Recently, church and ministry leaders have increasingly asked how they might better bridge the gap between church and community. It is ironic that, in some cases, the church has operated in such a way that neighbors saw it as a place where they were not welcome. The church had a fortress mentality, where fences and locked doors kept the neighbors out, instead of being a place where neighbors would be welcome and made to feel at home. Commuter churches where members drive in on Sundays make community connections very difficult.
Committing to place
At the same time, there is a revival in the sense of parish, and many churches are now learning the importance of the place where they are located and the need to listen to the neighbors God has placed there. If we do not feel like we fit our surroundings and live in fear and judgment of the community, we will never be able to relate comfortably to it. Learning to love the place you are located is especially important for churches located in urban communities that have experienced some level of decline. Cultural competence is often a big part of being able to connect in settings of racial and economic diversity. One of the best ways to build commitment to place is to walk the community, be in it, and hang out there. Developing an understanding of what is going on and being connected to the issues a neighborhood is facing is key to building neighborhood credibility and proving that you do truly care.
Committing to place includes adding beauty and vitality to the neighborhood by caring for your facilities, your neighbor’s homes, and your neighborhoods. For church facilities, stay on top of exterior improvements that make the neighborhood a more attractive place and interior improvements that make the church a comfortable place to come and use. By this, the church can make a positive statement in the community that it is invested in making the neighborhood beautiful. For neighbors’ homes, create a church program that assists in repairing or preserving the assets of the homeowners. This can be an especially critical holistic, developmental ministry for seniors or those who are unable to do or pay for their own repairs. To better the neighborhood, you can clean up alleys, remove graffiti, landscape, board up broken windows, etc.
It is interesting that Scripture consistently uses the word neighbor as a metaphor for others, and especially for those in need. In both the Old and New Testaments, we find the same language that calls us to care, act with integrity, and do the right thing by our neighbor. The pairing of loving God and loving neighbor is a recurring theme that parallels God’s call of walking, loving, doing. Loving both the literal and metaphorical neighbor is the power that leads us to care and respect them as image bearers of God. As Christians, we have the language that makes our care for those around us not only be a good way to live, but also be what God expects from his people. We have the motivation of creating God’s preferred future and helping his kingdom come.
Listening to neighbors
Moving to ministry with neighbors is based on sincere and intentional listening. Discovering what residents care about enough to act on is at the heart of a strategy that moves from “to” and “for” to “with.” Imagining and creating ways to convene and connect neighbors so that they get to know and care about each other is one practice a church can engage in. One way to listen that also has the value of building church members’ commitment to place is door-to-door surveying. Every time we have seen a church make a significant commitment to surveying, we have seen both of these benefits. While we may have an initial fear of door knocking, the experience is generally rewarding for both parties. The neighbor is asked what they think, what is important to them, and how they could be prayed for. The interviewer receives insight into the person and a deeper understanding of issues in the community.
There are a number of other ways to listen to neighbors. One of the most natural is to hang out where people are hanging out. A church or ministry that becomes streetwise and connected builds trust and credibility. When people are spending time outside, you need to be there, opening up conversation, offering a hand to clean up a yard, helping in crisis, and celebrating joys. When the community sees the pastor as someone they know and can approach, they will approach and begin building relationships. When the church building becomes a place where neighbors are comfortable, then they will share their hopes and concerns. Make your church affordable and accessible for weddings, funerals, birthday parties, holidays, or discussing community issues. Being in the center of community life is key to what we hear. This is the church going out and opening up.
An asset-based community development (ABCD) perspective
Ministry with a community, family, or individual must begin with a focus on the assets that exist rather than the deficits. So often, we begin helping by looking at what is lacking or wrong rather than at what is going right. While we may end up identifying needs and challenges, we need to begin with the good things that are already happening in the community, the potential that already exists there, and the dreams that the members of the community have for their future. The nine principles of ABCD are:
- Everyone has gifts. Each person in a community has something to contribute.
- Relationships build a community. People must be connected in order for sustainable community development to take place.
- Citizens belong at the center. Citizens should be viewed as actors, not recipients, in development.
- Leaders involve others. Community development is strongest when it involves a broad base of community action.
- People care. Community members need to know that people care. Challenge notions of “apathy” by listening to people’s interests.
- Listen. Decisions should come from conversations where people are heard.
- Ask. Asking for ideas is more sustainable than giving solutions.
- Inside-out organization. Local community members are in control.
- Institutions serve the community. Institutional leaders should create opportunities for community-member involvement, then step back.
There are four key assets in any given community: individuals, associations, physical assets, and connections. These assets can be broken down into gifts of individuals, citizen’s associations, and local institutions. Having your holistic, developmental leadership team engage in an asset-mapping exercise is an extremely valuable exercise in shaping their perspective on the community. You are welcome to use and/or adapt the following asset map as a guide.
Photo courtesy of The ABCD Institute (DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois)
Empowering neighbors and neighborhoods
Empowerment begins with us acknowledging that we cannot make the changes in either the individual or in the community. The individual or community needs to want to make changes and be driven from within; we need to be very cautious about imposing our agenda on them. For individuals, we need to help them create their plan that they are then responsible to implement. For neighborhoods, we help the neighbors identify dreams and possibilities and then organize community action groups around things the residents care about.