“Stories from the Ground”: My upcoming sabbatical study exploring how churches are engaging in community development

I was recently blessed and humbled to learn that my Pastoral Study Project proposal submitted to The Louisville Institute has been approved for grant funding. This study project will be carried out as one part of a 3-month sabbatical. What follows is an edited excerpt of my proposal that explains what I plan to do and why.

In recent years, the concept of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) has received more attention among Christians in traditional church settings. It is a long-term, intentional process that identifies and empowers leaders in impoverished communities to work for their own transformation, and seeks to start with what's good in a community--its assets--rather than its problems. The ABCD Institute of Northwestern University describes it this way:
Building on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations, and the supportive functions of local institutions, asset-based community development draws upon existing community strengths to build stronger, more sustainable communities for the future.
This type of approach is not brand new by any means, but it recently gained a lot more attention in Christian circles through Robert Lupton’s 2011 book Toxic Charity. It is appearing in many reading lists and small group book studies. In this brutally honest, hard-hitting book, Lupton argues that much of the charitable work that churches do can actually be harmful or make systemic problems worse. He writes, "Doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combination of patronizing pity and unintended superiority, and charity becomes toxic." When asked why we are seeing a growth of interest in this, Christian community developer Wendy McCaig said in an interview, “I think what Lupton did is not only say, ‘There’s an alternative,’ but he named that we’re creating systems that are actually hurting…ABCD and CCDA [Christian Community Development Association] are starting to give examples of how to live it out on the ground.”

One can sense that a movement has slowly started in churches that want to get away from providing handouts or doing “drive-by ministry.” McCaig and others have said that churches are starting to experiment, but the majority of the Christian groups that are engaged in long-term, focused community development are faith-based nonprofits with that explicit purpose, not worshiping communities or churches. Some churches who claim to be doing community development are actually engaged in the usual one-way service ministries that do for others without any local empowerment or ownership. Given that Christian community development is a long-term, intensive process that cannot be done “half way,” how are churches finding successful and meaningful ways of engaging in it?

In every church and community, there are people who want to make a real difference, but don’t know how. Or maybe they do know how but don't have the time (no, this is not always a cop out). Community development, though it’s a slow and imperfect process, holds more promise than most initiatives for affecting that real change. Because it involves long term relationships, often with people we would not otherwise seek out, the process is transformative for all involved, and it breaks down the subject/object or giver/recipient distinction.

But parishioners who are introduced to this often have the same questions I have. “Do we have the time and ability to do this?” It is essential, however, that churches wanting to thrive in the 21st century look into this kind of work. Specifically, it is essential that the church learn to make and grow disciples who can influence their own communities.

One of the trends we see in 21st century America is localization and a move toward smaller, tightly-knit groups within larger communities. One output of this trend is more numerous and diverse subcultures. Coupled with the “rise of the ‘nones’” and the growing number of “unchurched” people, this means that the subculture of church is becoming less prominent and relevant alongside a culture that is less willing to assimilate into church.  In his book, The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch writes, “Alpha (evangelistic groups), evangelistic services, and friendship evangelism will reach within our own cultural framework, but are seldom, if ever, effective beyond it.”  This means that disciple-making must happen “in the neighborhood,” where people already are, by way of the people already there, within their own subculture. “If God's central way of reaching his world was to incarnate himself in Jesus, then our way of reaching the world should likewise be incarnational,” Hirsch writes.  Activating and empowering leaders in their local communities, the kind of work that ABCD does, seems to be one of the best methods for doing this incarnational ministry.

For several years now, I have been preaching, teaching and studying the concept of “missional church.” I serve a congregation that shows a great willingness to serve its community and try new things. As a young minister in this kind of setting, it is important for me to see community development in action and meet people from diverse places who are engaged in it.

Currently, concerted community development efforts are largely taking place in sprawling metropolises and large urban centers. However, smaller cities like my own or even small towns have their own share of poverty, and of course, the need for transformative discipleship. I hope to identify common threads and best practices that cross geographical boundaries and may go beyond the concepts found in the literature. This project will not only seek to offer such insights from the stories of others but could hopefully be a catalyst for increased interest and engagement with a type of ministry that boasts stories of transformation and healing that go beyond the individual. I look forward to the way it will enhance my own knowledge and skill as a minister through exposure to diverse Christian leaders and ministries doing ground-breaking work in their communities.

The Plan

I will visit churches in different areas of the country, and the community development organizations they work with (where applicable), to directly observe their ministries and to meet and interview the people who are engaged. This will include church and organizational leaders, laity, and identified community practitioners. I've identified several prospective churches and communities through personal connections, web research, and communication with the Christian Community Development Association. I plan to visit a total of four.

This is not intended to be a large, comprehensive investigation of community development in the U.S., but rather is focused more specifically on how worshiping communities (of any type), who fulfill other roles besides community development, are engaging. Knowing that every community is different, these observations and interviews will not produce universal statistical data on Christian community development, but rather exemplary narratives that help other Christian leaders imagine what is possible in their communities. The research method will be qualitative and consist of field observation and personal interview techniques. With appropriate written permission, I plan to gather video footage, audio recordings, and photographs while observing the communities and doing personal interviews. Because we live in a highly visual and digital world, I plan to disseminate my findings primarily via a polished and edited video presentation, made available online as well as DVD.

A huge "thank you" to The Louisville Institute for accepting my grant proposal!

This post is an entry in the "Missional Church" section of this blog.

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