It’s a good sign when people in a local congregation see needs and want to meet them, see injustice and want to stop it, or see a good cause and want to support it. It’s a sign that their eyes are open to the world around them. They’re not simply going through the motions of life and school and work and church; they see themselves as agents of change in a world that is broken and fallen.
Think of it this way: When a church does a good job equipping people to think and live as Christians in a fallen world, the people become like rivers overflowing the banks of the church gathered (the lake). The landscape changes when there are lakes and rivers. But not all lakes need to be rivers.
So what do you do when one person wants their passion to be the primary passion for the whole church? This is the tricky part. You want to encourage and bless the efforts in the world without allowing your congregation’s primary focus be diverted to other activities. You don’t want church members passing out voter guides or hijacking every small group experience so that politics reign supreme.
There are no easy answers to this question because every church and every community and every activist is a different mix of personalities and passions. But here are some principles to keep in mind:
1. Be aware of how quickly the uniting factor of a congregation can become a cause rather than the cross.
I hesitate to begin with a word of caution because it could give the impression that I am discouraging political or social activism. Far from it. The reason I begin with a caution is because of how easy it is for the unifying factor of a church to become what we do for others instead of what Christ has done for us. Churches that boast of unity in various causes can eventually displace the cross. The gospel is still there, but it’s no longer in the center. Something else is uniting the church – a political cause, social work, a community ministry. Put the gospel at the center, and various ministry opportunities will come alongside as demonstrations of the power of Christ’s work on the cross. But put a cause at the center, and various ministry opportunities will flourish for a time and then wither away, no longer connected to the source of life that can sustain activism.
2. Promote unity regarding a goal, not necessarily unity regarding every method.
Recognize the difference between unity regarding a cause and unity regarding methodologies. A church should be united in support of human rights for the unborn, but Christians may disagree as to how to best protect those rights. Some may picket abortion clinics; some may want to show graphic pictures; others may work in crisis pregnancy centers, etc. On another note, all Christians should have open hearts and open hands toward disadvantaged people who need health care. But some may think charities and churches should fill the gap. Others may think universal health coverage from the government is valid. Still others may provide different solutions. Christians can agree on the goal without agreeing on the specifics of how to get there.
3. Guard the platform of your church.
The pastor is constantly bombarded with self-invitations to take “just a few minutes” of precious platform time to give a report or make a congregation aware of a need. Whether it’s the Gideons placing Bibles around the world, missionaries coming home from furlough, medical missionaries providing essential healthcare or pro-life opportunities… everyone wants just a few minutes. Except for the congregation. They expect you to say “no” and protect them from the countless ministry opportunities that could be presented in a given week. Do your congregation a favor and guard the platform of your church. Only put activities in the bulletin that directly correspond to your church’s mission and presence in the community. You can’t be a megaphone for every single thing someone in your church wants to promote.
One of the best ways to encourage community involvement without giving up your platform is to host a missions fair once a year or so. Invite everyone to come to potluck, set up their booths in the foyer, and make brief presentations after dinner. Choose wisely which ministries you want to expose your congregation to, but here’s a chance to show people you care, without sacrificing time for worship.
4. Based on your church’s gifts and passions, provide opportunities for your congregation to get involved in the community.
Right now, our church is involved with tutoring elementary school students down the street. We’ve seen reports of this activity via video every now and then. We’re helping plant a church in Cincinnati, so we’ve Skyped in the planter. We’ve celebrated when families have adopted children from overseas, and we’ve hosted fundraisers to help them offset the cost. We are currently opening up the church to homeless women and children in need of emergency shelter, with different groups hosting these women on different nights on different months. These are ways that our church is ministering to the community. Enough people in the congregation were involved in the need for the church to realize it could help facilitate some of this good ministry. JD Greear lays out three approaches to individual ministries — own, catalyze, and bless:
To “own” a ministry means we staff and resource it directly. Those we “bless” are those we know our members are engaged in, but as an institution we have little interaction with them other than the occasional encouragement.
But the third category, “catalyze,” is where we put most of our energy. When we catalyze something, we identify members with ideas and ask them to lead us. We come alongside them, adding our resources, networking power, etc. We serve them. And that means sometimes they don’t do things exactly the way I would prefer. But in the long run, an empowered church catalyzed to do ministry will do more gospel-good in the community than if the church owns and staffs all its own ministries.
5. Publicly affirm and bless the kind of activism you want to see.
This is perhaps the most important thing you can do. Lift up examples of people who are the kind of activists you want to see. When you hear of people in your congregation doing good in the community, don’t be shy in letting the rest of the church know. What you celebrate, you become.
Trevin Wax is an author and the managing editor of The Gospel Project, a gospel-centered small group curriculum for all ages that focuses on the grand narrative of Scripture published by Lifeway Christian Resources. He blogs daily at Kingdom People.