In a letter to Christian Reformed Church Pastors and Deacons on January 15, 2016 Colin Watson and Steve Timmermans said: “The Synod of 2015 took a major step in setting an even higher standard for the office of deacon. Under the new church order Synod is encouraging churches to re-examine the office and its structures. Now deacons are called to build on their strong history and give leadership to the church’s role in participating in the transformation of its community. Diaconal ministry is becoming the leading edge of the transformation of communities, the renewal of all things, both people and place. Communities are looking for support and new vision as traditional methods of addressing need are no longer working. If the church is to enter into ministry with community what better office to give leadership to this than the office of deacon. Synod 2015 concurred and set a new standard for the CRC.”
Is it true that people and institutions attend to what they track?
Congregations attend to a scorecard. Sometimes it is formal with metrics, often not. The scorecard includes things like:
→ The spiritual health of members
→ The number of worshipers
→ The Biblical education and nurture of children
→ Congregation care
→ The number of missionaries we support
→ The budget
In order for congregations to more fully engage in a neighborhood transformation story, I am proposing adding a formal additional scorecard:
→ The well-being of the neighborhood.
The neighborhood context:
This is a map of the Coit Neighborhood in Grand Rapids. I focus on it only as a representative neighborhood. She has a unique story – as does every neighborhood. Her residents each have their own story. In our society today, her neighbors are quite unlikely to know each other beyond a superficial greeting.
If this neighborhood is a poor neighborhood, most of her residents will be poor. The middle/upper class and the poor usually do not cohabit the same neighborhood in most cities in the US. And even if they do, they are unlikely to do life together in life-giving ways. Homes have culturally become the place to isolate ourselves, to withdraw from the world around us.
The default in most neighborhoods is that residents are largely isolated from each other. While the local elementary school at one time was a place of neighborhood engagement, school consolidation has left a void. Most neighborhoods lack a convening institution that helps neighbors come face to face, learn about each other, and work together on mutually defined interests.
In this Coit neighborhood there are at least 5 churches that meet every week and often more than once per week. In my neighborhood 12 churches meet weekly. Typically in North America each church story is isolated from the other church stories that are lived out in the neighborhood. And most often none of the congregations own responsibility for contributing to or influencing the neighborhood’s redemption story.
Churches are mostly commuter institutions attending to their own programs and activities. They may be inviting residents to join their programs and activities, they may be generous in their support of institutions that do good, but they are rarely partners in a community redemption (transformation) story.
Whose Story is it?
If this neighborhood belongs to her residents (and it does), then the institutions that occupy a place here get to be good neighbors, but they do not “own” the neighborhood story. For an institution to “own” it, they would co-opt it. When institutions take over, resident participation and ownership quickly fade away. The same is true for churches. Churches get to be partners in the neighborhood story.
God is already in the neighborhood. There is not one square inch of this cosmos that God is not God over. He is there. The neighborhood story is always at some level a communal response to God. Rather than operating on an assumption that Christians need to “bring God” to the neighborhood, maybe they can learn to discover how God is present, what He is already doing in the stories of their neighbors and the neighborhood. Maybe they will be surprised at the mosaic, the sophistication, and the abundance of the God-gifts already present in the neighborhood.
Four things a church can do for respectful engagement in the neighborhood transformation story:
1. Listen and Discover:
a. Listen and discover the abundance of God-gifts in the neighborhood. Every resident is God’s gift – fully endowed by God (Imagio Dei) to be a contributor to the Kingdom of God on earth. What if Deacons were responsible to name and celebrate the gifts (specific skills and contributions) of neighbors to the common good in the neighborhood?
b. Listen and discover what residents care about – enough to act on it. This neighborhood will be stronger, better (more like heaven) when…?
Note 1: Christians in the neighborhood also get to dream dreams, to imagine the neighborhood at her best. Consider the role of prophetic imagination. But Christians rightful posture is servant/witness not trumping force. Christians’ dreams and imagination will be heard and incorporated after residents feel their love and respect–the result of their servant/witness and hospitality.
Note 2: It is rare to find an institution that regularly and repeatedly sets the table for residents to come together listen to each other and dream together – to set a neighborhood agenda for change. A servant role for a church is to be a convener of neighbors and a facilitator for community vision to emerge. If there is no agenda for change that has many residents “finger prints” on it, it may be a helpful for a congregation to facilitate a neighborhood visioning process.
2. Own responsibility for being a partner in achieving the neighborhood transformation vision (A shared agenda for change). Attending to the Agenda for Change that arises from neighborhood listening and visioning is key. Elevate the neighborhood agenda for change as a priority for congregational life.
→ Post the neighborhood agenda for change prominently in the
→ Post the map of the neighborhood prominently in the church.
→ Name and celebrate neighbors’ and members’ gifts and contributions to achieving the neighborhood transformation vision.
→ Make it part of the congregation’s key leadership meetings at all times to be reporting progress in achieving the Community Change agenda.
3. Neighbor Well! Runyan and Pathak in their book, The Art of Neighboring, ask the question: Do you suppose when Jesus summarized the law and the prophets: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”, He did not mean your next door neighbor? Isolation is our cultural reality. The antidote is community. Congregations who develop leaders that model and teach the saints to neighbor well are able to join their story, their neighbor’s story with God’s redemption story in the neighborhood. Great neighbors go beyond superficial chats and waves and sharing things. They:
→ Connect neighbors to neighbors in ways that increase the number of gift exchanges that take place in the neighborhood.
→ Convene Neighbors: Play host, facilitate gatherings of neighbors. Knowing neighbors is a precursor to working together for the common good.
→ Communicate with neighbors about things (policies, practices, norms and activities) that affect everyone in the neighborhood.
How will a congregation purposefully multiply the number of her members who are great neighbors?
4. Infiltrate the neighborhood: Literally develop strategies that incentivize and support members to be great neighbors in the congregation’s neighborhood. Strategic neighbors on each block (think chaplain) can transform a community. Congregations would do well to identify and monitor the number of members who are great neighbors, and develop strategies to place more of them.
Will deacons attend to this work?
What systems can a congregation put in place that will lead church members to become great neighbors in their neighborhood?
How will the congregation elevate the community change scorecard (report card) in her congregational life and leadership?
The poor among us? A current reality in North America is that the poor live in neighborhoods – usually dense, lower standard housing neighborhoods – where the middle class and higher society is largely absent. At a recent meeting of church leaders, a Home Missions employee asked the question: “So what are middle class churches supposed to do? Those who do not have the poor in their neighborhood? In our denomination we are mostly middle class churches.”
Nothing in the community transformation role of a congregation should trump God’s call to His church (and to Deacons) to also address poverty. Addressing poverty is about helping people who are poor and changing systems that perpetuate poverty. If a church has no poor in the neighborhood she must also find ways to go to the poor, to become one community with them, and to partner with them achieving their dreams for a preferred future, and for a few to relocate to be among them.
HDC is grateful to Jay Van Groningen for this post. Jay is a trainer and coach in Christian Community Development working with www.GreatLakesUrban.com. His passion is eliminating poverty by strengthening community. Jay’s contact information: firstname.lastname@example.org | 616-403-9309