Engaging Your Community through Lent
By Bryan Tener
Congregations often turn inward as we journey through the lifecycle of the congregation. We become satisfied with maintaining the comfort of those who are already here and lose sight of the mission that we are called to be stewards of, the mission to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The season of Lent leading up to Easter is a season of preparation, readying ourselves for the celebration of Resurrection. It is also a time to focus on growing as disciples and extending ourselves outward into our neighborhoods and engaging the community around us in a way that builds meaningful relationships.
When we speak of engaging the community around us as disciples, we are speaking of building relationships, for that is where discipleship begins. Ministries like evangelism, outreach, and others flow out of those relationships as we begin to know the people around us. Community engagement is more than missions, which might normally be understood as hands-on helping work, and it is more than evangelism, which often is seen as inviting people to church through events like block parties, booths at street festivals, and the like. It’s about building relationships through which mission and evangelism occur as authentic relationships are deepened, and it reframes ministry away from “ministry for” to “ministry with” those around us. Discipleship begins with relationship and seeks to offer relationship with God and one another, so that all can know and experience the good news of Jesus Christ.
At Path 1, we have gathered ideas about connecting with our neighbors from church planters, conference developers, and pastors of long-time existing congregations, from both small congregations and larger ones. These ideas range from stand-alone ideas or ways to engage the community throughout Lent, building toward long-term relationships/partnerships and could be adapted to fit your context. As you begin planning for how your congregation will experience Lent and Easter this year, think about how relationships can be built with your neighbors, so that our God-given mission will move forward.
Ashes to Go
Ash Wednesday begins the forty days of Lenten preparation for Easter. Lent brings reflection on our human frailty and mortality, a recognition of death, and the need for that which offers the fullness of life – God’s love known in and through Jesus. The church offers a public witness, as we leave the worship space and head into the world, marked by ashes on our foreheads, readying ourselves to experience Easter Resurrection, the ashes and dust made beautiful, our lives experiencing the hope of becoming fully alive. Generally though, Ash Wednesday services are in the evening; afterward, people head home, not really having an opportunity to engage with other people. One way to create an opportunity for engaging those in the world around you is in the practice of “ashes to go.”
Over a decade ago, Urban Village Church in Chicago started “Ashes to Go” on Ash Wednesday. Several congregational members set up in various parks throughout the area to offer ashes to people in the community as they walked through. In other communities, in local coffee shops, pastors offered to impose the ashes on customers who accepted the invitation.
What might “Ashes to Go” look like in your community? Would it involve setting up a few worship stations in high traffic areas, or would it be in the local diner or coffee shop? Urban Village Church announces the locations and the times of “Ashes to Go” on their Facebook page and on their website. Members share the posts, so others will know. Announcing “Ashes to Go” at a coffee shop could take place much the same way. It would also be helpful to have a small paper sign sitting with you on your table, offering to pray with people and impose ashes.
“Ashes to Go” is a way to demonstrate a desire to connect with the community around you, to share something of the meaning of ritual and practice, and to embody God’s invitational grace as a beginning point for conversation and relationship. A printed card with a prayer, an interpretation, and local church information would be helpful, but it should be a supplement to aid in the conversation rather than something that replaces the conversation. Engaging and building relationships with people who are carrying burdens and needing grace in their lives should be what drives any attempt to take the “ashes to go.”
LaGrange United Methodist Church in North Georgia holds a conversation-based worship experience at a local chicken-wing restaurant. It began this experience through conversations with millennials in the community as they connected through various networks. They visited places where millennials gathered – restaurants, pubs, and young professional lunches and organizational gatherings. After listening, the congregation created space for meaningful conversations and community building. To advertise, the church used Facebook, and leave-behind coasters at the restaurant that shared times and what would take place.
Who are the people who live in your community? Demographically, are the people in the community the same as those in the congregation? Whose voices do you need to hear as you think about your church engaging the people around you? Who are the leaders in your congregation who could have those conversations? If your community does not have a restaurant that acts as a gathering space, where else could you go outside the church building that could serve as a safe space for those who would not normally attend worship in a church facility?
Throughout Jesus’ life and ministry, he met people where they were, physically and spiritually. When people had questions or were looking for something more, Jesus would say to them, “Come and see.”
According to Barna research, 68 percent of religious non-Christians identify as being on some sort of spiritual quest. People may be open to meaningful conversations if they have the opportunity. Further, people long for community in a time when individuals feel isolated, empty, or rejected. The space we create as we move out of the church building and meet people where they are can be the opportunity to build community and deepen relationships, to be a bridge toward a deeper relationship with God.
Some people might respond to a weekly dinner and conversation around a book. Richard Rohr’s The Universal Christ, Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration, or McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, The Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road would invite reflection and conversation. Another option would be to take what you hear in conversations with those in your community, the themes from what they were saying, and create conversations around those. The work of deep listening at the beginning can help shape a series.
By extending ourselves into the places where we live, our community, we can embody the care and compassion Jesus offered. Through deep listening we can get a sense of the worries, the hopes, and the disconnections people carry with them. By creating space for conversations and for building relationships and sharing meals, we can begin to pour Resurrection hope into world.
For more information about the Wing Church, see "A Wing and a Prayer."
Acts Of Kindness
The season of Lent often creates an opportunity to take up a spiritual discipline to draw closer to God. Sometimes it is fasting or journaling, and sometimes it is doing a daily devotional reading. Another option for Lent would be to pick up a discipline of doing an act of kindness and reflecting on how you experienced God’s love in doing that act of kindness. Shannon Karafanda, a United Methodist church planter in the North Georgia Conference, issues what she terms “the holy mischief” challenge during Lent. She challenges her congregation to do random acts of kindness each day and to share how they encounter God in those acts.
You could offer your congregation that same challenge and post it on your Instagram or Facebook pages and then invite your congregation to share it across their own pages as a way to inspire others to offer acts of kindness. Consider providing a moment or two during the worship service for individuals to share meaningful moments of offering kindness as a way to encourage sharing stories of ways that God is at work. You might offer a printed list of kind acts or a bingo card that can be filled up with small strips of paper with acts of kindness. You could invite people to place the strips of paper with the acts of kindness they’ve accomplished on the altar during worship or in a basket or collection plate as a sign that these acts of kindness are an offering to God. These acts of kindness can be a way to engage our neighbors, our co-workers, people we meet in the places we go to eat, have a cup of coffee, or wherever we might find ourselves. These acts can be a bridge that deepens old friendships or begins new ones. Acts of kindness, giving of ourselves in some way to others, can be a spiritual discipline that helps us to grow in the grace that we offer and the grace that we receive. Looking for opportunities to offer kindness to others takes intentionality. Having the vision to see how God is at work in this takes reflection. The season of Lent marked by kindness can be one of growth, and it can be a movement that prepares us for the experience of living a resurrected life and offering that to others.
Here are a few links with helpful ideas to get you started:
Messiah United Methodist Church in Plymouth, Georgia, is one of many churches that engages its community through the local police. Westwood United Methodist Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, does so as well, although each engages the community differently. Messiah United Methodist Church Pastor Steve Richards tried to discern how the church’s members could support Plymouth’s police force. The pastor had heard from the police that the department received baked goods all the time and those really wouldn’t help. Messiah members decided to send cards of encouragement. Cards were placed in the bulletins for Sunday worship, and congregants wrote personal notes, 200 in total, and the notes were then sent to the police department. Many people who supplied a return address received notes back from the officers. When demands become stressful or situations take place that take an emotional toll, the police remember the encouragement that was given.
Westwood UMC collects gift cards to give to the police to enable the police to help those they serve. This, in turn, improves police-community relations and the church’s relationship to the local police. Sometimes events happen, and the police need the help of others. The church, through building relationships, can provide help in circumstances in which the faith community is needed.
In your community, what is the relationship between the police force and the neighborhood? What is the relationship between the church and the police force? Is there a possibility of support the church could offer? Who would be the leaders you would need to have with you to listen for what support would be needed? You congregation might want to collect gift cards throughout Lent and then give the police the gift cards at Easter time. This idea could be adapted to include first responders and fire fighters as well.
Each day, people in our communities endure challenges and hardships; sometimes those challenges involve the police. Stress and the emotional weight that those events create can take their toll. The church has an opportunity to support and encourage those who work to keep people safe. Doing so can help the church to be seen as the place that offers hope to those going through difficult situations.
As we walk through the Lenten season seeking to grow closer to God, I always think of the affirmation, “You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased ” in the Gospel of Mark and a similar one in Matthew. We all need to remember that we are beloved children of God and that we matter, every single one of us. Too often, that is is not what people experience. Consider human trafficking: women and children are made to feel alone, isolated, of no worth. The good news of Jesus Christ says that this is not so. The church can be the voice that declares this and takes action. Part of that is learning and raising awareness within our community.
A church plant in Virginia Beach hosts “Mardi Bra” each year where women from the church and community gather to prepare for Lent by collecting undergarments and feminine hygiene products to distribute to local women’s shelters and learn about issues (including human trafficking), so they can be more aware of how to help those in crisis in the community.
Consider spending the season of Lent doing a study on human trafficking and hosting a community learning/awareness event. The United Methodist Women (UMW) offer many resources, including ideas for hosting community awareness events. On the UMW website, you will find Bible studies, fact sheets, stories, and other information that can help with an event.
Engaging the Schools
One of the fertile places for transformation to occur is with local schools, both for those who serve and for the students and teachers who receive support and encouragement. Churches have a great opportunity to make a difference and help support students through the learning environment. A good place to begin conversations is with the district superintendent or principal, asking about the needs of the school, the gifts it offers to the community, the challenges, how the church could serve as a partner to support the schools. It is vitally important to listen and not assume you know what the school needs. Through listening, you may discern an opportunity to reach out in small ways, short-term; or you may find yourself working toward a long-term partnership.
One congregation partners with their neighborhood school by matching faculty with prayer partners from the congregation, providing snacks in the teachers' lounge, remembering staff with small gifts, birthday cards and thank-you notes throughout the year, serving breakfast to teachers, and volunteering in the classroom. The Rev. Connie Marie Stutts of Beech Grove United Methodist Church in New Bern, N.C., said, "One of the teachers told me that whenever she is having a bad day, she just picks up one of her cards and remembers that she is loved and appreciated and being prayed for."
A congregation might begin a long-term tutoring/reading schedule with a class or grade or provide snacks to teachers and staff. One local church began inviting church members to read with students each week. One of the members who was serving at the school learned that the fall school carnival typically had low attendance. To cover the cost of the carnival, the school had to charge families to attend; however, many of the families in this school could not afford to pay to attend the carnival. Seventy percent of the school received free and reduced-price lunches. Upon hearing the need, this local church provided funding for the carnival. Several members from the church helped run games at the carnival and did what was needed, so that teachers and parents could interact more with their children and students.
There are multiple forms that church and school partnerships could take based on the context of your neighborhood school, from adopting a grade or a class to supporting teachers to serving at a spring event. The local school is one place where the church can actively support teachers and students as they seek to grow, learn, and prepare for the future.
Here are a few helpful resources from across the connection as you begin to plan:
The Mountain Sky Conference offers a helpful list of ways churches in that conference are partnering with schools: https://www.mtnskyumc.org/connectingwithschools.
Great Plains offers a case study on how one partnership turned into a long-term relationship: https://www.greatplainsumc.org/files/resources/education/eastheightspartnership.pdf.
The Lewis Center for Church Leadership offers a great list of ideas and useful tips on engaging with schools: https://www.churchleadership.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/50-Ways-to-Engage-Local-Schools.pdf.
As you plan the Lenten season and imagine how your congregation will prepare for Easter, what they’ll experience in worship, what disciplines they take on, what hopes and dreams of resurrection living they carry with them in their hearts, I invite you to imagine the hopes and dreams of the community around you and consider implementing some or all of these ideas. What will resurrection look like and how will the church’s engagement with the community and the relationships that form offer glimpses of resurrection hope?
 Junius B. Dotson, Engaging Community: A Guide To Seeing All The People. (Nashville: Discipleship Ministries, 2018), 23.