I remember growing up in a rural area and seeing signs, usually on a gravel road, saying “Bridge ahead.” Every once in a while, you still see one. If you are a biker, you may see them out on the trails. Many people who walk on designated hiking routes like to stop at a bridge and take a look at the surrounding area. Sometimes we may even tell our friends that we will meet them there. Bridges are important. They connect us in many ways.
Every community has people who are an asset to that town or neighborhood. They help define its values, traditions, identity, and institutions. Every church exists to share the good news of God’s love and hope in myriad ways. Our goal should always be to build a bridge between these two entities—one where members of the faith community can meet and cross over into the larger community, and where those in the larger community who want to explore their faith can cross over and receive genuine hospitality in our churches.
Here are three examples of churches that are crossing the bridge and inviting others to do so as well:
Mounds Park UMC designed a grassroots hands-on mission project—Urban Cross, which serves the needs of the residents of St. Paul’s East Side by doing painting, yard work, house repair, cleanup, and a variety of other tasks. The church has also developed large community gardens with the local Hmong population. Members host a National Night Out gathering and other activities, such as an Easter egg hunt, a spring barbeque, and a sobriety picnic in the park. The church has made a long-term commitment to its community, and that commitment has paid off. Community leaders know Mounds Park’s leaders and members and consider them trusted partners. More people are coming to the church for worship and small groups. And a once primarily mono-cultural church is now multi-cultural. This is truly a glimpse of the kingdom of God on earth.
Unfortunately, too many churches seem to be looked at by those outside of them (rightly so or not) as exclusive clubs. It takes a purposeful focus on engaging the community and its leaders to change this image. Our Sunday School teachers taught us that “God so loves the world,” not just those in church. As a matter of fact, God is out working in the world all the time. Jesus announced that he had “come so that we might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). That includes the people not in our houses of worship. It’s a non-church-centric view of God’s work in the world. It’s incarnational evangelism instead of attractional. And it creates new opportunities.
Crossroads UMC (multi-site) sold land near its Lakeville campus to Dakota County for a senior center. The church partners with the center to offer community meals, a community garden, and Bible studies in the commons area. Church leaders also worked with local business leaders to start a nonprofit to help provide sober living for persons in recovery while housed in four homes in the area. They drive a bus around in surrounding towns, filling it with groceries from their previously unknown neighbors for the local food shelf.
Sunrise UMC in Mounds View has a local “Care Crew”—a volunteer group that works with community members to clean gutters, repair window screens, wrap gifts, move furniture, clean homes, and anything else that its neighbors need. This provides a great opportunity to get to know residents.
Other churches engage residents in one-on-one conversations over a meal at a local restaurant or community center. Some visit local leaders and learn how to create partnerships with them. Others invite community nonprofits and agencies to share space.
Whatever we do in an effort to meet at or cross the bridge, it’s important to treat each person we encounter as if they were Christ himself, to warmly receive them and celebrate that they are a child of God and a gift to their community.
Meet you at the bridge!
Rev. Lyndy Zabel is director of missional impact for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church