Listening in on a Conversation

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Yesterday in adult Sunday School we talked about our church’s concern for the neighborhood, the community around the church building. The more activities we carry out, the more opportunities for neighboring turn up. That got us to talking about how to serve in our part of the city. Here are a few comments that stuck in my mind….

“There are government programs, and that fact often becomes a reason not to talk further about the church’s role.”

“What’s going on with government help and the poor? Why doesn’t it seem to be having the effect we all desire? Why does help so often seem unhelpful?”

“And that’s only a bit of the picture. The church has abdicated its responsibility, and we’ve used government programs as our excuse.”

“In John Calvin’s Geneva, it was the deacons who were trying to get the church to help the poor.”

What should the church be doing, then, if all that government effort seems to have little effect, except maybe for providing ongoing relief? How should the church shape its own response? Can we actually REDUCE poverty and dependence on programs that help? Even just in our neighborhood? Seems like that’s the ideal, but how do we do it?

I began to wonder -- seems like there’s one kind of help that is mostly money and services and programs, and it is kind of ‘contracted’ to professional helpers or staff, and then on the other hand there’s the kind of help that is personal and relationship-based and happens in community and with high personal commitment.

That second kind felt more biblical, more human -- assuming we have built relationships of respect and mutual appreciation with our neighbors. Ideally, that’s how to relate to fellow image-bearers alright, but doing that while crossing socio-economic differences, and race differences, and language differences, and cultural differences, well, frankly that puts demands on my time and on my comfort levels that scare me just a little bit.

Now I was beginning to wonder where this was going – if it was going anywhere at all. Some of this sounded pretty familiar. And even though our group was small we had already surfaced disagreement.

I found myself wishing for people to advise us from other churches who had already traveled this road. Surely we aren’t alone in this conversation, are we?

And what could we expect from our deacons? Could they give us leadership? They are as busy as anybody! How could they be expected to do more?

Has YOUR church walked this road? Do you have stories to share? Encouragement? Advice?  

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It is very difficult to positively and productively impact a community that you don't know and are not a part of. I think the incarnation of Jesus is God's validation of this observation. God could do a lot through angels, but when the real work needed to be done incarnation was the way to begin. 

In every corner of the age of decay our capacities are always tiny compared to the need. We shouldn't be discouraged by the size of our potential impact, sometimes our best deaconal works are sacramental in nature rather than consumational. 

I think it's vital to empower those within a community to have as much decision making power as possible. Our council looks like the community we serve in many ways, this is a huge asset when it comes to making benevolence calls and program decisions. 

I know that given the specific ethnic history of our denomination there are a number of congregations that don't feel as seemlessly connected to their communities yet both want to serve and bridge that difference. I think good words would be perserverence, patience and partnerships. This all takes time but if in the long run the congregations understands its cruciform calling to pour itself out for the needs around them, and if the desire is genuine in time the partners will arise, bonds can be formed and progress can be made.