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Community Outreach - Where to Start
So you want to "do" community outreach, but you don't really know where to start. What you should know is that your heart and mind should be prepared before your first outreach is even conceived. How do you do that?
1) Pray. While I fully believe that it is the calling of EVERY church to reach out to others with the love of Jesus through acts of kindness, having a clear vision of just how to go about that is needed. People can plan and execute...they may even have a modicum of success, but unless God is in the midst of what is being done, it will lose momentum, and ultimately fail. So, don't waste time and effort - pray.
2) Agree on your approach and purpose. Community outreach has 2 basic schools of thought: the "random acts of kindness" approach which is more about touching many people once (i.e. handing someone a cold bottle of water on a hot day) and "focused kindness" where a specific group of people are targeted over and over to establish relationships and invest in their lives (i.e. working with the residents of a local shelter). Neither is more right than the other, but making sure your group is on the same page with regard to purpose is essential.
3) Avoid labels. Regardless of whether your church is in an inner city neighborhood, the suburbs, or even the rural countryside, people have needs. But all needs don't look the same. There is a real temptation sometimes to say that we are doing 'outreach to the poor',. Who are the poor and what is poverty? Is it only the absence of finances? No. People can also be 'poor in spirit'. They have lost hope and joy because of health problems, relational problems, lack of a moral compass and more. While it is easier to identify those with outward rather than inward issues, all people need to be touched with the love of God.
4) Avoid an 'us and them' mentality. This goes hand in hand with #3. When we label people as poor or needy, we subconsciously put ourselves above them. We're the ones with the resources, the knowledge, the spirituality that they don't have and we're going to take care of them. It's subtle, but insidious. We shouldn't make outreach to others a "project." We are all people who have fallen short of God's glory. None of us are better than another. Our outreach should be something done with love and no strings attached. If no one ever seems to respond to our efforts, we continue to do it because through service we learn and grow in our relationship with God. It is not about our glory or success, it is something we do because God has called us to it and we are being obedient to Him. Examine your heart and understand your motivation for wanting to be involved in outreach.
5) Be prepared for what happens after the outreach. Especially if you are taking on the "focused kindness" approach, have a plan in place to work with those who respond. Are you working with people who don't have transportation to get to your church? Are you interacting with people who have large financial, emotional or life skills needs? When people respond, the worst thing you can do is be ill-prepared to assist them. If you are unprepared to handle follow up, you may lose credibility and the opportunity to work with them again.
6) And finally, Pray. Did I say that already? Seems like a no-brainer doesn't it? It should be, but so often we get caught up in the planning and programs that we forget Who's outreach it is. Prayer is needed not only at the inception of an idea, but throughout the planning, the implementation and the review. It should be the oil that keeps the gears moving. It prevents friction from developing and people from wearing out. Bottom line is that there can never be enough prayer.
Now that your heart and mind are in the right place, we can begin looking at actual outreach opportunities. Next up...Community Outreach - How to Choose.