Growing Community

Have you ever heard church people talking about “reaching out into the community” – and noticed that this phrasing makes it sound like church is over here and community is over there – a completely different entity.  And then found yourself wondering: “surely church is part of the community”?

One church that was willing to die to a view of itself as the noble servant of the community, as the giver to the needy is Broadway United Methodist church in Indianapolis, led by Pastor Mike Mather.  Despite pouring church resources into traditional givings to community such as foodbank, youth summer activities, girl guides, after school tutoring etc in the church, he still had to bury 9 young men killed violently in the area around the church.  After a change of approach, he sought instead to be a friend and to find and grow community assets.

The turnaround came when a parishioner questioned him on the implications from his own sermon!  He had preached on “And in the last days it will be,” God says, “that I will pour out my Spirit on all people, and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18 NET)  

“If we believe that God’s spirit is flowing down on all people, old and young, women and men — and on the poor,” the woman continued, “why don’t we treat people like that’s true?”  She pointed out that instead of being asked about their gifts, people had to fill out a Government form to prove they were really poor, in order to get food from the foodbank.

Pastor Mike employed a listener to literally hang around the neighbourhood and hear the potential in people. From that, they connected people of similar interests via simple shared meals, and collaborations, joint ventures and friendships were formed.  The church became a place to connect, and encourages local arts as a meeting place for a metropolitan youth orchestra, a pottery studio, gamers, a dance studio, and a commercial kitchen licence where local people make catering startups.  Here’s Pastor Mike in person:

(Video by Jack Pearpoint of Inclusion Press)

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John McKnight

Supporting and inspiring this change-around is the research and thinking by John McKnight, an experienced community organizer and emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University.  He doesn’t advocate ignoring people’s needs and problems, but rather to look first for solutions within the community itself. Later, he said, institutions and services can help.

As he points out: “John 15:15 tells us that, at the Last Supper, Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants. … I call you friends.’ So the final way of defining what Christianity is based on is friendship, not service

McKnight defines charity as “a one-way compensatory activity that never changes anything.”  Driven by wanting to demonstrate that people could have problems and assets, he co-wrote a book: “we got a grant and we collected about 3,000 stories of what people had done with the resources they have, from cities all across North America, in lower-income neighborhoods.  That’s what “Building Communities From the Inside Out” is.”

Broadway United Methodist Church has pursued this new model of friendly neighbour for 10 years, seeing its congregation growing from around 75 to 200.  Its website opens up with the statement: “Broadway seeks, welcomes and values all people”.  Its core values include:

We see abundance – We believe everybody is a child of God with gifts to offer the world. But society often overlooks these gifts, seeing only labels and categories, needs, and stereotypes.

We “have conversations and have faith” – We believe that the Spirit of God is alive in all people. We welcome persons of all age, race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation. We seek to acknowledge and honor this spirit in all people by having conversations and listening for opportunities to connect and invest in the passions, interests, and gifts they have to share with the world.

Amongst many other interesting parts of the website comes the news that Pastor Mike is currently writing a book on the church’s experiences….

Further reading – 

the original article by Robert King https://www.faithandleadership.com/death-and-resurrection-urban-church

(the workbook) “Building Communities from inside out: a Path towards finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets” by John Kretzmann and John McKnight (it’s not cheap but has 376 pages of analysis and case studies)

(online article) https://www.faithandleadership.com/john-mcknight-low-income-communities-are-not-needy-they-have-assets

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