I was with the newly elected mayor of Laurel on election night when a reporter asked him, “So, how do you feel now that you have won?” The mayor answered, “I feel like the dog that finally got his mouth on the bumper of the car he chased daily as it passed in front of his yard. Now that I’ve got it, what am I going to do with it?”
This is almost exactly how I felt as a church planter in my new community of Laurel, MS. Now that the Lord had allowed me to plant this church, what in the world was I going to do with it? I understood that it was essential for me to land Sunday morning experiences, small groups, volunteers, and staffing. But what about all the other hours, days, and opportunities that made up “living in this community?”
The truth is I didn't move to Laurel just to plant a church. I moved to Laurel to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity the Lord gave us to make a difference.
I believe that the things we “build” for God should outlive us, and serving the Laurel community to that standard means going beyond a single Serve Day or other service-oriented outreach event. It is the call to servant leadership with the ultimate goal of positively impacting the lives of people while advancing the plan of God for our city, county, and surrounding community.
It starts with finding a “gap opportunity” in your community and filling it with excellence. Before ever moving to Laurel, I made an appointment with the mayor to ask, “Is there a need in the city that we can help meet?” and attentively listening to his response. To be an impactful servant leader, you need to talk to other influential leaders in your community. Leadership is influence, and influential leaders have their eyes on the needs of the people they serve. Our mayor was concerned because “there was nothing for our young people and families to do during the summer.” This conversation birthed our Downtown Movie Night, the premier event of the summer in our community! Agape Church hosts this night as a free, outdoor movie experience for children and families with concessions and live entertainment. It’s held in our beautiful, historic downtown area on Thursday nights for five weeks every summer. The event averages about 2,000 in attendance weekly. This summer will be the 12th consecutive season we’ll meet this need in our community, and I love it!
I believe God calls us to pastor a city, not just a church.
Not every one that God has called you to pastor will attend your church or put one dime into your ministry. Servant leadership must come from a place of passion. You must ask yourself, “What am I passionate about beyond preaching and small groups?” Your passion will likely identify another “gap opportunity” that will allow you to serve at a deeper level. I am deeply passionate about making a difference through education (and so is God). In 2017, the mayor appointed me to serve as a trustee on our local public-school Board of Education. This opportunity allowed me to take the lead in getting a customized license plate for our district approved by the State of Mississippi that will perpetually generate funds for education in the arts. I collaborated with a local artist, the business community, and the district to install a beautiful twenty-foot-tall mural in a highly visible area in our city that will inspire our children toward graduation for years to come! I am not a teacher, and I am not in the classroom, but I have a seat at the decision-making table to serve our city’s children. I play a role in helping to ensure they have every opportunity to receive a quality education that allows them the opportunity to reach their God-given potential!
Community involvement at the servant leader level has some huge benefits if you embrace patience, allow God to present the key opportunities, and keep the Gospel’s mission the main thing. First, you’ll gain the opportunity for new relationships that might typically be harder to establish once you’re known as the “preacher” or “pastor” of a church. Second, you’ll have open doors in trusted areas to serve influencers and decision-makers in your community. Finally, community involvement at this level will build relational equity with your community and the leaders that will allow you to be an agent of substantial positive change.
Make no mistake about it, servant leadership at this level has real costs, but that is a discussion for another day. Maybe some of the uneasiness you’re feeling is the gentle prodding of the Lord to challenge the gifts He’s placed in you by serving at a deeper leadership level in your community.
Dr. James Johnson-Hill is the founder and lead pastor of Agape Church in Laurel, Mississippi. Pastor James has a genuine love for people and is passionate to see the church look like heaven – people of every race, every culture, every age and every background worshiping God, loving God, loving one another, and living life together! As pastor and teacher, his ministry focuses on building the local church, reaching people with the gospel, and developing passionate followers of Christ. His practical, and often humorous presentation inspires believers and reaches the unchurched. James and his wife Anicia, affectionately known as Nece, have four children and live in Laurel, MS.