Pastors have been through a lot this year. And I’d be willing to bet that back in January, most never would’ve anticipated a “pandemic” that would impact church attendance, contribute to church decline, force them to grapple with livestream technology, and even cause their own congregants to question the importance of church like COVID-19 did. And yet, here we are, with 2021 just three months away and some churches still meeting only online. Indeed, the need for community engagement has never been greater. And, to be clear, I’m not talking about digital engagement — although that’s an equally high priority as I’ve mentioned in several previous blog posts. In fact, digital engagement became even more necessary and critical because of COVID’s effects on attendance. I’m referring here though to physical engagement in the local community surrounding your church. This more closely aligns with your church’s brand, which I discuss in-depth in this post and in this episode of Rescuing Churches.
If you’ve regathered for in-person worship — and many churches have — then it’s time to start thinking about your town, your city, your surrounding neighborhoods, their demographics, the kind of people who live and work there, and the traits that make them unique. These are the people you’re trying to reach in a post-COVID world where the very notion of attending church either conjures up emotions of hesitancy or indifference in many people, including former loyal attendees.
Here are a few simple ways to start making your church an integral part of the local community, rather than expecting the local community to come running to your church begging to become an integral part of your fellowship.
1. Get your foot in the door at local rehab centers.
Pastors and church leaders: I’ve personally seen and experienced the fruit that can come from this effort as I’ve watched my dad build local connections. If your town or city has any faith-based drug/alcohol/relational rehabs, you should not only be well-acquainted with their names and locations, but with the leaders who work there. These places are full of men and women who have battled addictions, abuse, neglect and other difficult circumstances. Ask to be on the chapel speaker rotation and begin forming relationships. Many of these folks are desperately craving the eternal hope, comfort, peace, and salvation that Jesus alone provides. And they could be right around the corner or within a few minutes of your church.
Does it matter that some of them won’t be able to physically attend your church? No. That’s not why you’re there. Don’t go in with a recruitment mindset. You’re there to represent Christ and His Church. Let Him do the rest of the work and trust Him for what it will look like.
2. Open your church’s gymnasium and property up to local youth athletic, homeschool, and/or park sports leagues.
You might be shocked at how many basketball, soccer, football, or baseball kids leagues are in or around your neighboring community. And some of them might be without a place to practice during the week. Whether it’s a homeschool co-op league or a park league, your church can host these teams — free of charge — and slowly begin to build meaningful relationships with parents and coaches. Be sure to occasionally provide snacks and drinks for the kids. Side note: Yes, you’ll probably get burned a few times. Coaches will forget to clean up, trash will be left out, field lights will be left on, keys will wander off, and doors will be left unlocked. But don’t let these issues dissuade you from continuing to work with and love on these people. Who knows? After a few months, some of them may start asking about what you guys do inside that churchy building on Sundays.
Big shoutout here to parents who are volunteering to run the concessions stand at their child's sporting events. Whether your kid plays on the team or marches in the band, this is a phenomenal opportunity to build relationships with other parents, school faculty, and to represent Christ in and to your local community.
3. Free Community Car Wash
Church car washes are nothing new. For decades they’ve been used as a means to raise money for everything from the upcoming Honduras missions trip to fixing that leaky corner of the sanctuary ceiling. But a free church car wash is something else entirely. Round up some happy teens and/or students from your youth and/or college ministries and organize the event on a Saturday when most of them are off work and free from classes. Make sure they dress appropriately and modestly (church logo t-shirts if possible). If you make roadside signs, be sure to emphasize the “free” aspect of the car wash. If a driver happens to ask what church you’re with and where you’re located, be ready to hand them a little invite card. Otherwise, you’re just there to love on the community without expecting anything in return.
4. Network the nursing homes and assisted living centers.
This is a great way to not only bless and minister to the elderly who are lonely and in need of prayer and company, but to gradually build authentic and long-lasting relationships with nurses, staff, and even the family members of the residents. If you’re a pastor, you might be able to speak one evening or even bring in some of your singers and musicians to minister through song. And you never know how it could connect your church to someone in that nursing home. The next time you pray over the elderly lady in room 301 who has terminal cancer, her daughter might inquire about your church and confess that she hasn’t darkened the doors of a church in ages. Or the doctor who felt blessed by your worship singers may want to know when he can hear some more of that great praise music.
5. Fall festivals, Easter egg hunts, and community cookouts
There are plenty of seasonal events that your church can host for the local community and surrounding neighborhoods. Provide all of the food and fun — from bounce houses to face-painting to games, prizes, and giveaways — all free of charge. There’s nothing parents like more than being able to take their kids somewhere that’s both fun and free (especially if there’s a meal involved for their kids.) A few ideas for giveaways:
6. Emergency food distribution after a natural disaster.
I live on the Alabama Gulf Coast and hurricane season can be intense here. Just recently, Hurricane Sally impacted several homes, businesses, and churches in and around our area, leaving many of them without power for a long time. If your church is located in an area prone to natural disasters, then you have an opportunity (and I would argue a responsibility) to not only care for your own sheep, but for the surrounding community as well. So after the storm has blown through and you’ve checked on and cared for your own congregants, mobilize a team that can network with local Emergency Management Officials, food distribution centers, and other nonprofits to help get groceries and supplies to those in need. Start with the neighborhood(s) closest to your church’s physical location so that they know you’re there and that you care.
Ultimately, the overarching goal here is for your church to create successful methodologies for interacting with your specific and unique local community. Remember: your community is special and one-of-a-kind. Some of your attempts at engagement will be trial and error. They will be hit and miss. It will be a learning process. What works for a neighborhood in rural small town Georgia may not (and likely won’t) work for a suburb in California. And when something doesn’t work, it’s ok to toss that event idea out the window and move on to the next one. But don’t stop trying. Don’t stop engaging. You’re in that community for a reason. You have a purpose there. And you can engage if you’ll be proactive about it now, even in a post-COVID world; even in a world of social distancing and masks.
I’m sure I left something out. What ideas do you have? How is your church physically engaging and re-engaging with the local community? What’s been successful for you in a post-COVID world? What hasn’t? If you aren't engaging at all, why is that the case? Leave a comment below or send me a message and we might even discuss it on an upcoming episode of Rescuing Churches.
Need help with all this digital and social media stuff? Not sure how to implement marketing and community relations as a church? Stuck on a project and can’t move forward? Book me for a coaching session.