weary of mixing faith with racial and social disparities.
Micah 6:8 asks, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Whether it is Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, my city or yours, the local church must live in the tension of the divide, occupy the hard places, and continue to have impact and relevance in the community. This is what Jesus did.
How then do we navigate these troubled waters? What can we do as church leaders? During the 2016 unrest, we discovered that churches interact with communities in three ways: in, out, and with.
For most of my 35 years in church and pastoral leadership, I focused on the inside of the building. This model of in is built upon the expectation of people coming in and becoming regular attenders.
Like fans at a football game, they faithfully show up each weekend and cheer on the pastor as he or she preaches. They sway with the worship team. They applaud whatever is happening on the platform. They are entertained in their seats as the professionals do the work.
In reality, though, the weekend service was never supposed to be the game. It should look more like the huddle — the place where plays are called, assignments are affirmed, and encouragement is given before the game resumes. The playing field is your community. You might get bumps and bruises out there, but that is where the action is. The Church must get back into the game.
Local churches have much to offer, but they need to move away from mostly serving themselves, into deeper and more meaningful community engagement. Prior to 2016, we were primarily serving the people coming inside our building for programs and events. Those who came in paid the bills and salaries and made up the volunteer teams that allowed us to keep the campus going.
Local churches have much to offer, but they need to move away from mostly serving themselves, into deeper and more meaningful community engagement.
In many urban neighborhoods, there are churches on every block. Nevertheless, most of these churches are not permanently disrupting the pain around them. Their focus is inward. They are exhausting their resources — including finances, volunteers and time — to make the weekend the best possible experience for those who come. This is a model church leaders have learned. It is often celebrated and therefore maintained.
The same is true in poor communities of color. Not only is the in model promoted and protected, but because of the scarcity of resources — finances, facilities, partnerships and people — we feel obligated to save the best for our own congregations. Our mindset sadly often shifts to scarcity and poverty rather than abundance and multiplication.
The in model resists a sending and sowing culture, favoring the loyalty of people who attend, give and serve. We consider anyone who does these three things to be a leader and a mature Christian. Nevertheless, it’s possible to do these things and not be mature. For that matter, it’s possible to do these things and not even be a Christian. The in model does not prioritize making disciples who faithfully and obediently follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
The nights of unrest shocked us into realizing there were people in our community who would never come inside the building. They represented the “one” Jesus spoke of in Luke 15:4,7, and they were not our priority. The “ninety-nine” who were already coming were our focus, and we used up our resources to keep them coming.
The protesters told us — and showed us, by their action of nonattendance — that we had already abdicated our prophetic voice and had no community impact.
Pastors and churches in every type of community context are dying in influence if they are pursuing the in model. The presence of financial resources and facilities only mask the dying process. There is an appearance of life in technology and high-energy events. However, ignoring the call to go and minister to hurting people is terminal.
People need the Lord. They need relationship with a disciple-making community that will connect them to the mission of Jesus. And we need to be where they are if we are to stay on mission. It is hard to develop God’s heart for people and places unless we are engaged, up close and personal, with their problems. Jesus demonstrated the ministry of proximity and presence. He wept over people and places. The Church is called to be unselfish and present amid people’s pain.
I didn’t learn this soon enough. In our effort to stay close to an in model and also meet people’s needs, we adopted strategies to reach out to the people who were not coming inside the building. We gave away food, operated a sidewalk Sunday School and bus ministry, filled backpacks with school supplies, provided free clothing, held health screenings, and more.
This is a commendable model. Outreach is good, but it is limited in sustainable impact for several reasons. Outreach is mostly transactional. It often takes place according to the dictates of the church, not the community. I admit outreach has greater impact than simply staying inside the church building. Still, we risk communicating that we know what is best for the community, as if we are the experts.
In planning outreaches, we rarely engage those who are already in the community — people who understand the needs best and know how to meet them. Instead, outreach happens at the convenience of the church.
Another deceptive effect of this model is that it may boost our egos and assuage our guilty consciences without doing much else. We assume that if it feels good, it must be the right thing.
The outreach model is far better than fixating solely on the 99 inside the church, but we must be sure our doing good does not lead to doing harm.
Again, I don’t totally discount outreach. It can certainly be a doorway to evangelism, but it does not guarantee we are making disciples. Evangelism is the necessary first step of introducing people to Jesus. Discipleship occurs by intentionally and consistently doing life with another person.
Another problem with the outreach model is that our goodwill efforts can create dependency. What if our giveaways of free food every month, without relationship, encourages irresponsible financial choices because the receiver knows free food will be there to sustain them?
Dependency robs people of self-determination and motivation. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than it is to receive” (Acts 20:35). When we give, we feel good about it, but when we are on the receiving end, the human psyche feels a sense of shame and helplessness. No one likes that feeling. We would rather be the giver. Those with greater resources must be careful not to be condescending or arrogant in their outreach and partnership efforts.
The outreach model is far better than fixating solely on the 99 inside the church, but we must be sure our doing good does not lead to doing harm.
There is still a nobler and better model. It is being with people. This is the way Jesus led. It is really an in-reach approach rather than an outreach.
This model says, “I don’t just want to meet your need; I want to know why your need exists. I want to understand the systems and the challenges. I want to hear your story. I want to be in the community day to day. I want to be like Jesus and walk with you through the hard places of life. I am not measuring you by your church attendance, giving or volunteerism at weekend events.”
Being with also says, “As we build relationship, maybe you wouldn’t mind me sharing my story with you and telling you how to welcome Jesus into your life as Lord (evangelism). I can model for you how to grow in Jesus and follow Him in everyday life (discipleship). I would love to introduce you to a group of Christ followers who support and encourage one another and serve their community together as the family of God (community).”
As community grows and develops, networks of churches can form in the very same locations. Being with people in their pain is a key to starting new churches and revitalizing existing churches that are dying in community influence and impact.
The events of 2016 changed me. As a result of the Spirit’s prompting through that journey, I began a succession process to move from the lead pastor role to the helm of a community-transforming, disciple-making movement: the National Black Fellowship of the Assemblies of God. Our congregation commissioned and sent me out as an apostolic extension of the church locally and nationally.
Marcus Arrington succeeded me as pastor of Parklawn in 2020. He and the church have journeyed even deeper into a with model than what I initiated in 2016. He brought together a small team of mature Christians who feel called to study, exegete and respond to our community’s pain points.
Arrington regularly weaves results of this community study into his sermons, sharing with the entire congregation and preparing hearts for greater mobilization. He wisely started with prayer and discernment, just like Nehemiah did when he discovered the condition of his homeland.
Several Sunday services each month are devoted to prayer-walking the community and listening to the people who reside there. This leads to vision for ministry that will make a difference in the community. Already, residents have described reckless driving as a major pain point. One solution they came up with together was the placement of lawn signs to draw attention to the problem. We accomplished this with them, in partnership with a civic violence prevention organization.
Being with people in their pain is a key to starting new churches and revitalizing existing churches that are dying in community influence and impact.
The church also hosted a meeting to hear the concerns of community members. We learned that most people are willing to engage in conversations when someone is willing to hear them. And we learned that consistency matters.
We want our neighbors to know we are ready to walk with them through whatever battle they are facing. In addition to extending love and compassion to those who are struggling, we need to help them break free from their struggles. People who are in pain are often captives. When we are with our neighbors, we are like Moses and Aaron, demanding that the Pharaohs of poverty, violence and dysfunction let them go.
You would be wise to identify strong community partners who share a similar vision. You would also be wise to unleash the people who come to your weekend services into their neighborhoods and fields of work and expertise.
Maurice Wince is one of our faithful church members. He sat with me as we hosted a community listening session at our church during the unrest in 2016. Wince heard the cries and refused to ignore the pain. He caught the vision of new possibilities and used his skills as a real estate developer to purchase and renovate properties in the community, transforming them into social enterprises.
One of these developments is our city’s first commercial incubator kitchen for food entrepreneurs. Another is a laundromat, where the manager will serve as a church planter, making friends and disciples from everyday clients.
Still another enterprise addresses the pain of food insecurity and health disparities. Wince is opening a grocery store that will provide healthy food options, including fresh produce. An aquaponics farm on the store roof will employ teenagers to grow vegetables.
Jesus modeled the potential of ordinary people as He chose His 12 disciples and mentored them for three years before sending them out to change the world. Our church has likewise discipled and released ordinary people into the marketplace as salt and light.
Francis of Assisi said, “Start by doing what’s necessary, and then what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
God is already at work in your community. He is concerned about the forces that affect the lives of people there. Take the time to listen to God and to your community. Learn, and then lament over its condition. As you listen, you will not only discover how you can be with the community and lift it out of spiritual, economic, social and physical pain, but you will also hear whether you are relevant and impactful — or not.
Your church’s journey toward a with lifestyle need not come about because of a tragedy like the one our community experienced. We can learn by tribulation or revelation. From now on, I prefer revelation lessons.