Loving Your Community, Stephen Viars. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2020.
Summary: A pastor whose church has developed a number of community-based outreach ministries, describes their journey into this work, and the variety of ministries that have resulted.
Is the motto of your church “Say no unless you have to say yes” or “Say yes unless you have to say no”? That is a question Stephen Viars poses in the opening pages of this book. Sadly, a number of churches say “no” to community outreach because of possible risks to their facilities. Viars proposes that it comes down to loving our neighbors in the name of Jesus.
This is where the journey began for Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana. The church was growing and they began to ask what God was calling them to next. They started to realize that one of the best ways to do this was to listen to their neighbors. They surveyed the neighborhood, talked to law enforcement, and out of this discerned that the start was to build a community center instead of a larger sanctuary–a center that supported families, provided good childcare, youth programming, and served veterans and seniors. They are honest when asked why they are doing this, that they want to show love that reflects God’s love in sending his Son, and that they are glad to talk about that if people want to know more.
The second part of the book describes some of the ministries they developed. They offered biblical counseling and equipped counselors. They found ways to make their facilities available for everything from childcare to community forums. They tapped the talents of members to offer instructional classes on an array of subjects from marriage, family, and parenting to computer classes to financial management. They restructured ministries from just being oriented around church members to include the community–youth ministry, community picnics, and other gatherings. They developed outreach activities and collaborated with the community in staging them. At the request of the city, they engaged in neighborhood restoration. They built multiple community centers in different parts of the city, again at the invitation of the city and funders. They created residential treatment programs.
The third part of the book offers advice and answers questions for others considering getting started. They talk about risk management, disclosure, insurance, and legal reorganization (fourteen separate entities in all for this church’s various efforts). An important principle is to separate risks and assets so that “any entity that does ministry has no assets and any entity that has assets does no ministry.” They are committed to not compromising the gospel in any ministry. Viars outlines a twelve step process for others wanting to get started in community-based outreach. The book concludes with stories of two other congregations who worked with Faith Church in the launching of their own, context specific community-based outreaches.
All this may sound a bit overwhelming until one realizes this was a thirty year journey for this church. One of the big takeaways is that a church can listen to the community, work with public officials and outside funders without compromising gospel integrity. The key is a church known for serving its community, that shows up and can be counted on. This is so rare in any city, and people will listen to, or at least tolerate its message when it is accompanied by attentive listening and love in action.
The one thing I miss in this account is how this church collaborated with other churches in the community, particularly as they ministered in neighborhoods distant from their primary location. Sometimes, I’ve seen large congregations simply outshine and overwhelm smaller, under-resourced neighborhood churches rather than partner with and empower them. I don’t know what is the case here.
What is so helpful is the model of a church that keeps saying “yes” to God in terms of serving its community. Viars offers so much in the way of practical accounts of how each ministry developed and the process they went through that may serve to persuade other churches that it is really possible to love one’s community not only aspirationally but in deed as well as word.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.