In Video #4 of the SHIFT Conversation series, Franz Rigert shares the Five Areas of Ministry around which we are focusing on developing resources. From time to time I will lift up examples in Shift Space from one of these areas of ministry as a way to highlight the possibilities and inspire creative thinking.
One of the five resource areas is community engagement. Congregations that are vital and alive are often engaged with their local communities in meaningful ways. This engagement often rises out of a sense of identity or passion within the congregation—a gift the congregation has to give. It also comes from an understanding of a community need that the congregation is able to address in some meaningful way. Often, congregations develop partnerships with other community organizations through which both parties pursue goals that are mutually agreed upon and beneficial to all in some way. The primary reason to engage our communities is because of the gospel call to love God the most and our neighbor as ourselves.
The congregation I attend most often on Sunday mornings is Mount Vernon/Zwingli, UCC, where Brad Brookins is the pastor. I’ve only been an official member of the congregation for a year and a half but I’ve known Brad and heard his stories about Mount Vernon’s efforts to engage its community for almost 10 years.
Mt. Vernon has an average worship attendance of 55 on Sunday morning. We have a quaint church building in tiny Mount Vernon, an unincorporated community within the town of Springdale between Mt. Horeb and Verona. A number of current and former members of Mount Vernon UCC have their roots in farming. Currently, we have a small but active cohort of folks who have small, mostly organic farm operations or homesteads. Brad is bi-vocational in that he farms chickens, vegetable and fruit crops and raises a couple of beef cattle to provide meat for himself and a small number of friends and family and also pastors the church.
In the past 10 years this small congregation has done a number of different things in their attempts to engage the community of homesteaders and small organic farmers that make their living in and around Mt. Horeb and Verona. They have hosted Winter Farmer’s Markets on their own and in partnership with the Churches’ Center for Land and People (now the Food, Faith and Farming Network), planned community potlucks in the Mount Vernon park, offered fundraising concerts for Haiti in partnership with local musicians, participated in a community-based theological conversation group, hosted local food dinners using products from farmers in the community, planted a small community garden and are currently working on initiating a farmer coffee klatch at a Mt. Horeb cafe, and a community-wide youth group effort. Some of these things have happened more than once. Some of them have only happened one time. Some are just getting off the ground. Some were successful and some not so much. However, the consistent theme has been the desire to find ways to connect and engage based on who we are as a congregation and how that connects with the people who live and work around us.
You don’t have to be a huge congregation to engage your community. You don’t have to invent the next tradition that will last for 50 years. All you have to do is have a heart for serving and reaching out to those who aren’t already part of your community in a way that makes sense for who you are and that connects with what the community at large might possibly need or want.
What we are learning after more than 10 years of effort is that the reach and the impact of our congregation are much, much wider than our official worship attendance would indicate. We are starting to understand that there is a broad community of people like us who are hungry for community and connection and we are dedicated to finding ways to connect and build community with them. This might not mean a huge leap in average worship attendance on Sunday morning and that’s o.k. The larger goal is to engage the world with God’s love and that is what we are committed to with these efforts. We trust the Spirit of love to do the rest. We also trust that those who are inclined will find their way to believing by first knowing that they belong and that we are committed to being in community with them.
May God bless and keep you in your own efforts to engage your community. If you have a story to share, please do so in the comments section below or send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.