Editor’s note: This is the fourteenth in a series of stories about congregations engaged in significant outreach and evangelism ministries, reflecting the General Assembly’s commitment to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” ― Jerry L. Van Marter

New London Presbyterian Church in New London, Iowa, is discovering how challenging but rewarding becoming relevant to its community can be, with the guidance and assistance of the Presbytery of East Iowa.

“We ask our churches to ask themselves, ‘If this church disappeared tomorrow, who besides the members would miss it?’” said Harry Olthoff, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of East Iowa. “We want them to gauge their involvement in their communities.”

Olthoff knows many churches are involved in the usual community projects like Habitat for Humanity and that they contribute money to various community programs, but the presbytery wants its congregations to think more actively. 

Churches are encouraged to think in terms of programs that will meet real needs, reflecting the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s commitment — adopted by last year’s 218th General Assembly — to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.”

To that end, the presbytery developed the Emerging Missions grant program, which was designed to provide front-end funding to help churches create new and innovative community outreach programs. 

When Ron Raub, a member of New London Presbyterian Church, dropped by to visit, Olthoff told him about Emerging Missions and encouraged him to submit ideas for some programs that the church might be able to implement. 

New London received a grant, and in December began a series of free community dinners, open to anyone in town who would like to attend. Dinners also feature programs presented by guest speakers from various community service organizations. 

Featured guests so far have included speakers from a local mentoring program, the mayor’s office and the fire department.

Raub is quick to point out that the community dinners are not designed to be a recruitment tool and the church does not have an ulterior motive.

“People sometimes ask, ‘What’s the catch?’ There is no catch,” he says. “We’re not giving them a free meal to get them to join the church. It’s simply a free dinner and community service program. We’re not asking for donations and there’s no pressure.” 

Raub is pleased with how the program has gone so far. Between 35 to 40 people have been in attendance at each dinner; there’s about an even split between members and non-members. 

“Having the speakers is very important to the success of the program,” Raub said. “They bring family and friends and create the interest in the community.” 

There are plenty of groups and organizations to choose from when it comes to guest speakers. Raub said the church plans to have a program about schools, with the local high school principal, some teachers and perhaps the superintendant of schools. On another night the church hopes to have the police chief speak.

September, Raub added, will be the perfect time to have someone from Safe Routes for School Kids speak on traffic safety. Other groups they’d like to feature in the future include the Lions Club, the local Chamber of Commerce and the military.

So far, New London has been able to fund the program entirely with the money received from the grant, although Raub thinks it might need to do some fundraising or ask for member donations to continue it. 

The church plans to put the program on hold for the summer months of June, July and August, but intends to resume the dinners in the fall. The summer hiatus will help stretch the grant funds a little further, Raub said.

The dinners at New London have gone well and the church hopes to build on the success of the program, but Olthoff is already happy with the results. As far as he is concerned, New London has already achieved what the presbytery’s grant intended.

“We don’t necessarily expect everything they try to work,” he says. “It’s OK if it doesn’t.  We just want them to try.”

Toni Montgomery is a free-lance writer in Statesville, NC, where she is also church secretary for First Presbyterian Church.