Getting to know the community that your congregation will focus on is a critical step in defining your mission. To start, work on getting answers to several key questions: What are the primary issues in your community? How do the people in the community want the church to respond to those issues? And probably most important: do the people in your community actually want the ministry you are proposing? Your congregation will be most successful if you can answer yes to this question.

It is pretty easy to stay within the four walls of the church and make assumptions about the lives of the people in the broader community. It is more difficult to actually build relationships with community residents and grow in your understanding of their needs and desires. It takes more time, too.

There are tremendous advantages, however, to building your congregation’s ministries on what the community says it wants. If you take the time to build these relationships, your congregation will focus its efforts on meeting unmet needs rather than duplicating what other groups are already doing. You will also have a strong foundation for sustaining your programs; strong relationships with your community make it easier to recruit participants and volunteers and raise money.

Sunny Kang, pastor of Woodland United Methodist Church in Duluth and a partnership advocate for the Self Development of People Committee (PCUSA), describes a process that one of his churches used to get to know the community:

A church I was pastor of did research for six months before we opened our doors to the community. We talked to the kids at the high school next door to the church and asked them, “What is the problem in the community, what can we do to help, how can we serve you?” They were real reticent at first, but eventually they did tell us “there are a few things you could do.”

We ended up opening the church to kids during lunch because there were 450 students in two of the lunch periods and the school could only accommodate 200 of them. So 200 to 250 kids had to leave the school building every day for lunch, even in 20-below-zero weather in the winter. So we opened our building and served lunch. It started slowly at first, but grew so that we had 250 to 350 kids in the church building every day during the week. Too many churches say, “We think the people in the community need this,” and they impose their value system on the people. Community residents often end up saying to the church, “Who asked you to do this?” You need to keep asking—is there a market for what we say the community might need?

So how can you get to know the community? I am not necessarily defining community as a geographic area, though many congregations are focused on a neighborhood, town, or region. Your community might be a certain group of people—for example, people living with HIV/AIDS. Here are some strategies to help you connect with the people your congregation aims to serve.

Connect with key leaders of the community on a one-to-one basis and build relationships with them. They will be able to introduce you to others you need to know and will help educate you on the needs and desires of the community. Start by asking them to teach you about the community. Everyone likes to share what he or she knows. Key leaders could include:

  • political leaders
  • denominational staff
  • pastors of other churches
  • law enforcement officers
  • staff at the neighborhood public school
  • leaders of other congregations
  • program specialists in the program area that is your focus (for example, youth development, family counseling, or chemical dependency treatment)

Read the demographic data and relevant studies. Census data is valuable to ministries that are geographically based because it gives a breakdown of the area by age, race, gender, and income level. There may also be written assessments of the need you are trying to address, so you do not need to start from scratch. Public schools could have valuable demographic information on your community, as could the local chamber of commerce, business associations, or neighborhood groups. Searching the Internet may help you find university research on your focus area. You might be able to find studies and statistics on infant mortality, employment and graduation rates, or housing trends that could help you focus the mission of your congregation.

Connect with the community through your church members. Members of your church may live in the area you aim to serve or work in professions that would provide needed contacts. For example, if your downtown church wants to provide an outreach to the business community through the congregation, business leaders in your church could help you accomplish your goal.

Join community organizations or boards. If a group of people from the community is working on an issue you would like to address, consider joining the group. As you work side by side, you will hear community concerns articulated over and over again. You will also build new relationships with community leaders; for example, a crime task force for the neighborhood or town you hope to serve would be a great place to connect. Always ask: What can the church do to support the neighborhood?

Attend community meetings. When community members get together for discussions or celebrations, make sure there is at least one member of your church in attendance. You may want to consider building a portable booth for community events to promote the visibility of the congregation.

Walk around the community. There is no substitute for seeing the people of your community and their needs with your own eyes. If you are open to spontaneous conversations, you will learn a great deal from people you meet on the street. Find out where people “hang out” in your community—it could be the neighborhood park or the diner in your rural town. If your community is not geographically based, just plan on being in attendance whenever the people of your “community” get together. It might be a national conference on a particular topic or a denominational gathering.

Gather the opinions of the community. If the people you want to serve have a positive impression of the church, they may be willing to participate in a survey or focus group. Invite some folks over for dinner at the church and ask them what they think. Brief door-to-door surveys might also do the trick. Try to find a volunteer who has the expertise to help you develop a survey. For instance, there may be someone in your congregation who has worked with focus groups. Also, your local neighborhood organization or United Way might be able to advise you on how to design a questionnaire. Questions for surveys or focus groups should focus around the questions: What do you see as the major issues for this community? How would you like to see this church respond to those issues? How can the church serve you?

Taking a big dream and molding it into a mission can be exhausting work. In my experience, the dream stage is more fun, because working on the mission brings home the stark reality of just how much work needs to be done. But try to think of it this way: developing the mission gives “legs” to your dream, helping people outside of your congregation understand what it is you are trying to do. As more people understand your dream and become committed to making it a reality, this helps the dream take flight.

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Adapted from Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church, copyright © 2002 by the Alban Ins
titute. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2008, the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. We encourage you to share Alban Weekly articles with your congregation. We gladly allow permission to reprint articles from the Alban Weekly for one-time use by congregations and their leaders when the material is offered free of charge. All we ask is that you write to us at alban@div.duke.edu and let us know how Alban Weekly is making an impact in your congregation. If you would like to use any other Alban material, or if your intended use of Alban Weekly does not fall within this scope, please submit our reprint permission request form.

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