You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The Church is the people, not the building.”
As we’ve navigated the Coronavirus era, churches have been forced to redesign ministry structures to rely less on gathering at a building, putting that common phrase to the test. Local pastor Ryan Traeger and the congregations at Brown Street UMC and Congress Street UMC in Lafayette, Indiana, have risen to the challenge with a new approach to the way they minister to their community.
When COVID hit, Ryan recognized a strength in his congregation that hadn’t been utilized due to gathering limitations—the efficient and servant-hearted way their volunteers came together to prepare post-funeral meals. He noted, in particular, that this group had a high morale and deep love for families as they walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
Ryan began asking himself, “How can we mobilize our congregation’s strengths to serve our community in the here and now?”
Ryan referenced the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) model as an inspiration for their thinking. This methodology challenges a needs-based approach, where the focus is on what the community is lacking or what is problematic. Instead, ABCD looks at the strengths, talents, and gifts that are already present within a group and seeks to mobilize those for the good of the whole community.
What can you do with a team of volunteers skilled in cooking for large groups, in a neighborhood full of families that you’d like to meet?
The idea was simple, “Let us take care of dinner for the night.” This past April, a group of volunteers came together to make a homestyle dinner, complete with pulled pork sandwiches, mac & cheese, cornbread, coleslaw, and cookies. Bags of food were loaded onto carts and delivered to families that requested them, along with information about ways to get involved in the church community.
By the end of the evening, over 150 meals were served, and a few neighbors joined the volunteer team to help prepare the bags. Ryan said that while they had prepared community meals before, this was the first time it didn’t require people to come to the church building. This simple gesture was a catalyst for conversations and relationships to begin between neighbors.
The event accomplished its goal—to meet people, make connections, and “be the Church” outside of the familiar church walls. A natural response would be to repeat the event. However, Ryan described a mindset shift that he wanted to embody when it came to serving the neighborhood. “Service now looks like participating in relationship with our neighbors rather than event-based programs,” he said.
Today, Brown Street UMC and Congress Street UMC are developing new rhythms in an effort to prioritize people over programs, such as going for walks and inviting people to visit their community garden.
During one afternoon walk, Ryan was encouraged to meet a family that regularly hosts barbecues for the neighborhood. He realized that the neighborhood was already “being the Church” to each other, and it was time for their congregations to join in. While going for walks and spending time in a community garden aren’t intricately planned, effectively advertised, or matching t-shirts kind of events, God has been showing up in big ways through small conversations.
When asked if Ryan had any advice for anyone wanting to pursue a shift towards relationship-focused ministry, he offered candidly, “Show up and shut up.” He elaborated by saying that at times, his greatest hindrance is a hesitancy to just show up, listen, and trust that God is going to lead in those moments.
There is a tendency to think far and wide when we hear Jesus’ command in the Great Commission, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). However, God is using simple moments on sidewalks of these Lafayette neighborhoods to draw people closer to Him. This season of ministry has been a testament to the truth behind, “The Church is the people, not the building,” and both congregations are prayerfully hopeful to see the fruit of these relationships continue to grow.