Travel bans, canceled flights, and missionary trips put on hold. When I crave adventure instead of another day loving those in my circle, God reveals opportunities that I may have never seen before in my home and in my neighborhood. Even as we talk about going to the nations and bringing the gospel to the unreached, we shouldn’t forget to start with our own city.
As we reflect on a year of unexpected adjustments in ministry and consider what might be possible for 2021, we can certainly plan to serve those in our communities. Here are a few practical steps for engaging in service and evangelism in your city.
Our communities are not only places—they are collision points of stories, personalities, history, and culture. In order to serve your city well, it is important to become aware of your context. You might, for example, read a book about its history, get to know its cultural makeup, and become more alert to the religious practices that influence the way people live and worship.
As a resident of Birmingham, Alabama, becoming aware of history, culture, and context is an irreplaceable and ongoing step in understanding how to love my community well. In my city, food deserts, failing schools, and lack of affordable housing can be traced back to segregation, racial violence, and “White Flight” out of the city to create new residential areas, among other causes. These historical factors affect the needs and attitudes of the people within my immediate mission field.
Take time to become aware of specific needs in your community before investing your resources. This requires listening, prayer, and careful consideration. Does your city have a failing school system? Does your rural community lack nutritious food? Do some neighborhoods need repairs to their homes? Does a single mother live on your street? Each place and individual are different. In order to become aware of the specific needs in your community, work to become friends with those in need in your neighborhood, whether at your kids’ school or on the streets of your city.
We live in a broken world. As you become aware of the complex culture around you and the vast needs in your community, become aware of your own capacity. What do you have to give? We receive instruction and freedom from 1 Peter 4:10 related to serving in the church, and we could apply this to our community as well: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”
Examine your God-given gifts, assess your strengths and weaknesses, understand the opportunities and limits of your current season, and, above all, rest in the fact that there is only one Savior. Then, find a need that matches the resources you have to give, whether that is time, money, energy, an open seat around the table, or an empty bed in your home.
Build a Team
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the vast array of needs in your city. Once you have examined your gifts, you are free to faithfully serve within your capacity and within the opportunities at hand, no matter how insignificant this may seem. God will certainly challenge you to step outside of what is comfortable or convenient, but he knows our finite state (Psalm 103) and calls the church to act as a body. The early church modeled a “team” approach to ministry by delegating tasks based on roles, callings, and resources of time and energy that believers had to offer. In Acts 6, the twelve disciples decided their resources were not being used wisely and effectively. In order to focus on preaching and prayer, they instructed the church to select seven wise and Spirit-led men to oversee the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1–4).
When we know the needs around us and the brothers and sisters within our church, we can build a team that connects diverse needs with unique gifts and resources. Right now, the resources I have to give are my time and energy. I have found a way to use this to invest in children who need extra help with virtual school at a local YMCA. This fits my current season, which looks much different from a pastor, working parent, or retiree in my church. Working together as a team is more effective because we can be faithful in our individual roles while knowing that good work is being done all around the city.
In order to employ resources in the most effective way, take time to personally know your church –– its gifts and opportunities –– and then lock arms with others so that you can meet pressing needs in your community. Service should not be a burden but rather a lifestyle in which our love for God, our passions, and our opportunities collide. Operating as a body allows Christians the freedom to match individually unique gifts with specific areas of need in order to fulfill a larger purpose commissioned to us by Jesus.
Among many things, 2020 has taught us to be flexible in ministry. Once we have thoughtfully and prayerfully matched resources with needs in our communities, a final step is to be attentive. As you drive down the street, as you scroll through social media, as you see the names of those who are isolated in your own congregation, be attentive to your neighbors.
Gratitude for our salvation and compassion for those who walk in darkness should drive us to seek out opportunities to serve and share as we go throughout our daily lives, even in a pandemic. This imperative is found in Ephesians 5:8: “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true).” When we take each step as children of the light, we see new opportunities to love.
Matt McGee, author of The View from the Rocking Chair, points out that the greatest gift we can give to another in 2020 is our undivided attention. Walking as children of the light means being attentive to our neighbors, listening to their stories, and reminding them of their inherent worth and dignity in the process. Serving attentively also means paying attention to spiritual and emotional needs that go beyond a neighbor’s physical needs.
Additionally, be attentive to the way your resources are used. Stewardship is not only mentioned in the context of money but also in terms of our gifting. First Peter 4:10 tells us to be “good stewards of God’s varied grace.” It is always beneficial to consult those who have backgrounds in sociology, business, and economics in order to understand how a church’s resources can best serve a community. We must remember those good intentions are only part of the picture and that proper steps should be taken to ensure that we are helping instead of hurting those in need around us.
Finally, be attentive to the Holy Spirit. Paul modeled this, and Acts 16:6 reveals an interesting detail about the Spirit’s leadership throughout his missionary journeys: “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” The Holy Spirit will direct our evangelism if we follow his lead, for He knows the hearts and minds of those we desire to serve. He knitted the DNA of the orphan (Psalm 139:13); he knows every hair on the head of the neighbor experiencing homelessness (Luke 12:7); he has good plans for the widow (Psalm 68:5); he offers hope and a future for children in failing schools (Jeremiah 29:11).
Darkness and depravity can be overwhelming and our response is often flawed, but the Spirit empowers us to walk in considerate awareness, humble partnership, and with compassionate attention to our neighbors. When the future is unpredictable and you long to serve, start with your city.