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Communities that Care: How One Church Discovered a Path to Community Partnerships

Every Wednesday evening, non-churched community members enter our doors and I have the opportunity to interact with those who might never otherwise step into a church. Isn’t that every neighborhood pastor’s dream? For me it is a reality not because I created any intentional program that led in that direction, nor because I had created a culture of evangelism/outreach in my church. I wish these for my current church. No, what I experience on Wednesday evenings at my small-town church in western PA is more of a result of collaboration with and submission to the current governing system rather than an independent effort.

When I first arrived at Covenant EPC Church in Sharon, Pennsylvania three and a half years ago, I attempted to create an environment like the above where current congregants could meaningfully mix and engage with residents of our surrounding neighborhood. After two years of trying such a program, we found ourselves unequipped and unprepared for a program aimed at such diversity. So we cancelled the program and focused our efforts elsewhere.

In the meantime, God was preparing inroads to our community in his timing. One principle of ministry facilitated a shift: shepherds “smell like the sheep” (stolen from a chapter heading of Jeramie Rinne’s Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus). I tried my best to meet with parents of our youth on their own turf—at the sporting field, at their job, in their homes. One of the dads of a youth group attendee was a parole officer at the time, and he had a favorite sports bar. He and one of his coworkers asked me to grab lunch there one weekday. I was excited to finally hangout with this busy father and learn more about his life so that I could learn best how to serve him and his family. This led me to a second ministry principle: sometimes it’s less about what you can do to serve others and more about how you can let others serve you. The conversation had nothing to do with this man as a father. He wanted to know more about me. After I shared about ways I have tried to invest in the local community, he invited me to a meeting called Communities that Care.

Communities that Care

I’ve been going to Communities that Care meetings for about two years now. I’m still not sure what all the acronyms mean, nor am I completely aware of how the committee functions in conjunction with local government. What I do know is that this committee is a seat at the table where government officials, parole officers, non-profits, child services, and other organizations in our community gather to discuss the welfare of the youth in the county I serve.

Over time, these meetings helped to make me aware of a third principle of ministry: your church does not have a monopoly on caring for families. In fact, there are probably organizations that have more resources and are better equipped to care for families in need than you do. 

This made me rethink my approach to ministry. Rather than gripe and complain about how families don’t make time for church in their busy schedules, what might it look like to take time out of our busy schedules to serve families in a way that meets them where they are? This was the question I had to wrestle with as I became more involved on this committee.

It was not a question of which one was best, but a question of my pride.

In my pride, I tend to think that I can create a program or form a relationship that is strong enough to draw a family into the church. But humility beckons me to first look up and see that Christ is the one who draws. Then I look out and see what common grace Christ has given the organizations around for me to be a part of. An equivalent might be the apostle Paul going first to the synagogue and then to the marketplace to share the Gospel. He saw where the people were already gathering and he became part of their lives there rather than at first creating an alternative place to attempt drawing people in.

Church as a Community Hub

So I served in the marketplace of our county. In the process, I have built relationships I otherwise would never have had the pleasure of forming. I have been given a voice at the table. And now, as I mentioned earlier, our church has been given an opportunity to be a place where those outside the church gather for community.

A community event in the Covenant EPC parking lot.

One program Communities that Care runs is called Strengthening Families. It is a research-based program meant to help families come together in those tough transitioning years when kids are ages 10-14. Far from having any “political agenda,” this program is based on the theme of “love” and “limits.” It equips parents to both enter into the world of their teens and set appropriate boundaries.

My involvement in this program highlighted a fourth principle of ministry: the Gospel is so powerful that it permeates places you would never expect--even this government program. Is not the Gospel one of love and limits? Jesus has come and met us where we are and by doing so empowers us to live within the good and wise limits in which he has created us to participate.

I take from that last principle a final theme for pastoral ministry. Wherever I go, God has gone before me. No matter how unfamiliar the territory, the familiar territory of the Gospel will still be there, even if only in seed. “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45, ESV). That is a theme that gives me hope for not only entering into unexpected partnerships, like partnering with government organizations, but also entering unexpected relationships and encountering unexpected cultural moments. Even in unexpected places, we can still expect to encounter the Gospel.

Matthew Geary is assistant pastor at Covenant EPC in Sharon. A Maryland native, Matthew loves to travel and has spent time living in NYC, ST. Louis, and Greenville, SC. He now proudly calls Sharon, PA home. He is Grove City College and Covenant Theological Seminary graduate. While at Covenant, he met his wife and best friend Bethany. Matthew enjoys many activities from frisbee to board games and movie watching. His favorite activity is talking to people about who they are in Jesus and how God has called and equipped them to be part of God's ongoing story of redemption.