Interacting with your local community and meeting practical needs.
Sometimes there is a huge disconnect between the church and its local community. How often will people come to the church seeking help of many sorts only to find none? At best we may half-heartedly make a referral for them to contact United Way, or some vague community help-line number, if that. When did the church get out of the business of helping people?
Early in my career, I was involved in church planting while being bi-vocational as a community social worker. When I worked with The Salvation Army, part of my job was being a crisis counselor to the greater Chattanooga community. Back then there wasn’t any handbooks, We kind of had computers, but Internet access was still a new thing. Yet I was charged with connecting people to community resources and making referrals all over the greater Chattanooga area.
How did I do it, and how did I learn what community resources we had back in the stone age, you may ask?
I read the phone book. As archaic as that sounds, it was the primary resource for this kind of information as this was just before the widespread use of the Internet. I looked through the yellow pages under “social service agencies, counseling agencies, or help agencies” and became aware of what my community offered, then I built my knowledge base from there. Years later there came a handbook of agencies through United Way, then a 411 help line, and then an internet listing for my community.
Over the years I have been surprised by the number of pastors and ministry leaders who honestly know little to nothing about their community resources. They do not know their community resources beyond perhaps that there might be a United Way, which in many communities is more of a funding source rather than a service provider. Often we, as pastors, have no idea of the nonprofits and helping agencies in our city. In centuries past, the church was known as the place of help, but now the help offered seems quite limited indeed, and we do not even take the time to educate ourselves on what is in our communities.
At the very least, we should be able to talk with people, and provide educated referrals to agencies in our communities that assist individuals and families in need of food, short term financial assistance, affordable counseling, homeless services, or aid to people with disabilities. We should be able to find answers to questions like: Who offers AA meetings? Where is a domestic violence program? and more. Chattanooga is not a small town, but it is not a big town either; there are many excellent non-profits and big hearts. This is true in most cities, great and small, in America.
Where To Start
So what can you do? How can you learn which agencies and churches in your community provide help to people? Well, you could do like I did, if you can find a phone book, but I wouldn’t advise it. Instead, let me make some other suggestions:
● Call your local United Way and learn who is in your community. They may have a helping agencies handbook available (unitedway.org). If so, then get one.
● If there is no local United Way, then start with the local governmental office or sheriff/fire department
● Check the internet (it’s easier than the phone book was).
● Start with The Salvation Army or Red Cross in your area, and see if they can begin to educate you on other community resources in your area.
● Could your community benefit from a coalition of local churches who have a heart to live the gospel by meeting needs? Our community has; it often starts with a coalition of churches.
It takes a little bit of work, but it is worth the effort for your church to become a place that can set people in the right direction to receive the help they need. If I can do this, anybody can. Is Christ calling us to be a light, a resource, an encouragement, and help in our communities, especially to those in crisis? I think so.
Father Dale Hall began ministry in 1987 at Calvary Baptist Church, in Rome, Georgia, and is an Anglican priest serving at The Mission, in Chattanooga, where he lives with his wife Kimberly. They have two sons and a daughter in law.