Community Ministry Paradigm Shifts

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 Wendy McCaig has been writing a series on the Nuts & Bolts of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) on her blog. She writes from the perspective as a minister of the gospel who understands, believes in, practices, and educates others about the Biblical principles and work Christian community development.

With Wendy's permission, I am sharing the following post from the "Nuts & Bolts" series here. This post in particular deals with 10 needed paradigm shifts that relate to how those of us engaged in diaconal ministry do and view our work, understand and view our community, and view and interact with our neighbors.

10 Paradigm Shifts

This post is the second in a series of posts defining the steps to healthy asset based community development efforts.  In my prior post, I shared that the starting place is to define a geographic area to focus your efforts on and the second step is to identify persons of peace within that geographic neighborhood.

However, before you can begin identifying potential persons of peace it is absolutely critical that you do so from the proper perspective.  Community development is all about empowerment of the neighbors and you must be very careful not to allow it to become just another way your congregation serves.  Community development is about “development” not “service” and this is an important shift.  The goal is not to “engage your congregation” in the community.  The goal is to release the gifts, talents and abilities of the residents who are already there.  Your congregation’s role is to support local leaders in doing the things they feel called to do. [bold italics mine]

There are a number of paradigm shifts that must happen before a congregation is able to do ABCD work effectively.  Here are my top 10:

1. Moving from “us and them” to “we”

Without realizing it, most churches have created an “us” and “them” scenario.  The church folks stand behind the feeding table and the “recipients” on the other side.  There are clear lines between giver and recipient.  An ABCD approach dismantles this separation and invites those historically seen as recipients of services to be the givers and has us all sit as equals at the table.  This requires that the church see all persons as part of the same family and requires us to treat everyone as our brothers and sisters and see everyone as equal and valued.

2. Moving from “To/For” to “With”

Most churches approach communities in need and proceed to do things “to or for” the residents.  For a congregation to move into community development, the church must seek to do ministry in partnership “with” the neighborhood.  The only way to achieve true “with” is to give equal or superior voice and control to the residents of the neighborhood.  The church must be willing to lead by stepping back. The role of the church is to equip, empower and release, not to dictate and control.

3. Moving from “relief” to “betterment” to “development”

The vast majority of church mission efforts are “relief” ministries that were intended to meet immediate basic needs like food and shelter.  While these are important, a disproportionate level of resources are going to these immediate needs with very little going toward solving the underlying issues.

We have all heard the saying “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”  Most churches travel along a continuum of addressing immediate needs, “giving fish”, to helping individuals achieve their personal goals which we call “individual betterment” or “teaching to fish.” This includes things like tutoring, job coaching and other mentoring type programs.

However, very few churches take this to the next level and look at the condition of the pond.  Many of our communities are unhealthy, or using this metaphor, the “pond is toxic.”  No matter how great our relief and betterment efforts people are still trapped in a toxic environment.  To do effective community development work, you must learn to assess the condition of the pond and put energy into those activities that change the pond itself.

4. Moving from “mission as event” to “mission as relationship”

Most church mission efforts are entirely “event” driven.  One week they host the homeless, one week they do a foreign missions trip, one week they serve in a soup kitchen and one week they go to the local food bank.  People can serve hundreds of hours and never build one meaningful relationship with the people they were seeking to serve. While these programs meet a critical need, they do not develop people or neighborhoods.  Only an approach that builds relationships can build a stronger sense of community.

5. Moving from “cause” to “community” based ministry

A cause is defined by a need – homelessness, teen pregnancy, education.  Community development is always defined first and foremost by a geographic area.  Within that geographic area, there are many “causes” but the goal of community development is to strengthen a community.  For example, Boaz and Ruth is a community development effort that provides those re-entering society with jobs. However, their overall goal is to make the Highland Park neighborhood a better neighborhood and they are doing so by creating jobs. Goodwill Industries on the other hand is a “cause” oriented jobs program.  Their goal is to help those with barriers to employment secure employment.  They have no defined neighborhood they are seeking to impact.  Both are wonderful programs and I support them both.  However, one is a cause based organization and one is a community development organization. Most church missions appraoches are “cause” oriented.  To move into community development there has to be a paradigm shift and the overarching goal must be to strengthen a specific community.

6.  Moving from meeting “needs” to building on “assets”

Most congregations enter under-resourced communities and immediately begin focusing on what is “needed.”  They do “needs” assessments and look for “gaps” in services provided.  An asset based approach does the exact opposite.  When entering the community we look for what is strong in a neighborhood, what is working, what associations already exist, and who cares enough to get involved.  These are the basic building blocks for an asset based approach. We will get into identification of assets in our next post.

7. Moving from “outside experts” to “neighborhood leader”

When you start with a “needs” approach, you assume that the neighborhood is lacking in expertise and so you automatically look for “outside” resources to fix the identified “problem.”  When you take an asset based approach, you believe the neighborhood is already rich in assets and you look for neighbors who care enough to get involved.  The focus is on nurturing and growing leaders from within the neighborhood and not on bringing in outside experts.

8. Moving from measuring “recipients” to measuring “owners.”

One of the key signs of effective community development is resident ownership – residents who are leading and directing the community development efforts in their community.  So success is measured by the number of neighbors who care enough to get involved and not by the number of individuals receiving services.   Growing owners takes years and is far harder than attracting recipients.

9. Moving from “our church” to “one church”

One of the hardest shifts for congregations is often to recognize that “the church” is bigger than their congregation and that God often works in and through unlikely groups and in unlikely places.  For a congregation to effectively do community development work, they must begin to see “the church” everywhere and to see the face of Christ in everyone they meet.  We are not taking Jesus with us, we are joining Christ who is already at work in our community.  It is not “our church” doing the work, it is the body of Christ and we are just one small part of that body.

10. Moving from “meeting needs/growing a church” to “fueling a movement/revealing the Kingdom”

Too many congregations enter into CCD work with the ulterior motivation of “growing their church.”  CCD is seen as a church marketing strategy that they perceive will give them a better reputation in the community and therefore people will join their church.  Churches with this motivation are resistant to other churches joining in the effort.  However, when a church is truly motivated to strengthen the neighborhood, they seek to work across congregational lines and develop a culture of unity working in partnership with individuals and congregations from all faith backgrounds that share their vision for a healthier community.

Now that you've read this, consider reflecting on and responding to the following:

  1. Which of these paradigm shifts do you think is the most helpful to you?
  2. Which do you think will be the hardest for your congregation to embrace?
  3. What other shifts do you think will be important for your congregation?
  4. What would be the most helpful method for you to help your congregation make these shifts? (training, hands on experience of development efforts, book study, tour of effective CCD efforts, other ideas)
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Very good points. Congregations vary demographically. Age brackets, economic variants, social, political, culture capital, to name a few require assessment of in-congregation discussions and assessment before developing plans for community programs. Different generations have varied world-views. Thus there may need be multiple outreach strategies. Question: is the neighborhood changing faster than the congregation? Question 2: What do the young congregants think they can/should do? Seniors? 30, 40, 50 something's? etc.