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From “Identity Crisis” to Identity in Christ

Posted by | Engaging Community, Equipping Deacons | No Comments

Providence CRC’s Community Opportunity Scan Opens New Doors into the Community

The congregation members and leadership team might not have said it outright, but Providence Christian Reformed Church was experiencing an identity crisis.

The congregation had a 30-year foothold in their Beamsville, ON, community, one of the sleepier spots along the QEW corridor. But, while the church was originally built in a rural setting, surrounded by the orchards and vineyards of the Niagara Greenbelt, it had become more and more of a suburban area.

As a church, Providence had a lot of strengths. “We’re friendly and welcoming to people who are at different stages on their faith journeys,” said Katie Riewald, Director of Community Connections. “We’re unified and responsive when there’s a need or crisis. We have capable and willing young leaders.”

But the problem wasn’t a lack of love for Christ or their neighbours. (When is it ever?) Steve DeBoer, lead pastor at Providence, shared that the church was “in the middle of some congregational changes that were challenging the church, and causing some stress.” One of these was a sudden shift in demographics, with the average age in the church dropping significantly, and a rapid influx of young families. Riewald also adds that there was “a collective lack confidence in how God was using us.” The congregation craved a sense of clarity on how to intentionally engage with their community.

Enter the Community Opportunity Scan.

Community Opportunity Scan? What’s that?

In its simplest form, the Community Opportunity Scan — otherwise known as a COS — is a tool for churches to learn more about the community around them. It’s also a way for members of a congregation to start conversations with their neighbours. Most importantly, though, it’s a program inspired by the love of Christ and the Great Commission — Jesus’ call to make disciples of all nations.

A Community Opportunity Scan is a tool for churches to learn more about the community around them.

Typically, a COS goes through three stages…

  1. Defining your community — Once a team of 5–8 church members is created, your diaconate defines a geographical area that your church wants to get to know.
  2. Gathering information — Doing background research on the assets within a community, and the demographics that make it up, gives your church’s team the context it needs.
  3. Conversations & listening — This is the key piece. Your team interviews members of your community, opens up conversations… and most importantly, listens well.

The whole process is one bathed in prayer and discernment. And it goes beyond identifying needs. It also affirms the unique gifts and assets in your community and your church. The end result shows churches — and their deacons, especially — clear areas to pursue justice and work with community partners.

How the Process Looked for Providence

About 13 years ago, DeBoer attended the Diaconal Ministries’ Annual Day of Encouragement. While there, he learned about the COS process. He wanted to start doing one with Providence, but the timing never felt right.

Things changed when the church made the decision to hire Pastor Mike Collins as a Community Pastor in 2016. One of the main objectives of his job description was to lead the congregation through a COS. “For the COS to be led with integrity, we needed help,” DeBoer recalls. “Having Pastor Mike join us, with the experience he had, gave us confidence to move from talking about it to actually doing it.”

When Pastor Collins came on board, he saw immediately that Providence Church was ready! “I knew the COS was a great tool for any church who desires to realign their compass to face towards local mission opportunities,” he shared. “The COS helped [Providence] focus around that singular cause. It helped to pave the way for building significant community partnerships, identify the potential to transform neighbourhoods and areas within its own church that needed to change. The church grew in its understanding of how God’s Kingdom was forming outside its doors.”

The Results: A Church on Mission with Jesus!

“We have a congregation that is actively learning to lean into what it means to follow Jesus in a missional way.”

Katie Riewald

Ultimately, the end result was a sharpening of Providence’s identity. With clear, tangible ways to engage with their community, they’re no longer in “crisis.” And it’s not just a “win” for the church, either — it’s a win for the community too! “We have a congregation that is actively learning to lean into what it means to follow Jesus in a missional way,” Riewald shared.

More specifically, some of the things that the COS helped Providence identify were:

  • There are lots of services in Beamsville, but most are working in isolation to each other. They found the isolation was detrimental to those who needed access to services. There were gaps, repeated services – and nearly no collaboration at all. This was especially highlighted by the fact that one school they talked to had incredible resources and access to support from the community, but another school, perhaps even more in need, was completely lacking – and they were only a few blocks apart!
  • There are a lot of churches supporting the same causes. Because of this, Providence now limits their key partners. By narrowing their focus, their congregation now has something tangible to engage with. “Once we were able to more clearly demonstrate what we were going to do and why,” said Riewald, “there was high buy-in and enthusiasm from the congregation.” Today, Providence has identified three main causes to support in their community: The Convos Youth Zone, Community Care of West Niagara and the Grimsby Life Centre.
  • There needed to be more coordination for the church’s community involvement. The results of the scan, combined with enthusiasm of the congregation and willingness of partners — as well as the fact that Providence has no team of deacons — resulted in the decision to hire a part-time Director of Community Outreach. This person’s job is to live out the results of the scan, connect with Providence’s key partners, build new relationships and help the congregation love and come alongside their community.

For Providence Church, “the COS was an important part of a larger 2-year Love Lincoln Campaign in pushing us to love our community,” DeBoer shared.

Some Practical Advice on Conducting a COS

Outside of the results, Riewald also shared some more practical tips for churches who are either going through or thinking about starting a scan.

  • Make sure that a comprehensive Communication Plan is in place BEFORE you start, so that the church is engaged in what’s happening. Having clear communication between the team who is interpreting the results and leadership (pastor, elder board, council, deacons, etc.) is essential so that all sides know what the expectations are.
  • Train your volunteers well on how to conduct, record, and transcribe interviews, as well as on how to initiate conversations and explain what the COS is and why it is important. Be sure to lay out your biases, assumptions, and expectations before you start and continually check in so that they do not dominate the discussion.
  • Have someone in place whose job (either volunteer or not) it is to run the scan, and limit the amount of people who have say over interpreting the results.
  • Remember that the COS is a tool – it’s not going to tell your church exactly what to do, but it will help your church start having those discussions. DeBoer reminds churches that “the COS gave us a reason to engage our community leaders—from principals to business leaders to elected officials—providing the start to a conversation we could build on. The kinds of questions the COS had us asking showed them we were thinking beyond our walls, and that we saw them as valuable.”

Dan Galenkamp is a former employee of Diaconal Ministries and we’re excited to have him join our writing team! He is a freelance writer who likes to write about issues of justice and how churches respond to them. He lives with his wife (and two very fluffy cats) in Jordan Station, ON.


Deacon’s – Don’t Go It Alone!

For deacons, when it comes to getting to know your neighbourhood and engaging with your community, it can be difficult to know where to start. For those who have tried outreach — you know how messy it can be to interact with those who have little experience with a church. There’s no clear-cut way to do it.

If you, your diaconal team or your congregation are feeling stuck — or if you’re wondering if your church is having the right impact in your community — going through a Community Opportunity Scan with Diaconal Ministries may be just what you need! Our team has been involved in diaconal work for decades. We understand the awkwardness and messiness that can come with talking to strangers or those on the margins.

Through a COS, you and your church can discern opportunities to…

  • Create awareness of local issues
  • Engage in community partnerships
  • Evaluate existing programs
  • Begin new initiatives

If that sounds like something you’re looking for, get in touch with our team today. We’d be happy to chat with you and your diaconate! You can also visit our website to look at the Key Elements of a COS or take our quiz to determine if your church is ready!