Small church makes big impact when it partners with community
by Myra Holmes
Just a couple of years ago, North Park Community Church (NPCC), Eugene, Ore., was invisible in the community.
Although the church sits across the street from an elementary school, Aaron Box says that when his family moved to the area and he introduced himself as pastor of North Park, neighbors and school staff responded with, “Where’s that?”
And, really, what difference could a tiny band of 27 people make in a community that leans liberal, ranks among the most unchurched in the nation and has a distinct hostility toward organized religion?
Quite a bit of difference, actually.
“Amazing things can happen—especially in a small church,” says Box.
The key is not to do it alone.
When NPCC began in the early 50s, the desire of the congregation was to engage their community. But as often happens, over time the congregation lost its influence and found itself in survival mode. Then in 2008 an anonymous donation of gold coins, accompanied by a charge to feed the hungry, reminded NPCC of their original heart for their neighbors. They began to look for ways to reach out.
A natural place to start was the school across the street. Volunteers from the church began reaching out to the school in various ways, including encouraging the school staff of about 60 regularly through small gifts, thank-you cards, flowers and snacks. Terri Kargel, chair of North Park’s outreach ministry team and a former teacher herself, says staff members are always appreciative of the tokens, no matter how small. (Pictured left are NPCC pastor Aaron Box and Holt principal Kevin Boling.)
“Our hope is that both staff and parents will become curious as to why we do what we do,” she says. “We’d love to tell them that it is because of Jesus’ love for us that we want to show love to them.”
Turns out the school is also a great place to feed the hungry, as that anonymous donor instructed. Bertha Holt Elementary School serves about 500 students, with an unusual dichotomy of both affluent and very poor students. Over half the students at Holt qualify for free or reduced lunch under the national program, with the vast majority qualifying for free lunch.
And food insecurity is a glaring need beyond the school: One in three children in Eugene doesn’t know where the next meal is coming from. Schools help through the lunch program, but too often children are left hungry on weekends and breaks.
Rather than trying to meet such a great need alone, North Park enlisted the help of their community.
“We have really shifted how we see outreach,” Box says. “Outreach isn’t just what we do for people; it’s something we do with people.”
The church now sees itself as a catalyst, leading the way and inviting the neighbors to join in.
One way the church has done that is through Harlow Serves, a North Park-initiated partnership between Holt school, the school’s parent group, the Harlow neighborhood association, several local businesses and three other area churches.
Under the umbrella of Harlow Serves and through a network of local church leaders, North Park participates in Project Hope, a city-wide, cooperative effort to serve schools at the end of the summer with a Saturday work day on school campuses followed by a city-wide Sunday giveaway of school supplies, backpacks and more.
North Park, of course, focuses on serving Holt Elementary. For their first Project Hope workday in August 2011, they invited community members, through Harlow Serves, to help. About 90 volunteers came together to clear a thistle infestation, spread fresh playground chips, pull weeds and tend to the fitness track.
In order to begin to make a dent in child hunger, North Park—again under Harlow Serves—initiated Feed Hope in 2011. Feed Hope works to serve those children who may go hungry during school breaks by inviting food donations, packaging those donations together with community volunteers, then distributing the food to families identified by the school.
The 2011 winter and spring break efforts included about 200 households and provided about 3,000 meals. For the winter 2012 event, held Dec. 19 at Holt Elementary (pictured right), 80 volunteers helped package 1,5000 meals.
Box says that, while they rejoice that children are fed, a second – but not secondary – outcome of these efforts is new and stronger relationships with those in the community. “Our goal isn’t just to feed a certain number of kids,” Box says. “Our goal is to engage people with the gospel, and that happens in relationships.”
Evidence of those growing relationships shows in increased Sunday attendance, which has nearly doubled to somewhere between 50 and 60. Box easily counts eight or 10 families from the immediate neighborhood in that number, most of whom have come as a result of relationships begun during service.
And North Park is no longer invisible. “We’ve gone from a church that was somewhat hidden to a church that is not only known, but known for loving our community,” Box says. “That’s a really significant shift.”
This month, North Park will increase their impact on child hunger and continue to build relationships through a partnership with Generosity Feeds, a nonprofit that equips churches to tackle hunger and reach out through one-day food packaging events.
North Park is inviting their neighbors to gather Feb. 23 at Holt Elementary to help assemble meals that will be given to children to ensure they eat over the weekend. Generosity Feeds supplies the raw materials and packaging supplies for a nutritious soup mix, provides training and coaching and helps with online registration and donations. North Park hopes to assemble at least 10,000 meals in about two hours.
Again, full bellies are only part of the goal. Generosity Feeds not only helps plan the event but also trains select church leaders to build relationships with those who come to serve. Ron Klabunde of Generosity Feeds says, “We recognize that by training missionally-minded people in how to ignite relationships, they’re igniting new relationships with people who already have a desire toward the heart of God.”
So, if you ask North Park, size doesn’t matter.
“Outreach can be us as a church taking the lead, inviting others and their resources to come alongside and championing the lost and the broken and the least,” Box says. “A tiny church can suddenly multiply their impact.”
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