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  • Randy Nabors


Recently I was speaking to an urban pastor who is attempting to plant and build a church in the inner city. One of his key leaders is a man who is heading up a Community Development Organization that grows out of the church. They together are working on “Community Development.” As they spoke they talked about developing community within their church, expanding it outward by loving their neighbors as themselves and letting ministry flow into the neighborhood from those relationships. They see this as a strategy for effective impact in their neighborhood rather than simply initiating programs. As I listened to them talk about their ministry and their location I began to think about the distinctions between building a church and building community within a church. I thought about the phrase “Community Development” and the distinction between restoring a neighborhood and building community within that neighborhood. There are obviously different variations on this theme, such as having a church without real community within that church and restoring or developing a neighborhood without creating community. There is the possibility of having community within a church but the church doing nothing to restore a neighborhood. There is the possibility of having community in a dying or dead neighborhood. I know from experience that some people place more value on their experience of community than they do on the life and growth of a church or a neighborhood, and others place more value on the artifacts of material improvement in a neighborhood than they do on the value of spiritual and emotional connections of the people. Questions arise as to whether or not it matters, and as to whether or not one leads to the other eventually. Another very practical question is whether or not both things (material/ institutional improvement and emotional/psychological solidarity) can be pursued at one time, or whether or not they ever interfere with each other. My answer is yes, and yes. Have I confused you enough already? Obviously I am using the word community here differently than simply that of a common zip code or city block. I am speaking of relationship, and interaction, and a sense of commonality and purpose, and a positive solidarity of mutual help and support. If urban living has taught us anything it is that living in a densely settled area does not rule out living in anonymity. We can be completely isolated and alone while living in one of the most densely packed neighborhoods in the world. Sociologists have taught us that there are different kinds of communities, and these kind of communities vary in their positive effect. Affluent urbanites tend not to need geographic solidarity except in the matters of property values and security. They don’t need to like each other to work on protecting those values. They can find emotional and psychological solidarity in their vocations or avocations, their religion, their various kinds of social, civic, athletic clubs or affinities (to include causes, movements, gender issues, etc.) This is why we have “commuter churches” in the inner city that have nobody from the neighborhood where the church building stands attending that church, and no one from that church wanting someone from the neighborhood to attend. The commuter church might indeed have a great score card of what makes community positive (for themselves) but absolutely no concern or compassion for the suffering that goes on around them. When I think of friends of mine who started works in the inner city I think of how they by necessity had to work on community. They had to develop friendships with people who lived there in the neighborhood. They were in the homes, hanging out on the stoop, the porch, playing ball in the playground, community center or sandlot. Some of my friends had neighborhood kids literally move in with them, and life was filled with the drama of being close and intimate with broken and dysfunctional families. These relationships were often intense, full of love, sometimes led to great disappointment and loss, even grief. They were the seedbed of lots of stories that most urban ministers need to raise support. For many of us they will forever be the thing that gives us identity with the city and we will always see the struggle personally from the perspective of those relationships. The challenge is both to stay there and to move on to greater impact. I do believe both can become a false idol masquerading as the Kingdom. In some ways it is the difference between Acts chapter two and 2 Corinthians chapter eight. In both of these chapters in the Bible we see early Christians sacrificing for other Christians but in slightly different ways. In Acts chapter two we see individual saints not calling anything their own, eating in one another’s homes, and loving each other. It is powerful and appealing and we sometimes wonder how come we don’t see more of that today. Then in 2 Corinthians we see congregations sacrificing for one another, but not so much an emphasis on communal living. Latter letters of Paul stress believers working for themselves and making sure they care for their own families. In fact the Corinthian Christians are being asked to come to the help of those very Christians written about in Acts chapter two. If we don’t keep our eyes on both aspects of the growth of the Kingdom we will shortchange ourselves, shortchange those we lead to confess Christ, and actually misrepresent the Kingdom of God. What value if we rehab all the houses, re-pave the streets, rebuild the schools and school system, reform the police and municipal systems, and plant beautiful parks with playgrounds while all living as strangers? What value if we love each other intensely, know all about our small group’s family struggles, faith struggles, financial struggles, and love each other’s cooking but change nothing in the systems that affect the health, security, education, and aspirations of all of our children? Some have complained about “Pietism” as a self indulgent kind of Christianity that pursues a personal walk with God to the neglect of a call to see Christ as Lord in all of life, in our culture, and in how we interact in our society. While Ana-Baptists have been accused of creating alternative communities at least they have a sense that within that communal culture they will care for the whole human being. I guess I want it all. I want to personally (call me a Pietist if you wish) know Jesus, and to love him and know his love for me. I want it to be an intensely personal, mystical, and exhilarating relationship. I also want community, the kind so that people are in my life and I am in theirs, where I feel their love and concern and I give of myself for my friends and where they lean on me and I lean on them. I don’t want to be isolated, and I don’t want to be lonely, either individually or as an organization of Christians. I want and need accountability and encouragement and want to give that to others. I want to work on common problems and rejoice in the victories and weep together in the loss. I want to feel a part of a team. I want to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. I want to be a city set on a hill, collectively, doing good works not for my own glory or our own glory, but for God’s glory. I want to get something done, and not just gaze at our collective navels. If there is poverty in my city, country, and world I want to know what causes it and what we can do to stop it. If there is injustice I want to stand up against it. If there is illiteracy, fatherless-ness, and abuse, and gang violence, and sexual trafficking then I want to know what solutions we can create to change and stop it. If there is common malnutrition I don’t want to just give groceries to the person in my small group at our small church, although I will certainly do that. I intend to grow a garden, build a grocery store, and learn what it means to eat healthy and share that with everybody. If this leads to economic and or political action then so be it. In my life I have been in neighborhoods where suddenly there was a power failure, and people came outdoors. I have been in neighborhoods where there was a snow storm and everyone was stranded. Suddenly all of these isolated and self centered urban dwellers had to pitch in and help each other, and we laughed and found out that those we knew little about might just be interesting people. So may the church be the church and do it right. Let it build community within itself, but let that community overflow into the streets of its neighborhood, and let this growing community take on the issues of its common contextual life (with programs, projects, organization, and whatever else it takes); never compromising its call to worship in Spirit and Truth but never denying itself to the world, which needs salt, and light, and goodness.

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