Is your focus on the problems of the community or the building of community?
The essential challenge of community ministries is to transform the isolation, self-interest and disconnectedness within our communities into a culture of caring and support for the whole, where people are valued and belong, knowing they are loved by God. The environments in which we minister are often messy, complex, frustrating.
In my interactions with many churches, trusts and community ministries, I see a common problem. So many amazing people are involved in wonderful initiatives – both macro and micro, some involving hundreds of staff and volunteers and others basically running on the smell of an oily rag, goodwill and passion of a few dedicated individuals.
But, in many circumstances, that transformation for which they long and pray for, is hindered by a failure to recognise that they could be so much more effective and influential if they shifted their focus from the problems of the community to the building of community.
What if the leaders of every ministry and social service joined with the leaders in their trusts and churches to discuss the question: “What would community look like for these people?” And what if, in our various community ministries, we asked the people too?
It seems to me that while we effectively minister to the needs of our communities - with food banks, budget advice, counselling, housing, health care, parenting skills and so on, there's a risk that our 'ministry' becomes an end in itself – something we do out in the community to help people. We don't explore the capacity and potential for that activity to bring people into genuine community, faith, growth and transformation.
For many, the absence of a shared place to belong is a barrier to their coming to a place of understanding that God loves them and that Jesus can be known personally in their day-to-day realities and challenges.
In most churches I see a genuine love for people and a desire to see them come into the church community. The reality is that for many of those people we contact and connect with through our community ministries, that place to belong and grow is unlikely to be the Sunday morning service – the 'shop window' for most churches. It is much more likely to be in their own neighbourhood where relationships can be developed, strangers welcomed and generosity is an offer with no expectations of return.
And it may not look anything like our Sunday services. In this kind of scenario, in time these people may become an incarnational community of faith.
On the other hand, it could be very useful to take the time to put yourself in the shoes of those you deal with in the community, and to put your church culture and environment under the spotlight of 'Is this a place where all these people could feel they belong?'
Interestingly, this need for community and a place to belong is not confined to the poor and disadvantaged where communities pay a big price. Look closely and even in the more prosperous places, genuine community and a place to belong can be elusive and the social fabric more fragile than initial appearances would suggest.
Peter Block, author of 'Community – the structure of belonging', states: “The key to creating or transforming community is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission and milestones, it gets down to this: ‘How are we going to be when we gather together?’”
He asks: “Whom do I invite into the room? What is the conversation that I both become and engage in with these people? And when there are more than two of us together at the same time, how do we create a communal structure that moves the action forward?”
Weaving and strengthening the fabric of community is a collective effort and starts from a shift in our mind sets about our connectedness.
May God bless you as you take time to reflect and explore so that you can better serve in God's mission in your community.
National Team Leader