“What would it take for us to have those we wish to serve be part of the strategy of serving?” That’s what John Maher, vicar of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Manakin Sabot, VA, said during an interview.
It was such questions that had me intrigued enough to use my recent sabbatical to study what this looks like. I conducted a research project with the Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project on how churches are finding ways to engage in Christian Community Development (CCD), the faith-based version of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD). I visited and interviewed leaders in cities across the United States.
Community development approaches to ministry are starting to capture the attention of North American churches because they offer a promising alternative to what Robert Lupton calls “toxic charity”–those well-intentioned gifts of time and resources to help the poor that are actually disempowering, fail to respond to actual needs, or end up creating a cycle of dependency. ABCD has offered an alternative approach that empowers neighborhood residents to be the dreamers and the doers. In this approach, churches are not the outside givers or fixers who do a Saturday project and then leave, but invest in a neighborhood with a long-term and relational approach, and take on a role of resourcing, encouraging, and collaborating.
Some of the communities I visited had built up complex, well-developed ministries, up to and including an entire non-profit focused solely on a particular neighborhood. I don’t believe all churches are called to do that. But one key insight from my study has been that this approach can be parsed out into individual principles for ministry that any church of any size should implement. I want to lift up three principles that characterize community development ministries but can also transform a church’s approach to any type of ministry, no matter its size or setting.
1) Community ownership. As Vicar Maher’s quote above suggests, ABCD is an approach that not only includes neighborhood residents in what we do but allows them a chance to be the actual drivers of it. Christian leaders spend years getting to know residents of a neighborhood to learn who cares enough to get involved and how God has gifted them for service. “We literally let the neighbors drive what was going to populate this building,” said Vicki Ekberg of Restoration Outreach Programs in Aurora, CO.
There is genius in this approach for any ministry. The most effective way to attract and involve new people in your church is to involve them in the conceptualization, planning and implementation of what you do. Often, we plan our programs and ministries internally, and then spin our wheels trying to get outsiders interested. But interest will be automatic for people who have an opportunity to be a part of shaping something that responds to needs they have or issues they face.
Want to do something for children in your community? Talk to some parents in the area first. Want to have a food pantry? Consider forming a cooperative that involves potential food recipients in the decision-making. Whatever it may be, invite others to be a part of it first, not last.
2) Cross-sector partnerships. In their “Externally Focused…” books, Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw encourage churches to be open to partnering with other non-church organizations in their community that could be characterized as “morally positive and spiritually neutral.” They say that this is the part of their books that generates the most controversy. Apparently, churches prefer to limit ourselves to our own resources. How is your church doing? Do you have all the people and dollars you need to do the ministry you want to do?
I know. We’re afraid of being “unequally yoked” or getting tangled up in an effort where we have to give something up or water something down. But the truth is, as long as we exercise at least a mustard seed’s worth of discernment, we will find many benefits and advantages to partnering with others in areas about which we are both concerned or passionate. All throughout the Bible, God used “other people” to accomplish God’s ultimate purposes; everything from armies to prostitutes to borrowed donkeys.
In Aurora, CO, Pastor Reid Hettich of Mosaic Church has partnered with the Fields Foundation to form a new Opportunity Center in a struggling neighborhood. Thanks to some trust-building and ferocious networking, they’ve tapped into financial resources they never would have had on their own. But even if we’re not that adventurous, there are countless small ways we can work with others in our community and stop having to ask ourselves how we’re going to staff and fund everything. In the Hillside Court neighborhood of Richmond, VA, local leaders have taken ownership of their community, and Parks and Recreation took notice and has provided them with resources to fulfill their common goals. Many churches today are finding ways to partner with schools in mentoring and tutoring. It starts by asking questions like, “Who else in interested in this,” or even, “Who is doing this better than we are?”
3) Leadership development. Finally, these community ministries seem to thrive because leadership development is a priority. In struggling communities, a select few people may have the needed passion, vision, or reputation but not the skills and resources. That’s where faith communities can come in. In that same Hillside Court neighborhood I just mentioned, a female resident named Patrice found herself stepping into the role of director of their non-profit and is now starting to see her dreams for her neighborhood come to fruition. She couldn’t have done it without the training, mentorship, and resources she received from their church partners. But even more importantly, no one from an outside church or neighborhood would have had the knowledge of and experience in the neighborhood to pull it off.
In our own churches, we need to always have our antenna up looking for passion and vision, not only within our church but outside as well, and tap into it wherever possible. A missional approach to ministry would ask, “How can we resource this person to make an impact for Christ where they already are?” True leadership development starts with passion, and churches need to find ways to fit jobs to people, not vice versa.