My ten years as a neighborhood pastor and community developer was the greatest ministry experience of my life. But in order to be effective, I learned it is important to be able to conceptualize the relationship between church and community in ways that are true to the social reality and faithful to the witness of Scripture.
In Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed (Harvard University Press, 1999), G. Gamm provides a portrait of the role of religion and the physical attachments of faith in a Boston neighborhood. As communities changed, Gamm argues that institutional decisions about staying, moving, or changing were made according to a set of rules internal to temple and parish. How can the church be more than a building and parking lot to the people in its geographical community? How can the church play a role in the revitalization or healing of community life? What place does theology and mission play in decision making?
My focus on urban communities reflects my own experience and the reality of urbanization. But the principles will apply to rural and suburban contexts. More broadly, because the major transformations taking place today in the economy and society are sited in the city, there is a particular call to consider urban ministry. This is confirmed in the excellent study by H.M. Conn and M. Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City and the People of God (InterVarsity, 2001).
“Community” is an ambiguous term. My use here of community is intended to indicate the immediate geography surrounding the church’s institutional or physical presence. Most communities, and certainly inner city neighborhoods, have many churches. Presence by way of a building, however, does not necessarily translate into redemptive activity. As R. Linthicum, a seasoned pastor and community organizer, argues in Empowering the Poor: Community Organizing among the City’s Rag, Tag and Bobtail (MARC, 1991), churches typically construct their relationship to a community in one of three ways.
First, as a church in the community. This church has a physical presence, but little else. This church can be distant, even adversarial to the people in its surrounding community. Second, as a church for the community. Concerned with ministry and reaching out, it ultimately fails because it defines what is needed and operates from the top down. Burn-out by both congregation and community ensues. Third, and one Linthicum advocates, is a church with the community. This church works alongside its community. It is an incarnational church, flesh of flesh with its community.
The commitment of a church with its community is covenantal, free, and stable. It is a church that listens to the story and stories of the people, sharing also in pains and joys. A church with the community sees injustice through the eyes of the community. Strengths, challenges, and pace of change are locally defined, not imposed. Following the important hermeneutical leads of S. Fowl in Engaging Scripture (Blackwell, 1998), Scripture is read in communion and as a community.
However it is vital that a church with its community maintain a critical engagement with its surrounding community and culture. Though gospel and culture are inseparable, the gospel is not to be absorbed by way of dilution. Rather it must be planted in the soil of a community and then enabled to bloom. As the historian and mission scholar A.F. Walls has shown, incarnation is the pattern of appropriation for Christian faith.
In order to lead a congregation in this direction, the pastor or church leader must walk with the community—indeed, be led by the community. She or he must not view her- or himself as standing above the people, but rather seek to bond through humility and self-giving. In other words, community ministry requires the cultivation of a robust spirituality grounded in the self-giving life and work of Christ.
Emphasizing local or community ministry can be read as an argument for both a recovery and re-appropriation of parish ministry. Instead of caring for “members” only, pastoral work as parish ministry is involvement in the lives of all the people of the community. Here the biblical obligation to seek the peace of the city meets the everyday life of the local church. While the church is a gathered community, it is also a community without walls.
As I was completing seminary, I assisted a friend and his family in a move to Sandtown, an inner city community on Baltimore’s distressed west side. We understood our first call to be neighbors. Out of this experience, New Song Community Church was born in the neighborhood. As a small community-based church, we prayed that God would lead us to discern our corporate charism or calling. Working together as neighbors, and with New Song as spiritual center, we witnessed the birth of a housing corporation, health center, school, and various employment initiatives. Our mission was to seek the peace of the city block-by-block where we lived. This was only possible as an effort born of the people of the community and by the power of the Spirit.
We learned that community development and community organizing are two vital and complementary strategies for the church’s ministry and witness in the world. Community development focuses on the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a community, and community organizing stresses the relationships that must be formed for any change. Together they are part of a holistic commitment to God’s shalom in the city. Community development and organizing are practices that require a commitment to constant learning and formation.
Faithfully connecting to community depends on a church giving itself to Jesus and orienting its life and mission to the peaceable reign of God. As the Catholic scholar J. Fuellenbach has emphasized in Church: Community for the Kingdom (Orbis, 2002), the kingdom (or reign) of God is central to mission. The new creation is the future of community work as all our efforts are redeemed by the crucified and risen Christ.
Seminary can be a wonderful time of preparation for ministry that emphasizes community involvement as an expression of Christ’s call to serve and work alongside the poor and excluded. But given the tendency of much traditional theological education to detach the student from context, and abstract practice from theory, the best way to benefit from seminary is to approach the time with intentionality.
Research opportunities can focus on areas of importance to community ministry. For example, research papers can tackle such topics as the prophet Amos and the meaning of sin, Jesus’ ministry to the poor in Luke, the lordship of Christ as a guiding theme for urban ministry, the meaning of the Trinity for community, and Wesley’s church planting and evangelistic efforts among the poor. Deciding to worship and participate in the common life of an urban church, especially in a cross-cultural setting, is often a very formative experience.
Cultivating lifelong habits of reading is also something very important that can be gained from the years spent in seminary. After graduation, it is important to continue to read theological and biblical studies, but also in other disciplines such as cultural and urban studies. Reading scholars who connect the Christian faith with social realities is vital. Here we can benefit from the important and challenging work of scholars such as C. Marsh, C. Pohl, L. Sanneh, and M. Volf.
Though we live in a world where the role of image and the unreal—cyberspace and networks are increasingly prevalent—communities are real. They are filled with families, children, teenagers, men, and women. Community ministry that is faith embodied, words and deeds reflective of the incarnation, is as needed as ever.