Jonathan Shoemaker is an EFCA ReachGlobal team leader and missionary in Lisbon, Portugal.
In a cultural climate characterized by angry rhetoric, politicization and polarization, Christians are often left feeling confused and/or paralyzed regarding how they should engage in the world. Likewise, churches struggle with the desire to be both faithful to the gospel and relevant to their communities in terms of providing real help and bringing real transformation. Loving Your Community: Proven Practices for Community-Based Outreach Ministry (Baker Books 2020) by Stephen Viars is a practical book that demonstrates how both individuals and churches can take steps from isolation and stagnation into real engagement and ministry in their local communities.
The central question Viars seeks to answer in his book is, “How should churches and individual Christians relate to local communities?” Through a combination of biblical foundations and practical examples, Viars argues that churches can and should be highly engaged with their local communities through a model of church that views local outreach as central to its identity and mission. Individual application and group discussion questions at the end of each chapter, as well as stories of how Viars’ church has sought to live out this vision, give the book a highly practical and pragmatic flavor.
The first three chapters of Loving Your Community seek to give a biblical foundation for the ministry philosophy of community-based outreach. Viars draws on John 13-17 to show that Jesus’ love for the world is the foundation and example of how churches should relate to their communities. His application of the book of Titus—and its theme of doing good works appropriate to the local context—was creative and insightful. Lastly, Viars looks at the Old Testament concept of shalom and how this applied to Israel’s broader mission to bless the nations and seek the good of the city, even when in exile (Jer 29). While these initial chapters do succeed in grounding the book both biblically and theologically, they left me wanting more to warrant the author’s assertion of providing a “theology of community-based outreach.” In the final section, Viars does briefly address how his model differs from Walter Rauschenbusch’s social gospel movement, but he doesn’t interact significantly with ongoing developments in this debate.
Viars’ main interest, and the main value of the book, is showing how a church can practically reshape its ministry in outreaches and programs that engage with real needs in the community and partner with local leaders in the public sector. The main section of the book addresses topics such as biblical community counseling, making facilities accessible and usable for your community, instructional classes, community restoration and development, residential treatment programs, and the construction of community centers. This highly practical section—with real stories of how Viars’ church, and others, took the journey from community isolation to community engagement—is helpful and inspiring. The author suggests both simple, small steps for smaller churches as well as initiatives for larger churches with a large volunteer staff. The personal and group application questions at the end of each chapter encourage the reader to contextualize and apply the concepts to their individual situation.
Loving Your Community lays out a powerful vision of how a self-described “theologically conservative” church with a tradition of separation from their community took the journey to creatively and sacrificially engage with the needs in their community—and how that journey has changed both the church and the community of which they are a part. If more churches, big and small, could make this journey, I wonder how our communities and cities could be transformed with the gospel.