The Church has Left the Building

Imagine your sanctuary as it looks when people are worshipping on a typical Sunday. Now picture all those people leaving the building. But this time they’re not going home or out for brunch. Instead, they’re heading out to serve in the community. That’s the idea of “The Church has Left the Building,” a new and growing method for church-wide service projects.

Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012, was our first “left the building” experience at St. Peter Lutheran in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Our worship service began at 8:30 am and ended about 9:15. By 9:30, one group was at work assembling gift bags that would be given to Meals on Wheels recipients. Another was stuffing envelopes for an organization that mentored working families through financial crisis. A third group was working on a food drive for our community food pantry. By 10:00, others had arrived at a nearby forest preserve, a park with many natural areas, where one group of kids and adults was picking up litter and an all-adult group was hacking away at a thicket of buckthorn, a stubbornly-invasive plant in our area. Another group was at a no-kill animal shelter, filing and cleaning and organizing supplies, freeing their regular volunteers for more time with the animals. All these projects ended by noon.

It certainly was a fun and exciting morning: good turnout, lots of energy & enthusiasm. But we also had substantive goals, besides the fun:

  • This was an easy entry to serving for those who otherwise volunteer infrequently or not at all, for two reasons. It’s scheduled for a time people would be at church anyway, and it focused on community needs. The projects serving animals and our local parks motivated some people to volunteer who not only don’t volunteer regularly at church, but whose attendance is spotty.
  • Working together builds fellowship. Many people commented that they enjoyed getting to know the people they were working with. Time went by quickly. Parents appreciated the projects in which they could serve with their kids.
  • We built partnerships with organizations doing good deeds in the community. When Christians serve outside our walls, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We can work with those who already have knowledge and experience in meeting community needs.
  • We look outward. Like most churches, the majority of volunteer hours are within our walls: ushering, teaching Sunday school, church events, etc. We don’t want to stop internal serving, but we do want to increase external serving, for two reasons. First, it’s what Jesus did. He served all, but especially the needy and the outcasts of his society. Second, in our American culture, serving is an effective way, perhaps the most effective way, of building relationships — authentic relationships that lead to opportunities to share our motivation for serving, to share the story of our Lord who served us.

If you’re picturing your church “leaving the building” on a Sunday morning – and I hope you are! – here are some of the things we learned from our initial experience.

  • Learn from others. A nearby sister church, St Paul Lutheran in Mt. Prospect, had done this before, and their pastor, Kris Whitby, encouraged all the churches in our area to hold this event the same weekend. We knew we were part of something bigger, and Pastor Whitby’s advice was invaluable.
  • Pastors and key leaders must be fully supportive as Sunday morning worship is affected. Nationally, many churches replace worship with serving. We preferred to keep worship, but to hold only one service, at an earlier time. The lessons, sermon and music in our worship all prepared us for worship. In her feedback, one woman told us the best part was “first the service . . . then the serving!”
  • Build a strong steering team. It’s a lot of work to plan multiple serving projects for the same day. Even with advance registration, you’re not sure of the turnout and you want to include people who join at the last minute, too. In building the team, I looked for people with experience in community organizations. That’s how we found most of our projects.
  • When working with community organizations, play by their rules. We wanted to put a devotional booklet in the gift bags for the Meals on Wheels recipients. But when we asked the Meals on Wheels coordinator, she said no. She was not anti-church, but was concerned about problems they might create for their organization. As servants, we respect their parameters.
  • Have a coordinator for each project who is gifted with organizational skills. People notice when an event is well organized. Wasting a volunteer’s time is probably the best way to make sure they don’t volunteer again.
  • Distinguish between service and marketing. Our T-shirts helped us do this. We wanted matching shirts to identify us, to each other and to the community. But shirts with our church name or any church-y logo would in effect tell observers that we were serving in order to advertise our church. Instead, we used a design created by a member, of a handprint with a heart in the palm. In our publicity and again in worship we described the event as being Jesus’ hands in our community. We wanted people to ask us who we were and why we were doing this so we could tell them.
  • Include projects where families can serve together and for those who are less physically able. The groups making gift bags and stuffing envelopes met in our fellowship hall. Both were good options for people of all ages and those unable to do much walking, carrying, etc.
  • Be flexible. Our list of projects was in flux throughout our planning. It’s hard for organizations to plan work for you when you can’t tell them how many people you’ll have. In the final week, we had to drop a couple projects, and we added a couple new ones. We wanted to serve the elderly in a local residential facility, so, to accommodate their needs, we scheduled that project in the afternoon. Although we wanted all our projects to be for people in the community, one last-minute additions involved painting within our building, as we simply ran out of community projects.

“The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve” (Matthew 20:28). When we serve for the sake of serving, without any expectation of reward, we follow his example. When we serve outside our church walls, our good deeds might open the door of someone’s heart to the Good News.

Recommended resource for serving in the community: The Externally-Focused Church by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson.

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