What is Your Church Known For in the Community?

Are you being the best church for your community instead of being the best church in your community?

Do you see the distinction? Here are some alternative questions that may help clarify it a bit more: What is your church known for? What do people not connected to your church say about it? Or, how about this one: If your church closed down, would the community even notice?

It comes down to purpose. What’s your church’s ultimate goal? What’s your purpose?

Unfortunately, for many churches (and organizations overall), it’s easy to slip into self-preservation and self-service, turning to an “all about us” strategy.

I hear and experience this self-serving strategy all the time. Good-intentioned churches and ministries have a desire to serve people well and want to see their church grow.

So the church focuses on having the best coffee in town, even though Starbucks is 100 yards away. Or they emphasize being the most welcoming church in the city because they hear new members say they felt “welcomed” as a guest. (Spoiler: Every church thinks they’re a welcoming church.) Or they use their first point of connecting with guests to provide a bag filled with a church-branded mug, pen, and journal.

But does any of this move the needle in that stated goal of serving the community?

A lesson from Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A is known for its chicken sandwiches. But the company is also known for its incredible hospitality, how it cares for its customers, and being active in the restaurant’s community.

Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, often said about his chicken sandwich restaurants, “We should be about more than just selling chicken. We should be a part of our customers’ lives and the communities in which we serve.”

Paving for Pizza

In his book Know What You’re For, Jeff Henderson gives Domino’s Pizza as an example of being for the community.

In June 2018, Domino’s launched its Paving for Pizza community initiative. We probably all know what it’s like to be driving with a pizza on the front seat, hit a pothole, and watch the pizza go flying. Domino’s decided it would be a win-win for communities and their customers if they fixed a few potholes around the country. They launched PavingforPizza.com and invited communities to submit requests for Domino’s to pave the potholes free of charge to the community.

Within a few weeks, the company received requests from every U.S. state, including 31,000 ZIP codes. They had hundreds of thousands of website visits, videos played, Twitter mentions, and more. It was a success. Henderson continues:

This is a classic example of how a win for the community can be a win for a business [or church]. Sure, Domino’s could have created a campaign about how much better they are than their competitors—but… yawn. Who really cares that you think you’re better than your competition? Show us what you’re doing for us. Show us who you’re FOR and not who you’re against. Give us a reason to talk positively about your organization because when you do, we’ll become a sales force for free.

For the community

Several years ago, a pastor in Colorado asked this article’s opening question: Is our church being the best church for our community instead of being the best church in our community? Rick looked at the history of the church he led. He saw how, over the years, they had transitioned in how they served the community. At first, their church had the classic mindset—it was all about bringing “them” to “us.” Over time, that strategy changed, becoming “us” going out to “them.” But, as he wrestled with this question, he asked, “How can we encourage the church to be the church amid the community? Instead of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ how can we make it a collective effort?” They began to explore opportunities to be for their community rather than just in the community.

A wake-up call

Pastor Scott Wilson, global pastor at Oaks Church in Red Oak, Texas, once talked about how the mayor challenged their church to change its reputation in the community. In a conversation with their city’s leadership, the mayor described the church’s poor reputation. Oaks Church was known to the community as a big church doing its own thing instead of helping the community. They were too busy doing things in the community instead of existing for the city.

It was a wake-up call for Pastor Scott. Their church leadership met and realized they needed to pivot. They created a community relations role, where the person would meet with community leaders, school boards, and other civic and community organizations. Oaks Church invited all the service organizations from the city to the church as part of a broader campaign where church members could experience all that was happening in their community and how to get involved. The last major shift Oaks Church made was to align its church calendar with the community’s calendar. For example, the church supported the city’s fall event instead of doing its own fall festival.

These changes resulted in a complete image change for the church over time. Later, the mayor returned to Pastor Scott and recognized the church, saying their community was better because of Oaks Church.

What are you known for?

So, what is your church known for? Are you being the best church for your community, or are you aiming to be the best church in your community?

If you want to be the best church for your community, learn about your community and its needs. Where the community and your church intersect is the best place you can step up for your community.

Venn diagram to Finding Your FOR: Your Community on the left, Your Church on the right.
Where your community and your church overlap is a great way to establish how your church is FOR the community.

Learning about your community, its needs, and how to best be for your community starts with listening. Consider these and other ways you may listen to learn about the community:

  • Gather census data

  • Join local Facebook groups and take note of what’s discussed

  • Attend School Board or City Council meetings

  • Meet with civic leadership and listen to what they talk about

  • Gather recent news articles that pertain to your community

  • Meet with other service organizations and hear about how they’re serving the community

As you listen to the community’s needs, also consider the unique character of your church. Your church has stated and implied passions and values. And your church attracts a certain type of person. All of these things are okay! We find and build community around shared experiences, and church is no different. But it’s important to recognize your church’s unique flavor. If you don’t know your church audience, consider how you might listen and learn about your church audience:

  • Gather membership demographics

  • Listen to underlying commonalities in conversations with members

  • Consider life stage and lived experiences

  • Learn what members do in their free time

  • Ask why guests returned for the second visit (and don’t settle for they felt “welcome” but ask clarifying questions to get at the heart of why they felt connected)

After you consider your two groups—your church and your community—where do they intersect? What common spaces do you find? That’s where your church can step in to truly be for your community.

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