A Review of “Loving Your Community” by Stephen Viars

Community outreach and theological depth are, sadly, not often combined into one church. More often than not a church emphasizes either strong doctrinal teaching or social ministry. Faith Church in Lafayette, Indiana, however, is a wonderful exception to that norm. Under the leadership of Stephen Viars this church has made a huge impact on their community and without losing their doctrinal strength and integrity. It is for that reason that Viars’ latest book Loving Your Community should be a welcomed addition to the pastor’s library. If some of the principles of the book may get swallowed up by the grandiose examples, the book, nonetheless, gives readers a theologically-based and practically-proven model of community outreach.

The book is broken down into three parts. Part one covers the theological basis of community outreach. Viars is not interested in presenting us with merely proven practices. He wants readers to understand how the Bible supports and encourages some form of community engagement for the sake of evangelism. His introduction starts by making the case that we are called to love our neighbors and “do good to all” (Gal. 6:10). He says we should have a general attitude of generosity towards our neighbors: wise churches look for every opportunity to share love and resources with those around them (13). As a general principle we should “say yes unless you have to say no.” This is a backward way of thinking and living for most churches. Most churches are concerned about protecting their assets and utilizing their buildings for their own needs. Viars often, throughout the book, points out that church buildings sit empty most weeks except for a few hours when the gathered church has services. He calls it a waste of resources.

Instead of giving us a few verses to defend the practice of community outreach, Viars intends to give us a robust look at the teachings of Scripture as it relates to loving your neighbor, doing good, and interacting with the world. We are called, he argues, to be ambassadors for Christ and a light to the world. We are identified as Christ’s example by our demonstrations of love. He exposits, as well, the Old Testament teachings about caring for the stranger, and seeking the peace and welfare of the city. One can argue that these verses are applied to individual Christians not necessarily congregations as a whole. Viars never responds to that critique, but it is one that DeYoung and Gilbert had previously made in their book What is the Mission of the Church?  I think a more thorough defense would have sought to address this common pushback. Nonetheless, Viars presents readers with a Scriptural encouragement to care about and care for our neighbors, even giving readers some ways to consider the actual needs of their current community context.

In Part two, Pastor Viars turns towards the actual practices of loving your community. Viars explores eight ministry practices that he has seen care for others and draw people into the community of believers. He mentions Biblical Counseling, facilities, instructional classes, events, and community centers – to name a few. The examples are helpful in giving some concrete examples of ministries that care for others and which provide an open door to sharing the gospel, and yet the examples will often be hard for the average church to implement. Many churches will be unable to run a Biblical Counseling center for their community, launch a community center, or revitalize neighbors in run-down parts of town. While there are principles in these sections that can be implemented by others, and there are perhaps smaller scale operations that churches can run, many will get lost in the grandiose nature of Faith Church’s example.

Part three wraps up the book by exploring some of the common challenges to community outreach. Here Viars highlights issues of liability and legal concern, as well as issues of theological drift. In the final chapter he gives us a quick guide to beginning this conversation and ministry at your church. The guide is simple and accessible and helps to quell some of the concerns that this model is unrealistic for smaller churches.

Loving Your Community is an excellent book, drawn from the life and ministry from a wonderful church. Faith Church is an encouragement to us all that you don’t have to choose between robust theology and local outreach. The book has a few weaknesses, as all books tend to have. It does not provide adequate response to the common criticisms of outreach ministries, and its suggested ministries can seem highly unrealistic for the average congregation. Yet, for all these weaknesses I was both challenged and encouraged by reading Loving Your Community. This is a great reminder that we don’t have to choose between loving God and loving neighbor; in fact, through loving our neighbor we can invite them to love our God too and that is what good social ministry is all about.

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