How Community Development Can Look in Church Planting
When I first ventured into church planting this topic didn’t even cross my mind. Not even on my radar. It’s not that I didn’t care. I just didn’t see how it tied into church planting. Sure, we did we what one might call “development” work at places like an orphanage in Mexico or up on the Hopi Reservation. However, the location of our church plant was initially in a middle-class and predominantly white suburb.
That was long before my deep dive into studying and understanding cities as well as exploring justice or equity issues that plagued the city I was in. I would say in many ways I was a “typical” church planter … late 20s, young family, suburban, aspirational, motivated, and woefully naive. I own it. Nothing in my preparation or training prepared me for thinking through issues of justice, equity, city life, and how it integrates into church planting. With a church planting plan and strategy ripped straight out of business books (as we were taught in our church planting training) I moved to my city, landed in the suburbs, and began church planting.
I cringe today thinking back on that. It’s not that I didn’t care, I just didn’t know. Plus, in the site selection process I made sure I landed in the part of the city with nicer homes, great schools, and amazing natural amenities. Yeah, I was that guy. Maybe you are (or were) too.
This topic has been on my mind this week as I prep for a cohort session where we address the very topic of church-based community development in lower income communities. Currently we’re working through Keller’s Generous Justice. Particularly chapter 5 (“How Should We Do Justice?”) gets to the heart of this.
I don’t have the time nor space to try to convince you of the need for churches to engage in justice issues in their communities, whether urban or rural. Nor will I get into the statement that Keller makes repeatedly when he writes, “If a person has grasped the meaning of God’s grace in his heart, he will do justice.” (p.93). My assumption is that if you’re tracking with Intrepid and keeping up with our articles and newsletters then you’re already moving in this direction. The question therefore isn’t why, but instead how?
In chapter 5 Keller shares from Mark Gornik three basic roles that churches can play in low income communities. Again, this is applicable whether we’re talking neighborhoods within cities or isolated rural communities. The good news is we have examples like John Perkins who served and ministered in both. Keller shares:
Churches in poor neighborhoods can serve as healing communities. Churches can be shelters in life’s storms.
Churches can form organizations that serve as healers of communities. This could range from startup incubators, job training programs, neighborhood banks, after-school programs, and more.
Churches encourage people to be organizers for justice communities. Churches can play a role in challenging and changing oppressive or unjust social systems (p132).
These examples form a good baseline for local church involvement within our communities. My contention is to see this narrative woven in throughout the church planting process. Meaning, that this is not merely an add-on down the road after the new church has been established. Instead, this is who the church is from the beginning as well as the posture that the church takes within the community. I cannot think of anything that would be more endearing to your neighborhood or town than for a new church to be and do this.
Instead, most new churches are “bottom line” focused … the number of people in attendance on a weekend gathering. For most that is the only measurement, metric, or rubric that counts. Unfortunately for most denominations and church planting networks that still rings true. I vividly recall hearing from our local denominational leader about our efforts of launching a non-profit as well as starting two campus ministries that it doesn’t really “count.” It was nice, but what mattered most was growing our core group and moving towards launch (i.e public worship services). When I wasn’t making progress fast enough my funding was cut.
It is no wonder that despite admirable intentions or even the desire for most planters to be about community development most simply take a pass on it. They don’t receive the encouragement and support from their denominations and church planting networks. And so the cycle continues. That’s why we continue to emphasize one thing and one thing alone … Sunday attendance. Not development work, not discipleship, not a turnaround in our neighborhood … a new community center, a home for abused single moms, and so on. Just attendance. We simply continue to overemphasize one metric to the detriment of others.
What would happen if churches instead were measured by new non-profits they started? New businesses catalyzed? Ironically, when those kinds of things happen than all of a sudden evangelism takes care of itself. People see the gospel lived out so when it comes time to hear it they’re ready.
What can you do to weave community development into your church plant?
Written by Sean Benesh
Director of Intrepid