Community Ministry: Not About the Church

By Stan Friedman

CHICAGO, IL (February 27, 2014)— This month the Covenant Companion looks at the growing trend of churches forming nonprofit organizations. Today and the rest of this week, we publish stories online that look at discerning how to engage in community ministry.

Churches considering starting a community ministry, whether it be donating money or developing a health clinic, should not do so based on what a congregation wants to do, says national consultant and author Joy Skjegstad.

After all, it’s not about the church.

Ministry is about the community, and it is with their needs and desires that churches must begin. “Get to know your neighborhood, do community interviews, find people who know the community, learn what assets are there,” says Skjegstad, author of the recent book 7 Creative Models for Community Ministry. “It’s a lot about being there and listening.”

Skjegstad defines community ministry as “any effort your church makes to connect with people and institutions outside the four walls of your institution.”

Skjegstad helped launch Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis and served as president of Sanctuary Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that the church launched at the same time.

She highlights the work of several Covenant churches in her book: a ministry to Burmese refugees by Crossroads Covenant Church in Woodbury, Minnesota; and Canal Street Church, a church plant in New Orleans, which started the Restoration Initiative for Culture and Community.

Starting a community ministry isn’t about what the church wants to do—but then again it is. “It shouldn’t be something they felt they should do,” Skjegstad explains. “Churches need to consider what their people are passionate about. Otherwise it won’t be sustainable.”

Starting ministries that prove to be unsustainable can lead to negative consequences that make it harder for other churches to do effective outreach. “It can dishearten a community, and that happens frequently,” Skjegstad says. “People begin to think, ‘Oh, it’s just another group coming to help us, and they’re going to be gone in three months.’ ”

Skjegstad points to Riverwood Covenant Church in the town of Rockford, Minnesota, as an example of a congregation that had an initial vision for its nonprofit, RiverWorks, but then made a major adjustment after better assessing the needs of the community and the desires of the congregation.

The church’s initial vision was to offer tutoring and a home nursing service. Then the congregation learned that another church had started a tutoring program, and potential volunteers for a home nursing service didn’t have the energy for it. The congregation then learned that a food shelf was desperately needed in the area, and they had willing volunteers.

As volunteers were engaged in conversations with the community, the church expanded the ministry into other areas and in partnership with the city and other organizations.

In her book, Skjegstad lists pros and cons of seven different ways churches can serve their communities: donate goods or money, mobilize volunteers, partner with other organizations, advocate around public policy, engage in community organizing, develop a ministry program, and create a church-based nonprofit.

“I just think there are a lot of possibilities for how we can transform our communities,” Skjegstad says. However a church decides to pursue ministry in its community, Skjegstad says, “It’s about being in relationship with people and not just doing good. I tell churches that if what they’re doing does not provide a relational opportunity, then it’s not transformative.”

That doesn’t mean the ministry must lead people to Christ, she adds. “We need to think more broadly about what it means to be Jesus. It’s not necessarily up to us to ‘close the deal.’ ”

Few people a church serves through its outreach will ever attend the church, Skjegstad says. “But people will come to your church because they see you serving the people.”

Skjegstad is also the author of Winning Grants to Strengthen Your Ministry and Starting a Nonprofit at Your Church.

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1 Comment

  1. Does anybody remember that the YMCA began as an evangelistic enterprise? Without great discipline on the part of the church, social service historically crowds out evangelism because earthly concerns are easier to deal with than eternal consequences.

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