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A Most Difficult Concept for Christians

This article is reposted from July 17, 2014.

One of my favorite resources for Communities of Shalom is the book titled Building a People of Power by Robert Linthicum. Within the book, Linthicum gives a great introduction to a key concept that churches need to apply if they are serious about working for the common good of their community and seeking the shalom of the neighborhood where they worship.

Three churches and their communities in Nashville

This concept is often referred to as the Iron Rule: Never do for others what they can do for Members and neighbors from Trinity UMC themselves. Or put another way, the people who are best able to deal with a problem are the people most affected by the problem.

Linthicum writes, “I have discovered in more than 50 years of ministry that this concept is the single most difficult insight for Christians to grasp and apply in their ministry.”

Why is it so difficult?

One way to answer is to consider that there are three general ways in which a church responds to its neighborhood. They either have ministry in a community, for/to a community or with a community.

A church in a community does not see itself as being part of that neighborhood. This is a church with its building in a neighborhood but with no relationships with the neighbors and other stakeholders. Most of the members commute to the church, and all activities are designed to serve the membership.

A church for a community develops programs to serve people outside the walls of the church. Often this church is motivated through its faith teachings to help people less fortunate, even if they do not attend the church. Sometimes a church who is doing programs for the community is motivated because it is a shrinking congregation who hopes that reconnecting to the neighborhood might help it grow. There is great potential in this approach and this approach has a flaw. The flaw is that, more often than not, the church decides what is best for the community. Well-intentioned church-folk develop programs to help or fix the people outside the church. The people outside the church are viewed as deficient and unable to solve their own problems.

A church with a community respects and perceives the people of the community as people with great wisdom and potential. The church does not develop programs for people, but instead partners with the people in dealing with their own issues and pursuing their own aspirations for their community. A church with the community participates in the community’s struggles and dreams, allowing both to shape the church.

Being a church in ministry with the community is difficult to do because it goes against our problem-solving tendencies. It means we may have to give up our timetables and operate at the community’s (sometimes slower) pace. It might even mean that we have to allow our church to be influenced by the community!

Once a church embraces the notion of being in ministry with the community, the real journey (and work) of change and transformation begins…for the community and the church. The activities of the church move away from relief and quick fixes to lasting and sustainable community transformation. The reward are the joys and fruits of authentic, relational ministry.

This summer, Center for Transforming Communities has used this framework to help five churches in Nashville imagine ways that the church can grow in its relationship with the community. We have been exploring the principles and tools of Asset Based Community Development as one approach to doing ministry with the neighborhood.

If you or your church would like to learn more about doing ministry with your neighborhood, I hope you will contact me.

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