As a member of a small, rural Maine church, I often wonder how to make our congregation more relevant to our community. For the people who walk through our doors on Sunday morning, we are a friendly, encouraging bunch – so much so that the coffee hour often eclipses the service. But there are far more people outside our doors (or any other churches in town) than inside them.
How do we reach them? Or at least let them know they are welcome in our communities of faith? Is helping at the local soup kitchen and handing out back-to-school packs enough? Or is it better to focus on evangelism. What about overseas ministry vs. local? Mapping Church Missions, a new book by Sharon Hoover (IVP, 2018), helps churches answer these questions while exploring how and where to invest their time, talents and money.
“To find our place to serve, we need to start within our own zip code,” Hoover writes. “Where does your church have influence? Where do church members have a presence or a role in the community? How can you as Christ-followers speak into the gaps?”
Hoover has served for more than twenty years at Centreville Presbyterian Church in Centreville, Va, where she is the director of missions. Using personal stories and colorful anecdotes, Hoover highlights the importance of investing in both local and overseas missions while helping churches answer seven critical questions to find their own individual compass point on a figurative missions map. Each chapter includes checklists and questions to evaluate areas in which a particular church is best equipped to serve and provides guidance on avoiding common traps—such as meeting others’ needs as a way to fulfill your own.
Having grown up with a missionary mom, I related to many of Hoover’s stories, experiences and concerns. But one broke my heart. It was about a congregation made up of mostly poor and homeless members near her church. After discussing how to help them, Hoover’s church offered to host the congregation for a worship service, meal and movie. It was such a success, they enthusiastically decided to do it again – one year later.
When I read this, my stomach fell. Maybe one reason churches seem to have lost relevance is that while we are often willing to donate meals or school supplies, we struggle with how to embrace the people who actually need them. Hoover herself called the economic divide one of the greatest challenges facing the contemporary church. Wherever our church compass points on the missions map, it is critical to remember that we follow a Christ who had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), lest we forget that Jesus himself was homeless.
The answers of how to welcome our communities and reach the hurting aren’t simple, but Hoover’s thoughtful, easy-to-read book is a great starting place for churches that want to remain relevant while sharing the gospel.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Christmas Cradle, the first book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available now.