Church as Gift for Neighborhood Transformation

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Jay Van Groningen, Director of Communities First Association, presents a challenge to churches to involve themselves in community transformation.

In Asset Based Community Development, we talk a lot about church as asset for positive community change. In what ways can church be gift to neighborhood transformation? I wonder what you would add to this list?

  • Some church members bring hope to the neighborhood transformation process — they know that God reigns and that we live under His promise of a Kingdom come and coming. They live and work from a certainty that the earth is the Lord’s and that He has not abandoned His world. They have a calling to co-reign with God in making all things new (Col 1:17). They bring optimism and hope for a brighter future.
  • Church members bring a spiritual and moral compass to neighborhood life. What are the acceptable and prevailing norms for our community life? Christians bring a framework for Biblical living to those who care to learn.
  • Church members bring prophetic imagination — the Holy Spirit visits Christian neighbors with dreams of what can be. They imagine beauty and a restored environment, they imagine laughter and play in places now dark.
  • Churches have buildings, grounds, offices, classrooms, meetings rooms, office equipment, supplies and more. Imagine church as a community center. A willing church can be a center for neighborhood activity and connecting.
  • Churches have funds for benevolence and community enhancements.
  • Churches have staff (outreach and deacons) who allocate time to community development coordination and leadership.
  • Churches have people with talents and expertise to share with their neighbors.

Over the years, I have noticed that most Christians who get serious about Community Development — serious enough to work at it — try to start the work of neighborhood transformation from a church platform. They hope and expect that a congregation will engage in God’s redemption story in the neighborhood as a lead agent for positive change. They expect that the church will care enough about their neighbors and neighborhood to want to be a lead “player” in the neighborhood redemption story. They are soon disappointed with Church as agent for neighborhood transformation. Those who have launched neighborhood transformation from a church platform (be it new church or established church) feel isolated, alone, under-resourced, and disillusioned with church participation. While church is loaded with gifts for neighborhood transformation, their focus and energies seem directed to “healthy church” issues, not “healthy community” issues.

Church can be a good neighbor bringing gifts/contributions to the neighborhood transformation story. It can be great neighbor — taking responsibility for the neighborhood transformation story. Communities First Association has learned that a best practices approach is to lead neighborhood transformation from outside the church (a non profit) and to call on the church to bring their gifts (as much as they are willing) in the same way any other institution is invited to bring their gifts to the neighborhood transformation process.

Ironically “healthy church” and “healthy community” is not a problem to be solved. It is a polarity to be managed. A community is healthier when church gifts are a shaping force; a Church is healthier when as servant/witness it stretches itself in giving gifts for the redemption of the neighborhood it occupies.

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Interesting article.  I think there is another direction from which this should be approached.  If we think in terms of church as institution and church as organism it is the institutional church that often gets bogged down in being "church" so that it cannot affectively bring community transformation.  But if each part of the church that is a living body is doing its part then those parts will be touching and transforming the places where they live.  To often we as church end up withdrawing from the communities we live in.  We develop freindships at church only and shun non believers or believers who are different from us.  We often leave our communities and drive to another location where our congregation meets. These factors don't make community engagement and transformation easier.  How would you feel if people who don't care enough about you to live among you start trying to fix you?  

Just some thoughts.

Guide

George, I asked Jay, the author of this article, about the church as institution and church as organism, and this was his response

My opinion on the distinction between church as institute and organism:

1. Who benefits from making this distinction? 
2. How does it benefit the isolated, poorer neighbors to maintain this distinction?

I have no doubt that Jay has spent a good deal more time thinking about this than I have.  So, I am eager to hear his thoughts on this. 

It seems to me that this distinction can come in handy in some circumstances.  People sometimes want "the church" to speak about issues or support candidates which congregations and denominations should not speak to.  Of course, from a legal standpoint congregations and denominations can put their tax deductible status in jeopardy if they engage in certain kinds of political activity.  But even if that were not an issue, it seems to me that the church "as institute" can get itself embroiled in all sorts of internal controversy and external public relations problems when it blunders into areas beyond its competence.

On the other hand, when a group of Christians organize to advocate for justice or to speak into a societal issue, often across congregational and denominational lines, is that the Church?  I would say yes.  It is the church as organism, as a body.  Jay points out that often engagement with social change issues has to start in this way.  Congregations and denominations aren't set up for this kind of work.  The unity of purpose expressed by Christians in such settings can be truly beautiful.

Community Builder

@ Wendy Hammond

Wendy's relayed response from Jay Van Groningen is:

My opinion on the distinction between church as institute and organism:

1. Who benefits from making this distinction? 
2. How does it benefit the isolated, poorer neighbors to maintain this distinction?

My own answers to Jay Van Groningen would be:

Response to #1. Everyone benefits, at least in the long run, although seemingly not in the short run.  In the Dutch Reformed tradition, Christian Schools result from the work (preaching/teaching) of the church as institution, but the implementation of Christian Schools result from the work (members responding to the preaching/teaching) of the church as organism.  The wisdom of implementing that distinction is, in my view, abundantly clear.

Jay himself does his work not as part of the church as organism, bu as part of the church as organism (he is as an agent of "Communities First Association").  Why?  A hint to the answer comes from a publication written by Jay himself.  He wrote "Communities First",  of which Chapter 8 is: "Justice: Creating Policies, Laws, and Systems that Work for Everyone.  This chapter describes how ministry and community leaders can effectively advocate for justice without getting caught up in partisan politics."

Hmmm, "without getting caught up in partisan politics"?? The task of the church, as institution, is to preach, teach, encourage, provide for fellowship, and provide a simple form of benevolence (both within but also without).  Certainly, local churches can and do also get in the community (after all, it invites the community to share in that which it preaches, teaches, etc., and to become part of that local 'family''), but at a point, if the church, as institution, gets too involved, it simply won't avoid getting caught up in "partisan politics," Jay Van Groningen's Chapter 8 notwithstanding.  Result? Some members will leave because they have a "political perspective" at odds with that which the church Council has; Council starts looking at new elder nominees by examining their "political perspectives" in addition to other qualifications (after all, the church's political message to the community needs to be consisitent); Council's work is increasingly about matters outside the competence of Council members; and the job of Elder or Deacon starts to become quite different.

If we don't differentiate between church as insitution and as organism, we adopt a Roman Catholic tradition.  I'll take the Reformed tradition any day.

Response to #2.  The poor and isolated are benefitted because more work, and more competent work, is being done for their benefit.  Elders/deacons aren't necessarily your best local Christian school board members (or administrators or teachers).  And I wouldn't want my elders/deacons to also have those jobs  -- too much out of their area of competency (and just too much work).  Certainly, some elders/deacons will also be school board members, but that's because they chose to and have multiple competencies.  And when he/she votes as a school board member, he/she is voting with different co-directors, which aggregately has a different skill/experience set (thankfully!).

Don't misunderstand.  I'm all for what Jay Van Gronigen wants CRC church members to do, and I've spent my personal life trying to practice that preaching.  But I do it because of the preaching/teaching I received, and I do it sometimes in concert with a local board of directors in a community, sometime as a volunteer for another community organization, and sometimes just as myself.  In all those cases, I'm glad I'm not doing it under the control of my church's Council.  Hey, my elders/deacons are great people but not necessarily the best to be calling all the shots in all of the things I involve myself in for the community.  I'm glad the Council does its job, and my local community organizations do theirs, and that my local community orgnizations can be governed by a board that includes people from all sorts of churches -- even people not from church (a BIG plus).

Honestly, I don't understand why we in the CRC no longer seem to understand the benefits of distinguishing between church as institution and church as organism.  Have we simply stopped teaching this?

Seems like a church (institute) can feel pretty good about itself as agent of "pure preaching" even if members do not engage in the redemption of the neighborhoods or cities they occupy using this distinction - right? 

As far as God's redemptive purposes are concerned in His world, that is up to individuals then and not the church? The church does not take responsibility for what members do or do not do, it is up to each member to hear and respond as they are led? Do I understand your position on this?

The reputation of the church in the community as an institution that serves members is really quite pleasing in this scenario. As long as members are satisfied with the preaching, teaching, fellowship etc its all good?

Seems like that could lead to institutional isolation of church - a church (institution) without influence beyond its capacity to influence her own members, without ascribed, planned contribution to God's redeeming work in a place. Sound at all like a present reality?

How many neighborhoods and cities have many churches and no discernable or measurable influence in the places they occupy? There is no stain on the church for their irrelevance to their community in those places?

What would your community miss if your church was taken out of the picture? That seems really quite irrelevant if the church has only to preach and teach members and be a loving bubble community... not accepting responsibility for the condition of the community.

How many neighborhoods once had churches that were active in community, and as the community changed, the members up left? The commitment was to members...and not the community.

Who benefits from the distinction? Those who do not want to be held accountable for the role of church as great neighbor - agent of redemption? That is for individuals...

Preaching the gospel will have an influence on community.  If there is no influence on community, then perhaps the gospel has not been truly and comprehensively preached.   While a church as an institution does not vote, a sermon distinguishing on the biblical distincitions and significance attached to human life vs animal life might influence the voting of its members. 

Preaching the gospel might influence the relative importance the members of a church place on sending money to foreign missions, vs spending time and money on poor nearby neighborhoods.  

Preaching the gosple might influence the energy of church members directed towards establishing christian schools and colleges and summer christian bible camps.  

But the church elders may not be the school board members, and the church pastor will not go to the foreign missions, and the church elders may not be the ones who set up a help center for the destitute next door. 

Thus the distinction between the institutional authority of the church elders, vs the influence of the church on its members to live Godly lives in their community.   In some cases, there may be a seemless blend between the two, and in other cases, clear distinctions need to be made. 

If the institutional church feels good about itself just because it is preaching the word it has to check the influence that word is having in and on the body.  You might think you are eating a balanced diet but if you show signs of malnutrition something is definately wrong.  The body is made of many parts and is only doing what it is intended to do when the parts are doing their part.  The instituional church must work for the full engagement of the organism in the life of the community and the world.

Thanks Jay for clarifying your concern with this distinction.  Now I understand why you feel so strongly. It would be tragic if the church as institute took no responsibility for what its members do or don't do beyond official church programs.  A church that is satisfied to worship, learn, care and fellowship internally and ignore its community is lacking something absolutely central.

On the other hand, some of the best and most important ministry happens when Christians from across congregational and denominational lines, who have been stimulated and challenged by their churches (institute) gather in a common cause to serve their community.  Once this gathering of Christian individuals comes together in the name of Christ to serve their community, are they the Church or not?  I would say yes.  They are the Church as organism.