ave you ever wondered, How can churches help communities? Maybe you go to church, but you’re feeling a tug to do something more. Maybe it seems too difficult to reshape your community. The answer might be a lot easier than you think. Maybe the best answer is found in my friend Mark.
I dropped Mark off at the Oklahoma City airport two years ago this week. Everything he owned in the world was packed up in two duffel bags. He held a one-way ticket to Ohio where he had a job waiting for him.
I met Mark when a ministry I’d been volunteering with called The Education and Employment Ministry, or TEEM, assigned me to be his mentor. The program helps men and women land on their feet when getting out of prison. Mark and I had many great conversations in the prison yard. I picked him up on the day he was released. We grabbed a big IHOP breakfast and headed to the airport.
Mark made a decision to follow Christ just before leaving prison, but I knew he had an uphill climb ahead of him due to the life of drug abuse that landed him in prison and the battle it would take to make a radical life change. But Mark was determined. And I prayed for him a lot.
Fast forward to one night, three months ago. My phone sounded a string of buzzes. It was Mark. He was texting me photos of the new house he had just purchased! Mark stayed clean, got deeply involved in a church, worked his butt off, and saved up enough money for a down payment. Mark is doing great, and his life is one to celebrate!
In addition to the pictures, he texted something I’ll never forget. “Thanks for being my friend,” he said. “You were the only person who talked to me while I was in prison on a respectable level.” He explained that our friendship made him feel he had someone in his corner who believed he could make it. The “help” Mark needed was a real, godly friend. I could do that. You can do that!
So how can churches help communities? We pursue relationships. Here are four ways your friendship can change someone’s life—which, over time, changes a community.
1. Sign up as a volunteer with one of your campus’ local partners. We select our partners very carefully. One of the non-negotiables is that our partners have to see relationship-building as a key way to help people. There are many opportunities to choose from. You, too, will be changed for the better through the power of relationships.
2. Stop thinking helping people means doing something for them. We overrate action and we underrate relationship. Showing people the respect and dignity of friendship is powerful. What do I really “do” for Mark or the others I’ve mentored through TEEM? All Mark really needed was someone to believe in him, then he got out there and did the work to get his life back on track.
3. Ask a lot of questions. When you begin to spend time with someone through one of our local partners, you can take any awkwardness out of the situation with questions. No pressure to have answers or give direction. Just be curious about their story, interests, challenges, and dreams. Ask questions like, “How can I support and encourage you?” or, “What are your dreams for the future?” Good questions open up conversation and make relationship building feel very natural.
4. Be vulnerable. Relationships are a two-way street. I needed Mark as much as he needed me. I shared with him some things I was struggling with and asked him to pray for me. I’ve been assigned to six guys over the course of my few years at TEEM. I will consider some of them among my best friends for the rest of my life.
Churches can help communities when we get out in our communities! The local church (that’s you and me) is the hope for brokenness in ourselves and in the world around us. As we use our time (one of our most valuable resources) to build relationships that give others dignity (one of the greatest contributions we can make to others), we can expect to see not only our communities change, but the world change!