One church admits it doesn’t have it all together—and uses that as a starting place for service
How many people go to your church? How big is your meeting space?
So often, these are the questions that churches get hung up on. And when a church doesn’t have the “right” answers (“hundreds,” “huge”), people can begin to think that their church is somehow lacking. This throws the congregation into survival mode, as people shift their gaze inward, intent on changing the church’s perceived weaknesses before looking to reach out to others.
Over the last few years, my church, New Community BIC (Chino, Calif.), has experienced several major transitions, all of which had left us feeling vulnerable. We didn’t have the “right” answers to questions about our size and space, and we began to focus on ourselves. What could we do to make ourselves look stronger, more attractive? Once we had everything just right, we reasoned, we could start thinking about reaching out to others.
But over the last year, our church has begun to second-guess this approach. Rather than asking how we can make ourselves look like we have it all together, we’ve decided to be honest. We’ve also discovered that, even in the midst of uncertainty, we have something to offer to our community, so we’ve started listening to our neighbors, asking what they need and how we might serve them.
The response we’ve heard has blown us away. In looking to bless others, we ourselves have been blessed, receiving the gifts of new joy and vision for the journey ahead in abundance.
A season of transition
New Community BIC began in 1988 as a church plant in Phillips Ranch, an upper-middle- class, planned community about 25 miles east of Los Angeles. The church leased a building in the community’s central shopping area and was conveniently located next door to a park.
After years in that setting, the church was forced to consider a change when the shopping center filed for bankruptcy. A new owner came in, and soon the monthly lease that New Community BIC had been paying was raised considerably.
At that time, New Community made the decision to leave the center and temporarily moved to a Holiday Inn in a neighboring town. In the midst of that shift, the pastor felt a call to another ministry.
Thus, in a matter of weeks, the congregation had left its original location, had moved to a hotel, and now faced a vacancy in the pastorate. As a result of these major transitions, attendance declined, and we were facing a crisis in our emerging identity.
New neighborhood, new mission
When I joined New Community as the “transitional pastor” in 2011, it didn’t take long to realize that our facilities at the Holiday Inn were not conducive to reaching our community. Located at the junction of two freeways, the hotel was surrounded by corporate buildings, with no homes within a mile in any direction. (Still, those of us at New Community BIC joked that we were a church with all the amenities—a gym, a swimming pool, a restaurant, and an ATM!)
I soon began the process of looking for a new meeting location for New Community BIC. After four months of searching, we found a church in the nearby town of Chino that was willing to let us hold our services in their building. Though only six miles from Phillips Ranch, Chino is in a much different setting, as an older, more rural community, historically centered around the dairy industry. We would need to make adjustments in order to fit into this new context.
At the same time, our church needed to take a realistic look at the toll of these transitions on our people. We’ve found ourselves focused upon surviving, rather than thriving. We’ve been expecting new people to come to us, rather than embracing our call to initiate interactions with our neighbors. We’ve been basically unknown to anyone outside of our regular attendees.
But over the last few months, we’ve heard Christ calling for us to move again—not to another building, but to a new sense of mission. To borrow from two reality TV shows, we want to see our church move from the “Survivor” mentality to “The Amazing Race” vision!
Tapping into our passion for service
New Community has always had a heart for those in need. Last year, our congregation sent a team to work on construction at a BIC church in El Salvador, and one of our ladies travelled to India with Mennonite Central Committee. We have served in Skid Row, L.A., and actively support compassionate ministries worldwide. But what about Chino, the community in which we’re currently meeting?
As we considered this question as a church, I was reminded of how another church I pastored had engaged the community in several annual events and had built a strong relationship there. Could a similar approach succeed at New Community?
I took this idea to the church board at New Community BIC, and after discussion, they encouraged me to move forward with the plan. I contacted the mayor of Chino, and he graciously agreed to meet with me, along with Chino’s community services director.
I expressed to them that New Community BIC wanted to get to know Chino, and we wanted Chino to get to know us. As a way to realize those goals, we offered a gift of 500 hours of volunteer service to the community: We would be available to help in whatever ways that we are needed.
Initially, I had envisioned that we’d be called to serve in after-school tutoring, at the senior citizens center, and at a center for victims of domestic violence. However, in addition to those areas, the mayor asked if we would help with many of the events of the city, such as its weekly Farmer’s Market, weekly summer Concerts on the Green, annual car show, a city fireworks show, and a Relay for Life fundraiser. Not exactly “Mother Teresa” activities . . . but still, they were areas in which our community needed help. We wanted to demonstrate our faith to the community and to build relationships, no longer expecting that they would come to us. And if this is what it took, then Chino could count us in.
Unwrapping our gift
We’ve begun this process with anticipation! In June, we participated in our first community event, the city’s fireworks show. We had an information booth for our church, and we wore T-shirts identifying us as volunteers from New Community BIC. After helping with setting up, tearing down, cleaning up, and parking for the show, we’d logged 72 hours of service. In the coming days, we’ll also be serving as tutors in the learning center, working with seniors, and helping at the Pacific Lifeline Women’s Shelter.
New Community BIC has been a church that has met in several buildings, in several towns. But we have come to learn that a church is the people, not the building. We are moving forward with our vision to connect to our community—not waiting until we have it all together, but offering what we have and trusting that to be our testimony of faith to our neighbors.