J esus tells us to love our neighbors. But sometimes, a church isn’t exactly sure how to begin to do local mission. Usually, the best way to start is just by looking around and seeing the needs in the surrounding community.
To spark your own imagination, here are six churches that looked around, noticed a need, and found a way to love their neighbors.
Community Reformed Church
Although the summer population of Charlevoix, Michigan soars to around 20,000 people, only about 3,000 people live there year-round. One of those people is Jan Boss, the director of Safe Haven Ministries, part of Community Reformed Church. Safe Haven Ministries started because Jan and seven other people in a Sunday school class caught a vision to help under-resourced people in Charlevoix.
In 2012, Safe Haven began offering free breakfast on Tuesdays and Fridays. The first Tuesday, no one showed up. Now they average 100 meals each day. Not long after that, Safe Haven launched a men’s shelter that runs from November to March. Last winter, it helped 25 men. To help kids who are on free or reduced lunches, Safe Haven started Games and Grub. Each week during the summer, they go to one of two government-subsidized apartment complexes in town, bring games, grill food, and give bags of groceries to the kids who come.
“[I was] always taught to pull myself up by bootstraps,” says Boss. “But some people don’t have bootstraps. You have to give them the bootstraps, and they will pull themselves up.”
A retreat house
Immanuel Community Reformed Church
When Liz Stanton purchased a house three years ago in Alger, Michigan, it wasn’t because she wanted a vacation home. Instead, “the Holy Spirit … told me I was to buy that piece of property and that mission work was to happen,” she says. She got advice from Eliza Cortés Bast and Earl James, Reformed Church in America denominational staff who have worked with churches that want to start nonprofits.
The house has needed a lot of work, but that’s helping Stanton get to know the community. She’s using only local companies to help with the construction. That has connected her with people who need extra help around their houses.
Last summer, two groups from Stanton’s church, Immanuel Community Reformed Church in Lansing, Michigan, drove the two hours north to serve the Alger community. They camped in the home’s yard and served Stanton’s new neighbors, doing yard work and house projects.
“The idea of having this grow [as a retreat and a mission] is heavy in my heart,” says Stanton. “I want it to run 24/7: men’s weekends, women’s weekends. … I’m hoping other churches also come to this place.”
A pajama party
Hope Reformed Church
If the last time you were at a pajama party was in elementary school, then you haven’t been to Hope Reformed Church in George, Iowa, recently. The church hosts a pajama night to teach both kids and adults to pray.
Praying in pajamas is just one way Hope Reformed is, in the words of pastor Steve De Haan, learning “to become more and more like Jesus in how we interact with others and in sharing the gospel with others.” Church members also participate in faith walking groups, in which three or four people walk together and share with one another how God has worked in their lives.
De Haan has seen much growth in his three years at Hope. But, he says, “Change like this doesn’t happen overnight. Faith is more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s not a program, it’s not an activity; it’s just a part of who we are.”
A night of prayer and worship
Reformed Church of Newtown
Elmhurst, New York
“We would have been happy if there had been 20 people,” says Lester Lin. Turns out, 150 people showed up last May at Pray for the City, an event to pray for the Elmhurst neighborhood of Queens, New York. Lin founded the indie label Newtown Records, which sponsored the event along with Reformed Church of Newtown and several nearby churches, who led worship. RCA staff Eliza Cortés Bast and Anna Radcliffe helped plan the evening and were there to lead prayer.
The night was a success on many levels. It was a diverse group of people, representing 30-some churches. Three of those churches had once been a single congregation that split.
Tim Widjaja, the pastor of one of those churches, was excited to worship with members of the other churches. “Restoration can happen. Healing can happen in Jesus Christ. On that stage, you saw three churches represented that were once united … but we were reunited for that worship night, all just worshiping together, praying for Elmhurst.”
As Lin puts it: “So why not bring Christians together to sing, praise God, and also pray specifically for the city that we are placed in?”
Backpacks full of food
Church on the Hill
Flushing, New York
What started as a project of a seminary intern is now a seven-year-old ministry—Food for Kids at Church on the Hill in Flushing, New York. While interning at Church on the Hill, Sally Ann Castle noticed that a number of kids in Queens went home without food on the weekends. So she partnered with a local school, and now the church provides at least 15 bags of food to kids at that school every Friday. All of the food is funded by donations from the congregation, either monetary or specific food items.
Blaine Crawford, pastor of Church on the Hill, says, “For our congregation, there’s this deep desire for them to live out their faith. And this is one of the ways—helping those in need—that’s tangible, that’s easy to do, and that’s local. That makes it really important to them.”
A bike-path pit stop
Sprakers Reformed Church
Sprakers, New York
Across the street from Sprakers Reformed Church, in Sprakers, New York, is a bench on the Erie Canalway Trail, a bike path that runs from Buffalo to Albany. That bench got church members thinking. At a workshop on community missional engagement, Eliza Cortés Bast challenged participants to consider how to be present in the community. Members of Sprakers Reformed decided to offer respite to cyclists on the trail.
After the workshop, church volunteers put a cooler of water bottles out by the bench and put signs on the path at either end of town, advertising water, bathrooms, and shelter. Inside the church, they set out food and hot drinks.
“We opened the door to look outside the four walls of our church and opened the doors of our hearts to welcome strangers as they pass through,” says Diane Reynolds, an elder who attended the workshop. “Our intention was never to increase church attendance or income. It was merely a way to welcome others, to show hospitality, and perhaps plant a seed.”
Look and love
In her role as Reformed Church in America coordinator for Local Missional Engagement, Eliza Cortés Bast helps churches figure out how to love their neighbors. She focuses on these three things: “Re-awakening the church’s missional imagination; discerning where God is at work in the community, where God is at work in the church, and creating spaces for those two things to meet; and helping people share the good news of Jesus.” If you’d like her help noticing the needs in your neighbor, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616–541-0849.
This article was also published in RCA Today, the Reformed Church in America’s denominational magazine.