“Learning Lab” Helps Establish Church as Essential Ally to Community
By Jaymie Dieterle
Partnering with the schools in their area wasn’t a new idea for Centralia Community Church. But when their participation in the Chapter 4 Institute coincided with a global pandemic, they discovered an opportunity to take their partnership in a new direction, and the Learning Lab was born.
Centralia Community Church of God was under the leadership of Mark and Lori Fast at the time. Mark was the lead pastor, and Lori served as the associate pastor of worship and ministry development. The couple was participating in the Chapter 4 Institute through the Church of God. According to the Chapter 4 website, “…the Chapter 4 Institute is an immersive, cohort-based leadership experience that creates passion for spiritual and social renewal. It challenges leaders to reimagine how the church might earn its place as an essential ally—alongside local government, community-based organizations, businesses, and others—to change the story in their communities.” The Fasts were part of a Chapter 4 cohort and working to discern what God was saying to Centralia Community Church of God about how to be relevant to their community, especially in light of the pandemic. Choosing an outreach project related to their community schools was a natural fit.
“Our church sits across from the high school and down the block from the middle school,” explains Lori. “We were challenged to come up with something to make a difference in our community. We thought, ‘What can we do to help the kids and families who are experiencing an educational crisis because of this pandemic?’” As with other schools around the country, the schools in Centralia initially closed for six weeks in the spring of 2020. Then that was extended to twelve weeks. Then for the rest of that school year. Everyone in their community was asking what would happen in the fall.
The Chapter 4 process asks participants to consider what God is saying to the individual congregation, in their context, in that moment, and then ask, “What are we going to do about it?” “There’s always a danger of trying to do too much. So, we had to keep asking what burden God had placed on our hearts. In a sea of good ideas, we had to drill down to the most essential,” Lori says. Lori had been serving on the school board, even leading the group as board president. She was aware of the concerns the local schools and families were facing as they anticipated the start of the 2020-2021 school year. And a tutoring center was the answer to all of their questions about how to step in and engage with the needs of the community.
Centralia Community offered tutoring two days a week for two hours. Families could sign up for one hour per day for their students. Learning Lab volunteers focused on helping participants with school assignments and homework, so the church didn’t have to develop their own activities or bring in specialized volunteers. And helping kids with their homework meant relieving some of the schooling burden for parents. It was truly a win for everyone involved.
The Learning Lab offered three sessions that ran for ten weeks each, starting in October of 2020. The school district loaned the church computers in case any student arrived without one. Families that signed up participated regularly and expressed gratitude that the church was there to help them through one of the most challenging school years ever.
Lori credits Chapter 4 for helping them develop the Learning Lab. “It was the catalyst for us to think outside the box. It was the challenge and the motivation we needed. The Chapter 4 cohort was collaborative and inspiring; it’s affirming to know other churches are doing the same work. But the process also reminds you that you are the expert on your community and your context.”
The Fasts and the folks at Centralia Community Church of God used their heart for the children of their community along with their understanding of community needs to build an outreach program that made a tangible difference for families in their area when they needed help the most.
Learn more about the Chapter 4 Institute here at www.jesusisthesubject.org/chapter4.
Jaymie Dieterle is the administrative assistant for the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Anderson University as well as a freelance writer with a passion for books, reading, and life-long learning. Jaymie has written adult Sunday School curriculum, devotionals, and a Bible study for Warner Press/Warner Christian Resources. Jaymie and her family live in Anderson, Indiana, and they are actively involved at Madison Park Church of God.