By BJ Leonard
In 2004, First Christian Church in Decatur, Illinois, was at a crossroads. Attendance was growing and programs were working, but something was missing. A poll of the congregation and leadership revealed a common burden to reach out and make a difference by serving in our community.
The state of our city and public schools had become similar to many urban settings across America. Due to rising crime rates and falling property values, many people with financial means had left for surrounding towns. The stability of their family relationships and positive community engagement left with them. As the issues facing hurting families and neighborhoods overflowed into the public schools, a second exodus began; parents either moved out of the city or enrolled their children in private education. The vacuum of investment and stability only intensified the problem, and the stigma deepened.
About this time, missional writers and speakers began to ask, “If suddenly your congregation ceased to exist, would anybody in the community notice?” We began to pray, asking God to lead us in reaching our city.
No-Strings-Attached Ministry in Schools
God responded in a big way. Soon, the superintendent of Decatur Public Schools observed, “We have dozens of schools in need and hundreds of capable churches. Let’s pair them together.” The One Church One School Initiative was born.
Later that year, two pastors from our church walked across the street to Parsons Elementary to meet the principal and ask, “How can we help the school?” The principal’s response was simple. The school needed to borrow a sound system for an event. The church took one over and the partnership with the school began.
The key to the success of this initial interaction, and many since, was that the church entered without an agenda. The number of volunteers at the school grew, and we developed greater trust with the teachers, staff, and district administration.
In 2006, with school and parent permission, we launched an after-school program called Club 305 to help students with math and reading. The program began with 16 students. The mission of Club 305 was, and still is, to instill hope by creating a stable learning environment, establishing positive relationships, and pointing to the hope of faith and community in Christ. Many of our students are vulnerable and from difficult family situations. We have always sought to keep the leader-to-student ratio low to better invest on a personal level with each student.
Club 305 is now in its 14th year, and the number of students and depth of relationships has grown. Over the years, we have seen students grow academically and watched them and their families come to faith. It has been a ministry of listening, caring, and faithful planting, often without seeing immediate fruit.
Moving into the Neighborhood
In 2012, God challenged us to go where our students and families lived. We were drawn to Jesus’ words about loving our neighbors in Luke 10. We were a church of mostly upper-middle-class people from the suburbs. It was one thing for students and families to come to the church building, but to go to their neighborhood would be a big stretch.
The following year, we identified an inner-city neighborhood called “the Block” and began to nurture relationships there. Ministry included meeting neighbors and hosting parties to build friendships. It would have been tempting to quickly start doing projects to help the neighborhood, but we wanted to make sure we were focusing beyond tasks. We wanted to know, love, and reach the people of the neighborhood. Eventually we began planting orchards, beautifying vacant lots, and helping residents with various needs. People always came first. As we established great friendships with residents, it opened the door for further ministry.
We obviously were excited, but God was not finished. He placed a burden on my family to become literal neighbors. Through his provision, the church acquired a house in the middle of the Block, and an army of volunteers made necessary repairs. In 2016, my wife and I moved into the house with our four young children.
Living in the Block has required unexpected sacrifices and offered unique ministry opportunities. When people hear of shootings or drug busts, they ask if we are scared. At times, there is fear. But we don’t want fear to drive our decisions. John 4 says Jesus was not afraid to go straight through Samaria, and God used his encounters there to change a whole community. Being committed long-term and ministering from within a community bring about credibility and depth with people. Our prayer is that our community will be changed. We know it will happen one individual and one family at a time.
During our time of community missions, we have learned several principles in developing a school partnership or neighborhood ministry:
Stick to the primary agenda. It is tempting for churches to go into schools or neighborhoods with an agenda to help in exchange for having “access” or to hand out promotional materials. Instead of serving to make someone a Christian, we should serve because it is what Christians are called to do. Begin by asking questions such as, What are the needs here? How can we help? What does the community desire? We can be open about our faith, but we shouldn’t be forceful. By doing this in our context, we have gained the trust and respect of students, teachers, and families. In the face of every crisis at the school or in the neighborhood, we have been invited in, as people turned to the church for funerals, counseling, and other support during times of great need. This is why we are here.
Influence culture. Community missions provide an opportunity not only to influence children and families, but also to influence culture. Teachers have a difficult job, so we do our best to love the students and maintain an optimistic attitude, influencing teachers to do likewise. In the same way, whether I am planting flowers, having neighbors over for a meal, or spending time playing outside with my kids, I am influencing the culture of the neighborhood around me.
Instill dignity. When we moved into the neighborhood, we noticed a low sense of dignity due to the transient nature of many residents and the poor perception from the outside. From the beginning, we demonstrated that our neighborhood was worth investing in because the people living here have value.
Our ministry has required considerable investment and sacrifice, yet only a small number of people have begun attending our church. However, for those who have been reached by the ministry—the former addicts and prostitutes, the hopeless, the orphans—it has meant a life change. These people are worth reaching.
Prepare for change. In the beginning, there may be a sense of “us” and “them.” But as people being reached in the community begin attending church events, the communication must reflect that “they” are becoming a part of “us.”In our context, we quickly moved away from such terms as “they” and “them,” choosing instead to say “our friends at Parsons” or “our neighbors in the Block.” The shift is in communication as well as culture to include things like the children’s check-in process, preaching language, awareness of background stories, the cost of events, and even staffing strategies. For our church, the weekend worship gathering now looks different because of our work in the community.
Make it personal. Community missions has a way of changing how people see the world and inspires them to take a similar posture in their own lives and places of influence. Many people who serve in our ministry say, “I can do this in my own neighborhood.” We have a saying: “Every block needs a one, and every one needs a block.” A house in an at-risk neighborhood isn’t a prerequisite to loving your neighbors. Imagine if every neighborhood in your community had just one person or family who made their neighborhood a place of mission and to show and share the love of Christ! This is what Jesus instructed us to do in the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Find open doors. Our story is unique to our church and community. Community needs, opportunities for involvement, and the strengths of a particular church can differ greatly. Therefore, a simple copy-and-paste approach will not work. Rather, it must be a pray-and-look approach. The key is discerning your unique gifting and calling in the midst of your community’s needs and then praying for an opportunity to meet those needs in a faith-led way.
Join God in his mission. Prayer must be the foundation of our work in our communities. There is no other hope apart from God’s work. People who are new to volunteering at Club 305 routinely say something like, “We get only four hours a week with these kids, and then they go back to situations that are so unstable and toxic.” In the wake of yet another shooting or tragic event, I sometimes think, Is there any way we can make a difference in this neighborhood? Yet, we know that God is indeed at work.
We often remember Paul’s words: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). We know our work is to join God in his larger mission. With this in mind, we continue in our ministry of obedience, faithfulness, and trust.
BJ Leonard serves as missions pastor with First Christian Church, Decatur, Illinois.