Over my years of ministry work, I’ve been placed into brand new communities three different times and asked to help start a church or ministry. I don’t know where the local grocery store is located or what mascot is on their high school football team’s uniforms, but part of my job is to connect with the people living in this town. On the other hand, I’ve also done ministry in towns that I know very well, but somehow feel like I’m missing the mark and the heartbeat of the people I’m working to serve.
Whether you’re an expert historian of your city or still unpacking your moving boxes, make it a priority to study your community. If your ministry is located in Dallas, do you know the people of Dallas are passionate about? Do you know their lingo? Can you explain what makes Dallas unique? Do you know what’s unique about the individual communities within Dallas? The better you know your people, the stronger your ministry will be in serving them.
Gathering this information is what many have called a “windshield study”. Driving and walking through the area, essentially asking questions, and observing everything. Here are a few ways to get started.
We make assumptions all the time. Unfortunately many people walk into the ministry with assumptions on the community and their needs. Some of them are accurate. Some are not. We know there are real needs that are often unfelt, like we know people need Christ. We also know that one of the best ways to meet unfelt needs is to identify felt needs and do what we can to address them.
Instead of making assumptions about a new community, I work to engage in the community with people and figure it out. For example, I became the police chapman for our city and joined the Rotary club. How can you start feeling out the city that fits with your background or heart interest? Find out what are the books that are most popular, what stores are always busy, what community projects are already happening, what the schools are doing, and what kind of sports are popular. When I came into Anthem, Arizona, I assumed there was a high population of older people, but I was shocked once I did my research. The reality was that Anthem had the largest youth baseball organization in all of Arizona and only 15% of the population was over 55 years old. It’s a young community, and as a ministry leader I need to know that.
One of the best outreaches I ever did came from these types of investigations. Being from Arizona we have a phrase to talk about the summer heat. It’s so hot that you could “fry an egg on the sidewalk”. We ended up buying web address, Fryaneggonthesidewalk.com and built a website that passively connected the community to our church. We listed 101 things that a family could do in the summer. The list included funny ideas, creative ideas and projects, things to do the community and things our church was offering, like VBS and concerts. During a local festival, we had a booth and passed out free t shirts with the web address “Fryaneggonthesidewalk.com.” We were the most popular booth and people were SWARMING around us – we were the talk of the event!
As you get to know your community, look for these little things and start to think creatively. What can you do that will engage people?
Don’t walk into your church or ministry with your own concerns; know the concerns of your community. Are they talking about racism? Clean water? Mortgages? Commuting? Health? As a ministry in the area, I want to ask a lot of questions. I want to identify with the residents. You’re not going to solve those problems necessarily, but it connects you with people and together you can always accomplish more.
One creative idea had to do with Halloween. I understand the history and concern the church has had around halloween, but we chose to leverage the fact that people were coming to our door. So, we gave away Nachos, movie popcorn and drinks to parents and families. There is a relative innocence in kids coming to get candy. How can you use this time to connect and get involved in your area? For us, we turned it into an outdoor movie night. Every year we would show a family friendly movie projected on our garage. Year after year, our crowd would grow and people who we never saw during the year would make their way over and talk all night. One year we even did a full Star Wars theme- I think that was everyone’s favorite. After a few years, I became known as the pastor with the Halloween movie nights.
Did I learn something profound by hosting a movie night? No, but year after year it helped me get deeper into our community, make connections, and hear the heart of my neighbors.
The greatest things in life happen through relationships. Jesus taught about it and it was a priority for him. When it comes to leading an organization, relationships have to do with your donors, who you’re trying to serve, and with your team. If you’re good at building a relationships, you’ll be successful in your ministry. If you’re not, you won’t. So do all you can to constantly improve in this area.
When someone is new to a community, they always ask three questions. First, are there people here like me? Second, do I fit? Third, is there someone here that can show me the way? If they look around and there isn’t anyone who looks like them (not just race & gender but also shared values) they won’t stay long. Is there someone who can share their pain? Are there other single moms here? This is why 12 step addiction programs are huge. You are gathering with other people who can say “I’m just like you”.
As you’re jumping into your city, work on building intentional relationships that allows people to see you’re trying to figure it out too. How can your organization say “we understand” to your community?
The older I get, the more I’m impressed with the thought that life and time is short. To make the most of every opportunity. So, as you get to know your community – do it with intentionality. You’re on mission. Go after your ministry with great intentionality and you’ll accomplish just what God desires.
– Bob Lehman
Bob creates connections between ministries, helping them be more effective by leveraging their strengths. He puts every ministry in a position to do more, because they are only doing what they do well.