“What you have to decide is, is the church going to be a haven of grace?” The question Steve Viars poses is a probing one. At a surface level, of course, every church would reply in the affirmative. But isn’t it possible that many of us have become so inward focused and so preoccupied with the minutia of status quo church work that we’ve underemphasized or overlooked our mandate to penetrate the communities around us with the gospel?
According to Viars, the necessary corrective to this overly insular kind of thinking is to aggressively take the gospel to the city. For the past 30 years, Viars and his ministry colleagues have labored to make community-based outreached a major—if not the major—focal point of their ministry. Under his leadership, Faith Church of Lafayette, Indiana, has taken the gospel to the city—with spectacular results. The three community centers that Faith Church has built constantly draw huge crowds from all around Lafayette and bring them into contact with the redemptive message of the gospel. Other impressive initiatives include a free Biblical counseling service, food and clothing pantries for the underprivileged, and programs to provide low-income housing.
Of course, this robust community-engagement program sometimes draws the charge that Faith is inching too close to the social gospel. Viars is quick to refute this charge. Community-based outreach ministry isn’t a substitute for the gospel, he says; rather, it’s an entry point for the gospel. “Many times, the starting point [for evangelism] is doing good works,” he says.
Furthermore, Viars argues that community-based outreach ministry is one of the best ways churches can fulfill the commands given in Matthew 5:16 (“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”) and Philippians 2:15 (“that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation”). Without tangible, virtuous acts toward the world around them, it’s difficult to see how believers could possibly live out these principles.
Naturally, it’s one thing for a massive church like Faith to implement sweeping community service initiatives; it’s quite another for an average church with a congregation of 150 or less to do so. But Viars insists that this outreach model is just as feasible for the rural community church as it is for the megachurch: “The best application of what we’re talking about tonight may be just for the four-block radius right around your church. Everything we’re talking about tonight—taking the gospel to the city—is scalable.”
For Faith Church, the best process for developing these initiatives was to begin with internal discipleship ministries, then progress to formal counseling ministries for church members, then provide formal counseling ministries for the community, and finally to launch a full-spectrum program for community-based outreach ministries. For other churches and communities, other strategies or processes may be more desirable. According to Viars, the main concern is to ensure that churches are listening to their communities and accurately perceiving which needs are greatest. “You might have to go on a listening tour, not because you don’t have the light [of the gospel], but because you don’t yet know where the light is needed most,” he said.