Every church has a story. I am not referring only to the story or message we try to manage in a carefully crafted sermon or a post on a Facebook page. Our story encompasses the depth and breadth of those gathered inside (active participants or members) as it intersects in one degree or another with the stories of those outside, (individuals who are not active participants or members of the church). The community church in Asia, for example, “became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia,” as the “Lord’s message rang out,” and their, “faith in God,” had, “become known everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8). The church in Asia "became known everywhere" through effective relationship-building behaviors and authentic community connections. The Thessalonians demonstrated a coherent and compelling love story that never ended.
Do you know that all over the provinces of both Macedonia and Achaia believers look up to you? The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message! (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8, The Message).
Authentic connections between the church and the community don't just happen. Effective and continuing stories are nurtured when individuals gathered in the church share systems-of-meaning with neighbors in the community. These systems-of-meaning include frequent interactions and public engagements in shared spaces outside the sanctuary, shared values and experiences, and common norms of behavior. Systems-of-meaning within the community not only vary among different churches, but within the life cycle of individual churches over time. How's your church interacting with the community today? What story is your community reading?
God has a love story to tell through you. Your urban, suburban, or rural, community is home to thousands of people. Of, course, you can't know all of them, but how well do you know those who make their church home within a five-minute walk of your church home or place of ministry? Studies show 46% of people will walk 1 mile to church or school. In the Northeast, that's about 20 blocks. In the Southwest, 10. How far would you walk to church? (Read Emanuel First Hispanic Church's walking story.)
I believe the single greatest opportunity we can embrace today is to take a walk. Walking is the new mission activity. As simple as this sounds, those of us who gather inside church buildings each week seem to have forgotten what our neighbors actually see when they look at our place of ministry. Its been a while since we paid close enough attention to listen with our neighbors's ears and see with our neighbor's eyes.
If we want our true love story to become known everywhere, we can begin by thinking differently about who our neighbors actually are in God's story, "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16).
Homework. (Try this and improve your story today!)
Start: Take a walk across the street and ask God to direct you to a neighbor you could thoughtfully engage in a brief conversation. In a neighborly way (think Mr. Rogers), ask your neighbor if they would be kind enough to share what they "know" about your church. What's the church's story they are reading? Be prepared to listen. Thank them for what you heard and let them know their opinions will influence your church's connections to the community. Remind them that God loves them and so do those who gather at your church. Take proactive steps to share with your leaders what you discovered and boldly re-calibrate your mission connections to write a new never-ending love story. (Go back to Start and repeat.)