Far too many of us engaged in community outreach, service, or some type of diaconal ministry operate on questionable assumptions about people in "the community" we serve or want to serve. Too often the reality is that we know very little about the individuals living and working in our community . . . and our assumptions about "them" are often part and parcel of our own cultural biases, stereotypes and wrongly or un-informed opinions.
Many in our churches have had a tendency to perceive the individuals and families in the communities--especially individuals of a lower socio-economic status--served by their church as "the needy" or "the poor" who need us and our help. Perhaps you've even heard someone from your church refer to "those people" or make a comment that included something along the lines of, "if only they would or wouldn't do . . . ." or "why don't they just . . . ." Unfortunately, when this is how and what we think about our neighbors, it not only shows that we do not know and have not developed meaninful relationships with our neighbors, it also has a direct negative impact on the ministry, service or help we provide. This kind of thinking also places "us"--at least in our own minds and attitudes--in a position of superiority that separates "us" from "them." When we think of our neighbors and/or those we serve in this way, among other things--and without intending to do so--we diminish a person's dignity, encourage and create dependency, and end up doing more harm than good to the individuals and communities we are trying to help. (For more on this I highly recommend reading and discussing one or more of the following books: Communities First (from Faith Alive), When Helping Hurts or Toxic Charity)
It might be helpful at this point to pause and take some time to honestly reflect on one's perceptions, assumptions, attitudes, and expectations about those whom we are serving or are seeking to help. (Perhaps read one of the books referenced in the previous paragraph.) Consider and discuss why you or your congregation/group performs or provides service to others? How is our service or diaconal ministry advancing and reflecting God's kingdom or reign of shalom in lives and in the community to which God has called and placed us?
After some honest self-reflection and assessment, one of the most important things we need to do--and continue doing-- is to get to know the people in our community, i.e., our neighbors and fellow community members. There are various tools and guides available to help you and your church do this. One that I am familiar with and can recommend is, "Community Study Guide" by Heidi Unruh of Baylor Univeristy. This is a user-friendly and practical manual that guides church/ministry workers through the basics of conducting a community assessment for ministry. If you are in a position of ministry leadership at your church or engaged in some form of diaconal or community ministry, I strongly encourage you to review and consider using this resource. You can view and download by clicking on Community Study: A Guide to Understanding Your Church’s Context for Ministry.
Is your church changing or has it changed how it serves or helps others? If so, what brought about the change and how is it going? What are some of the challenges that you have faced or are facing? What have you found or used that has been helpful and how did/do you go about it? What do you think might help you or your church at this point?
Let the sharing begin!