Churches: Community Development is the New Community Service

Churches: Community Development is the New Community Service

By Bethany Slack, MPH, ARC Associate in Public Health & Wellness

Churches can have whole-health impacts in their communities. But churches who want to engage the physical needs of a local area need intention, planning, and a fuller picture of Christian love.

At the 2018 GO Conference in February, I attended a workshop called, “Bringing Life to Your Community, “ led by Archbishop Timothy Paul, President of the Council of Churches of Western Massachusetts (CCWM). There he presented a practical vision for engaging the whole-bodied needs of a local area.

The Archbishop reminded us of the insight (often attributed to Teddy Roosevelt), “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Members of a community sometimes don’t know how much churches care until they see us helping to address pressing physical needs.

CCWM fleshes out Jesus’ “do unto others” call into thoughtful ways that churches can discover community needs and develop sustainable programs. The main insight I took away from the workshop was the difference between community service and community development.


Community SERVICE vs. Community DEVELOPMENT

When I was growing up, my church took serving the community very seriously. Our small groups and youth groups regularly volunteered at the church’s food pantry or community clothing distribution center. Our hometown of Harrisonburg, VA, was a prime destination for immigration, so our church helped sponsor refugees and immigrants for resettlement in the US.

Our church also maintained a fund for helping out with community needs. My dad administered the fund for many years, instilling in me a value of thinking beyond the needs of our own family. In my adult life, I’ve volunteered at free clinics and resource centers for the homeless. So community outreach is rooted deep within me.

But I would call my outreach experience “community service.” The Archbishop presented a model for something quite different—community development.

As a public health professional at EGC, I’m developing a Boston-based program to help Christian leaders and healthcare professionals across the city convene to address end-of-life care needs. But I’ve not been involved in community development work connected to a particular church body.

Community development involves going out into the community and doing a needs assessment, discovering with local partners:

  • What are the needs and opportunities of this community?  

  • With whom can we partner?

  • What is the role of our church in the community?

  • What is our responsibility to the community?

  • How can we help build the community around us?

With the projects CCWM has developed from this discovery process, they’re not just giving out food or other items, but they’re trying to build the community’s own capacities. For example, CCWM is involved in mentoring youth, providing counseling, and other activities that help people get back on their feet or overcome their past.


Fullness of Life, Fullness of Ministry

CCWM’s approach is inspired by John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (NIV). For CCWM, “life to the full” includes five pillars of community health: spiritual, educational, economic, health, and social.

According to their “Vision 10:10” strategy, each of these five areas is an opportunity for the church to strengthen its surrounding community. Some of the ways CCWM has invested in these pillars in Springfield neighborhoods include:

  • opening a hotel to create jobs and revenue (economic)

  • obtaining a grant to mentor youth with incarcerated parents (social)

  • providing counseling for gambling and opiate addiction (health, social)

CCWM developed each of their initiatives in response to needs they observed in the community. For example, their interest in treating gambling addiction stems from the arrival of a new casino in Springfield.


My Next Steps

I’d like to see my current church come together to begin conversation about our role in the local community. That kind of shared discovery is not something I’ve seen. Mostly I’ve seen programs develop from the top down from the leadership, or even from the leadership practices of the churches that planted them.

We’re in Belmont, MA, and my husband and I have been a part of the church there since it was planted. As far as I know we haven’t yet held conversation about what it means to be in Belmont or our role in the Belmont community. We’ll need to also have some theological discussion around what it can mean (and doesn’t mean) to “be the church” beyond our walls.

My first step is to get together with one of the elders of the church and say, “Here are my thoughts about our serving the community. What do you think?”

We already have community outreach activities, and I don’t know how they came about. There may be these kinds of discussions going on behind the scenes that I don’t know about. Those of us not on the planting team haven’t yet had much influence on the kinds of community work the church does. So my first step is to connect with my church leadership.

I think God is inviting me to be open to what community development might look like to my church leaders. I’m not in leadership at the church. Yes, community development is on my heart, but I want to hear what’s in the hearts of the leaders too. Anything we do as a church, I’d want it to be coming not from me, but from the church as a whole.


For Reflection

  • Many of us attend churches outside of our home neighborhood or city. How does this reality affect our potential for community impact, individually and corporately, for the positive or negative?

  • Most of us attend churches that meet in a fixed location, whether owned or rented. How do we view our “place” in the neighborhood? Is it merely a space to gather, or is there potential or even responsibility to play an active role in seeking the good of the community?


Bethany Slack, MPH, MT, is the Public Health and Wellness research associate at EGC. Her passion is to see Jesus’ love translated into improved health and health justice for all, across the lifespan and across the globe.