What is “community”? Or rather, where’s the line between “our community” and “the community”? And when are we really involved?
I don’t quite know when it happened, but I realized that when I visit or learn about a new church, the first thing I look for is if they’re involved in their community. Maybe it’s the Peace Corps in me; maybe it’s because my current church is so good at it.
Nearly every church I’ve come across claims to be community-involved. Yet, most of them seem to do “community” without ever having to come into contact with people beyond the church community, existing or potential.
A couple weeks ago, I read through pamphlets for a church a friend had visited. The pamphlets talked heavily about community work. All the examples listed were intra-church programs, singles group events, married couples bible study, youth group, etc.
I visited a church out-of-town this past weekend. The focus of the whole service was community work (related to Jesus’ “I’ll make you a fisher of men” phrase). The pastor mentioned a lot of programs, both within his own congregation and as part of the greater Methodist Church: support for missionaries, a school supply drive to help UMCOR’s efforts in Oklahoma, a knitting group that met after service once a month to make blankets for those in need.
Other things I’ve seen touted as community work include having Bible study or small group meetings at pubs and coffee shops. The idea is that these locations make religion more accessible to people who are scared of the “church” part.
But all these things, valuable as they are, none of them strike me as community involvement. They focus on those already part of or interested in being part of the church community. They insulate church members from anyone on the receiving end of the church’s work. There’s community, but there’s no involvement.
The church I currently attend does these types of programs - women’s group, food drives, public small group meetings – but it’s also involved in community beyond. Not just beyond the church walls, but beyond the “potentially interested in church.”
There’s a community garden in Richmond where members help out sometimes. Groups from the church regularly serve lunch and dinner at a local homeless shelter/soup kitchen. And of course there’s my favorite, knitting every week. Sitting next to someone, knitting together, becoming friends is so, so different than knitting a sweater or a blanket elsewhere and sending it to the shelter.
There may even be more programs that aren’t on my radar. What I like most about these activities is that they aren’t fishing for new members. They aren’t asking people to come to church or talk about God, but they’re still feeding people’s souls. They’re real and authentic. People. People simply going out there and showing God’s love through simple, everyday things. And that’s powerful.