There’s this question that has haunted me and embedded itself deep into my mind and heart, ever since I first heard it – “If your church were to ever have to close its doors for good, would your community even notice? Would your community care?”
I had been leading my church for 8 of the 10 years it was in existence in the small suburb of Montgomery, and my answer was “no.” Why? How could this be? If we were truly “being the church” and embracing God’s mission of bringing restoration to our cities (as God lays out in Isaiah 58, and Jesus confirms as His primary mission in Luke 4), how come our church wasn’t helping restore our community back to what God intended for it to be?
I knew something had to be done and my team agreed. One of the most important missional practices we had been discussing recently was the practice of listening. Christ-followers are meant to be great listeners, but I doubt that’s what many Christ-followers are known for. In fact, most likely their reputation is exactly the opposite.
We’ve been learning that reaching and restoring an individual, people group, or entire community isn’t about simply jumping in feet first to start serving somewhere. Serving is great, but if we haven’t taken the time to listen to the real needs of the community, we might end up serving in the wrong ways! So, what would it look like to practice this art of truly listening, especially at the community level?
In our case, we began by listening to God and praying that He would help us really hear what our community was saying, what it really needed. And He did. It was near Christmas-time two years ago, when Shannon (my Children’s Director) shared how some people in her subdivision were asking on their neighborhood Facebook page if anyone knew of any free, fun, local places to take their kids to see Santa. Someone had answered that the Village of Montgomery offered a city-wide Christmas event, so Shannon and I decided to attend this event to see what it was all about.
We were amazed at the huge amounts of people (especially young families) who showed up. Now that we were listening, we both sensed God speaking to us about one of the needs of our community – the people of Montgomery were looking for opportunities to get out with their families, experience some inexpensive local fun and experience some actual community. Our town has no mall or museums and very few community events, so there actually aren’t many places that provide this.
Our next step was to meet with the Village leaders and discuss this with them, and really listen to how they would articulate their needs. So, Shannon and I met with a city leader and did exactly that – we listened. The city official agreed that the Village needed more opportunities like this, so Shannon and I shared with her that we had hosted an Easter Egg Hunt event at our church for the last couple of years that had been successful. We told her we’d be willing to move this event offsite from our church and host it in the middle of the town instead. We even told the Village that they didn’t have to put our church name on the event, so they knew this wasn’t some marketing ploy, but rather an opportunity for us to simply serve our city.
The Village leaders were ecstatic. We told them we’d provide all the volunteers and supplies, and run the entire event. So, they offered to take care of advertising to the entire city, and even to pay for some of the expenses. But that wasn’t all – they wanted to advertise it as the “City-Wide Easter Egg Hunt, hosted by the Village of Montgomery and Community Christian Church.” Because we approached them humbly and with a servant-heart rather than a marketing-bent, they made the choice to include our name. We chose to involve local businesses too (another way to show that this wasn’t about us as a church), so we could serve free Starbucks coffee, free popcorn from a local independent shop and more.
We showed up with our army of volunteers that Saturday morning at a park in the middle of the small downtown, not knowing what to expect, and wondering whether the cold, cloudy weather would keep people away. Then 30 minutes before our start-time, people started lining up. We didn’t expect this, so we scrambled to create a place for the line to form. The line kept growing and growing and by the time we let everyone in to get ready for the egg hunt, we had over 200 hundred people in line. More kept coming throughout the day, and by the end, we had nearly 700 people stop by our event.
The event was a huge success! The Village of Montgomery was very pleased and grateful, and we were excited about our opportunity to “be the church” outside our walls. But we weren’t done. This was only the first step. My prayer from the start was that this event would form the beginning of a long and beautiful partnership between a city and a church. We continued to listen to what the city needed so we could find the best ways to serve.
Our next opportunity came two months later. We had decided as a church that we’d take a huge missional risk and cancel our Sunday morning celebration services so we could instead send all of our attendees out into the community to serve. When we asked the Village how a big group of volunteers could serve them on a Sunday morning, they said they really needed people to help clean up along the river. It wasn’t a glamorous opportunity by any means, but it was a real need. I was proud of our volunteers for embracing it, and once again, the city got to watch us serve them with no agenda.
The next opportunity came with the city’s annual summer MontgomeryFest. This was the city’s biggest annual event, and we knew we wanted to be involved. Rather than just be another vendor with a booth handing out marketing materials, we decided to again practice this virtue of listening and asked the city leaders what they most needed at MontgomeryFest. The event planner’s eyes lit up as she explained, “I’ve been to lots of other city’s festivals and they always have a family tent. It’s a place for parents to change diapers, to sit in the shade to nurse their babies, a place for their kids to cool off and get a snack. Weíve never had that here.”
It was a brilliant idea – one I would never have come up with on my own. I only found out by listening. So, we agreed to help them, and last summer’s MontgomeryFest had a fully-functioning family tent for the first time ever (sponsored by “Village of Montgomery and Community Christian Church”).
I loved where this partnership was headed, but I was still praying that God would help us earn the city’s trust enough that one day they would be proposing their own ideas and asking us for help. And they did.
Last fall, the city then came to us and said, “We hold a 5k benefit run every October, but we’d love to have some kind of Fall Festival event to offer as part of that. Could you help us?” The city had come to trust our church so much that now they were turning to us for help. Fortunately, we were still listening. In October, we helped the Village host another city-wide event – our third one of the year.
This Fall Festival wasn’t just going to be run by our church. The city was involving another volunteer organization called The Arts Alliance. We got to meet more community volunteers in our planning meetings, and after one of these meetings, a lady from the Arts Alliance stopped me and said, “My husband hasn’t been interested in attending church for the last 40 years. But I think he might be interested in checking out yours, because he’s passionate about this community and he’d love what you guys are all about.”
What a great example of another person I would never have been able to reach if I had not engaged in this common-good practice of listening! Listening has helped my team and I discern the best ways to serve our city, to be the church outside of our walls, and to live out God’s mission to restore our city back to how He means for it to be. By the way, her husband came around Christmas-time, and has been coming every week since, always telling me how excited he is about how we engage with the community.
God continues to strengthen this partnership. This past December, the Village contacted us already asking for help doing this year’s Easter Egg Hunt. After we served at their Christmas Event, we were invited to January’s Village Board meeting to receive an award of recognition. (We even received a small check and some free sub sandwiches).
I continue to pray that God will extend this partnership with our city to the next level. I pray that we will move toward doing more and more to help meet some real needs, help bring healing and restoration, help build trust and show people a glimpse of what our God is really like.
So, if my church ever had to close its doors, would our community notice? Would they care? I pray and I hope that we are a whole lot closer to answering a resounding “Yes!” To be honest, while that is great, it is not our end goal. I simply want to be a church that is on mission with God, whose people learn to listen to the needs around them so they can find the ways God has called them to engage His mission. After all, isn’t that what God designed the church to be – a community of Christ-followers on mission with Him?
After apprenticing his way through several church leadership roles and leaving his career as a software developer, Carter wrote this essay while serving as a Campus Pastor at Community Christian Church. For more than 8 years, he oversaw Adult Small Groups across their 12 campuses and for NewThing Network.
Carter currently leads the Ocean Beach campus of Newbreak Church in San Diego, California, where he is building a beautifully diverse church community that seeks to grow in their faith together, passionately serve the local community, live in community together through Life Groups, and help lots of people find their way back to God.
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