Community Through Outreach

In 2020 when the pandemic shut down Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, church leaders knew they needed a way to continue to reach their community and engage their members. They quickly began holding fresh food distribution events every couple of months, serving around 400 local families.

“We actually offered baptism during those [events] for anybody who wanted to give themselves to Christ,” says Mike Burns, a church member who ran the distribution arm of that event. “We’ve had people baptized, we’ve had people join the church, we’ve had people reach out for services through the church, we’ve visited people we’ve met there to be able to support them through tough times. We’ve prayed, and we’ve made a lot of connections through this.”

Lead Minister Travis Eades recalls one such connection with a person who came for food. A church member shared the gospel with them in the parking lot. The person was baptized that day, and for several months they watched services and engaged online. 

Since the onset of the program, Eades says, “We’ve seen a lot of new faces and a lot of new visitors,” Eades says. “We’ve put a lot more emphasis on connecting with them on the weekend as well as online, and that attendance is still growing right now because of some of the things we did [during the pandemic].”

That online component has continued to play a big role in reaching people. In fact, digital discipleship has become one of the church’s top priorities.

“We’ve retained what we started with [during the pandemic] and have actually been adding pieces all along,” Eades says of Oak Hills’ online presence. “We hired a creative director to help us focus on that. And the way we engage on the front end of the service is much different. We really didn’t take the mentality that we were just trying to get people to eventually come in person, but that we had this opportunity to minister to people who were online indefinitely, and I think that mentality shifted our staff structure and even just the way we talk in our in-person service by addressing the online audience.”

Besides online discipleship, Oak Hills also prioritized several other key areas: rebooting its vision and mission statement, reaching the next generation, strengthening the family, and developing leaders.

And through all those efforts, Oak Hills has seen growth, most interestingly among unchurched people, Eades says. He points back to service opportunities as a way to engage with the community, especially with so many felt needs out there the last few years. And as those new faces have walked through Oak Hills’ doors, the church has made improvements to its Connection Central space in the central lobby as a way to better meet new people.

“We want a community, not just a church service,” Burns says. “Connection Central is where we encourage people to find a Bible study group, to find a support service, to find a life group, to find a Sunday school session, to find opportunities to serve. It’s those connections that really make a church a community, as opposed to a church that I just visit for a service each Sunday.”

Eades says they’ve hired a connections minister specifically for the purpose of developing relationships with those new faces, and they’ve been intentional about drawing more attention to the Connection Central as a valuable resource to plug into the larger body. And it’s that welcoming nature, that spirit of service and the ease of connection that make the church feel like home to so many.

“That’s really what community is about,” Burns says. “It’s biblically what community is about in the toughest times, when the church really finds itself serving and growing.”

Jessica Hanewinckel
Jessica Hanewinckel

Jessica Hanewinckel is an Outreach magazine contributing writer.