Loving Our Neighbors and Making Disciples: A Philosophy of Church-Community Engagement

Churches are constantly trying to come up with new and biblically faithful ways to engage their communities with the gospel. And let’s be honest, some ideas have been much better than others (I once attended a church magic show where the big draw was that the magician was going to turn the pastor into a rabbit). From flaky to faithful, how can we as believers (and then as churches) make wise decisions in how we approach the taking of the gospel into our communities? I want to look quickly at a couple of texts, then propose three tiers of community engagement that I believe every church needs to be involved in. There are dozens of biblical texts that speak to how a church should approach the issue of community involvement. I will just mention three:

Matthew 22:39
It is telling that when asked for the greatest commandment Jesus gives two. The first is the
obvious one. We must love God with our entire beings. That is hard. But that difficulty is dwarfed by the
second command. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. That’s even harder. God made us, loves us,
and redeemed us. Our neighbors have dogs that poop in our yards and kids who bounce balls off our vehicles
and are not always the most “neighborly” people in the world. And yet we are to love them. We are to put
their ultimate good at the top of our priority list.

Galatians 6:10
In Galatians 6:10, Paul tells us that we are to do good, especially to those of the community of
faith. We are reminded that our priority is our Christian family. However, there is a secondary obligation
to do good to all, including those outside the bounds of our church family. The qualification that Paul
gives is “as we have opportunity.” That’s a pretty broad command.

Matthew 28:18-20
This is the “meat and potatoes” of community engagement. It is the purpose for all that we do in
our local communities. Jesus commands us to make disciples. We are to share the gospel, and when
people respond with saving faith, we are to baptize them and teach them everything that Jesus
commanded. Sharing the gospel becomes the ultimate act of neighborly love and the ultimate act of doing
good to others.

Sharing the gospel becomes the ultimate act of neighborly love and the ultimate act of doing good to others.

With these texts in mind, I would like to propose a three-tier structure for church engagement in
the community. Please note that these tiers are not “thus saith the Lord.” However, I believe they are
rooted in biblical principles and wisdom. I’ve also found that pretty much every church outreach
ministry falls into one of these categories and that this can serve as a helpful filter for evaluating how
well our churches are doing in engaging with the community and sharing the gospel.

Tier one: The Ministry of Presence.
As a younger man, I had a strong “it’s not evangelism if it doesn’t contain the gospel” mentality. And to a
degree, I was right. Way too much of what churches call “outreach” is nothing more than yelling at the
community “Hey! We’re here!” without getting to why the community actually needs to know that (the
gospel). However, I would say that as I’ve gotten a little older, my thought is that “it’s not evangelism if it
doesn’t lead to the sharing of the gospel.” In other words, everything we do should have an intentional
goal of leading to gospel proclamation. But sometimes, we need to start by simply letting the community
know that we’re there, who we are, and that we care about the community that we are a part of. I think of
churches that have floats in local parades, pastors who pray at local little league opening ceremonies, or
believers who coach and volunteer in the community. Many of these things will not directly lead to gospel
presentations or conversions, but they let the community know that our church is there and gives them
faces to place with the name of the church. This tier can be an important one for laying the groundwork
for gospel ministry in a local community. It is important to remember that this level of engagement should
only be a small part of our churches’ outreach and should always have the goal of advancing toward
gospel-level engagement.

Tier two: Loving our Neighbors
It’s been said that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I think
there is truth to this. Churches are often the front line in the community for acts of service. This can range
from cleaning up trash and providing food for the needy to having a game booth at a local festival and
providing meals for local law enforcement and EMS. The difference between tier one and tier two is that this second tier moves into actual acts of love for those in the community. It’s the church looking around and asking,
“what does loving our neighbor look like right now in this neighborhood or town?”. Tier two engagement
can more easily lead to clear gospel presentations than tier one, but both fall short of actually making
disciples. However, both are important in building gospel relationships in the community.

Tier three: Making Disciples
Most churches are pretty good at tiers one and two. Tier three is hard and is where many churches fall short of
actually doing biblical evangelism. If you enter a float in the local Christmas parade (tier one) and brew
“coffee for cops” (tier two), but never actually clearly and openly share the gospel, you have fallen short. I
believe there’s a fear and apprehension that keeps many churches in the realm of tiers one and two. We want
the community to like us. We want to be popular. We want to have a “good reputation.” But this isn’t
junior high. We need to get to the gospel. With love. With clarity. With gentleness. But we must get to it.
Soccer camp cannot be about how many kids showed up if we’re not also talking about how many clear gospel
presentations were made during the week. Having a game booth at a local festival is great,
especially if you have members engaging people with the gospel while their kids are playing a game or
getting candy. Easter egg hunts still bring many people from many communities into churches each year.
But this opportunity is wasted if there is no clear gospel presentation. But even more importantly, we as
individual members of the church need to enter our communities believing that we are entering a mission
field full of people who need the truth of the gospel to change their lives.

Community engagement is not easy. Especially in the age in which we live. Churches will be
scorned for speaking the truth about the issues of the day, and there will be a natural tendency to shrink back
and keep the gospel to ourselves for fear of offending others. After all, they’ll eventually come to us
and ask why we do so much in the community, won’t they? Maybe. But probably not. They’ll say nice
things about us, but they will remain lost in their sin. And that’s not good enough. Let’s get uncomfortable. Show the community you are there. Perform acts of neighborly love. Then give them the water that will last forever.
Many will reject it. But some will drink long and deep and never again be the same.

Photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash