Guest Post: "Please Stop Serving!"

For my first guest post, I'm pleased to share a piece from Wendy McCaig, founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond, whose mission is "to strengthen under-resourced communities by empowering community-based leaders and engaging people of faith in works of service."

Guest posts are for the purpose of sparking discussion and hearing from diverse viewpoints on topics that interest me, and do not necessarily reflect my own views.


Today we participated in a wonderful community day event that was hosted by Richmond City Police Chief Norwood’s Faith Leaders Roundtable. Congregations, faith based groups and non-profits banded together to bring resources, food and fellowship into the Hillside Court community. I love seeing the body of Christ working together!

This morning I asked my daughter to bring her camera and take pictures at the event. When we arrived, there was a long line of little children wanting to get their faces painted. Since Caitlin is a far better face painter than I am, I offered to do the pictures. Caitlin has a very nice, sophisticated camera. I took the camera and I got some great shots. I got kids hula hooping, blowing bubbles, and playing basketball. I even got 65 year old Lois playing soccer with 64 year old Mildred, who by the way was wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. It was a great photo opportunity and I was so glad I had the camera so I could capture that moment!

I got home and could not wait to see all my pictures. I asked Caitlin to pull the pictures up and my stomach fell to the floor when she said, “Mom, you had the camera on “manual” setting and you should have had it set for the sunshine.” Needless to say, all my pictures were completely washed out. My daughter then asked me, “Why didn’t you ask me to show you how to use it?” The answer was of course that, “I thought I knew how to do it.” I take great pictures, like the one above, with my iPhone and I thought it was the same thing. I was very wrong.

All across this country, the church is emerging from its walls and is becoming a force for change. This week I read an article in Leadership Network’s newsletter about a movement in Denver that has mobilized dozens of congregations and is transforming lives and communities. The brilliance of this movement in Denver was its simplicity. Mayor Bob Frie sparked this movement when he shared with a group of faith leaders that the social issues facing their community would be drastically reduced if we could just learn how to become a community of great neighbors.

According to the Leadership Network article,
“After hearing from Frie, the pastors realized that their mayor had just invited them to get their people to actually live out the second half of the Great Commandment. Fueled by Frie’s comment, the pastors launched the “Building Blocks” initiative. Their goal is to challenge and equip the people in their churches to be intentional about building relationships with their neighbors. The goal is to see people move from strangers to friends. To accomplish this they have asked people to commit to two things: first, learning the names in eight households closest to theirs and second, partnering to throw a great block party.”

Today, the faith leaders in Richmond threw a great block party for the residents of Hillside Court! However, for this effort to grow into a community of great neighbors, we have some work to do. First, we are going to have to live out the second half of the Denver challenge and learn the names of our neighbors.

I will confess, I am really bad with names. I met dozens of new people today but can only remember Lenny the construction guy, Jay the basketball player and Diante the facepainter. I would give myself a D- in the “great neighboring” challenge.

Last weekend Jay Van Groningen, from Communities First, taught us that a “good neighbor” takes care of their own property and looks out for the neighbors immediately around them. However, a “great neighbor” is someone who cares for the condition of the entire community – someone who knows everyone’s name and brings them together to address the issues facing the community. When I think of “great neighbors,” I think of Mrs. Mildred, Patrice, Mrs. Debra and Windell who are all residents of Hillside Court who make a point of getting to know their neighbors and who are working toward making Hillside a better place.

Being a great neighbor sounds like an easy thing. Just like taking a few photos sounded like an easy task this morning. Taking pictures would have been a very easy task for my daughter, because she knows her equipment. I realized after listening to Jay and watching my Hillside friends that in order to be a truly great neighbor, you have to actually know your neighbors. To truly know your neighbor you have to actually live in the neighborhood.

No matter how hard I try, I will never be a “great neighbor” to my friends in Hillside because I do not live there. The best I can hope for is to be a “good friend” who empowers them to be “great neighbors.” Jay taught us all that our role as outsiders is to lead by stepping back. Our job is to harvest and harness the gifts, talents, hopes and dreams of a community and empower community leaders to do all they can with what they have. In other words, we can help the neighbors become great, but we cannot do it for them.

I love Leadership Network’s emphasis on “externally focused churches.” I am excited about the missional church movement’s emphasis on being the body of Christ in the world and I agree with Eric Swanson who sees these trends as a movement of God. However, I am not sure that everyone who is embracing missional church language or who sees their church as “externally focused” really understands that this movement is a movement toward becoming a community of great neighbors.

The goal of the Denver movement was not to “build church membership.” They did not go into the community and “extract” people out of the community to attend church meetings or programs. The congregants left the church to offer themselves to the community as “great neighbors.” There was a releasing that took place. For me the missional church movement is not about “growing the church,” it is about loving our neighbors. In order for that to happen we have to take the focus off the “church” and put it on the “community.”

It is equally important to distinguish between “neighboring” and “serving.” In the side bar of the Leadership Network newsletter there was an article promoting the missional church momement that read, “More churches are pioneering a shift toward community service”. Is community service really the goal here? Is it the same thing as developing a community of great neighbors?

Many of the church groups that came out to Hillside today were there because their pastor encouraged them to come today and “serve the community.” My daughter and her friends were there to do “community service.” Community Service is a good thing but I think we are missing something if we see it as the same thing as “neighboring.”

I watched some of these “service” groups. They tended to stick together, they did their part and they all worked hard. Some cooked, some shared information about their church, some danced and others shared spiritual messages. However, I am not sure they could tell you the names of eight people who live in Hillside court, their gifts or their dreams.

I do not fault people for seeing the goal of today as “community service” or “church recruitment.” We have all heard countless sermons on the importance of “serving” but how many sermons have we heard about “neighboring?” We have all heard hundreds of sermons instructing us to invite people to church, but how many sermons have you heard encouraging us to stay home and hang out with our neighbors?

When my daughter handed me that camera this morning, we both assumed I knew what I was doing. Similarly, I think many church leaders who hear “missional church” language, think they know how to engage in under-resourced communities. I see many well-meaning churches take to the streets to “serve” with the goal of being more missional and often with a hidden agenda to “recruit” church members.

They have overlaid onto community development efforts older paradigms of evangelization and mission. Just like I thought I could operate my daughters camera with the same expertise it takes to operate my iPhone camera, many churches think they can do community development in the same way they have always operated as a church. However, neighboring is a complete paradigm shift for most “service” oriented church groups and most churches offer little or no training to their church members.

Many churches have adopted “missional” language but I wonder how many see the goal as shaping their congregants into a community of great neighbors. I am very thankful that last week Jay Van Groningen was able to come to Richmond and provide us with this type of training. As the Richmond affiliate of Community First Association, Embrace Richmond will begin providing this training to local congregations and faith based groups who are interested in doing more than “serve” the community but who have the desire to shape a community of great neighbors.

So, stop serving and start neighboring!


Wendy McCaig is the founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond.  Wendy blogs at wendymccaig.com.

This guest post in its original location:  http://wendymccaig.com/2011/06/19/please-stop-serving/

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