"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
So how are we doing?
Not that well.
When I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to guest preach at a few different churches in some of our largest cities. While driving to these urban churches on Sunday mornings, I often found myself in diverse neighborhoods, some severely under-resourced. I would arrive at the address to find a huge, beautiful, well-kept—and well-locked building. Some sanctuaries could hold more than 500 people. I would wait for the congregation to show up, and as the service time approached, 20-30 older white folks would trickle into the sanctuary (having just driven in from the ‘burbs) and take their usual places.
In my mainline protestant denomination, this is a scenario repeated numerous times in various cities. Many of our oldest congregations have failed to transition with their neighborhood, and as a result, are dying or already closed.
Seeing this in church after church, I began to feel a mixed set of emotions—pain, anger, judgment and a longing to see change. Surely God has something better in mind; certainly this is not what the church is meant to be.
For several years I have wrestled with these issues:
- What is the church’s role in our urban centers and in our most diverse communities?
- How can we combat failure to meet the needs of those outside the church walls?
- What does it take the make the church a lasting, influential part of community and society? (And don’t get me wrong: I know the church is about people and not a building, but these questions remain.)
Last week I attended the Christian Community Development Association’s yearly “Immersion” event in Chicago and began to see clear answers to some of the questions. CCDA is a network of Christians committed to seeing people and communities holistically restored, especially in under-resources areas. Over the past 30 years, this inter-denominational group has created a framework for helping churches and church leaders better connect with their communities in order to transform lives with the gospel.
It doesn’t stop with individuals—the ultimate goal is to make a neighborhood a better place for all who live there. It is a holistic approach to loving God and loving our neighbors—and ALL aspects of their lives.
This philosophy is meant to change the way Christians relate to those around them. For too long, our churches have had an innate attitude of us vs. them, but this form of thinking is all about “we.” It discourages going into a neighborhood as an outsider in order to fix the problems we think are there. Instead, if Christians truly care about a community they should be willing to live there, do life with people, listen to them and learn from them, and then work alongside them to make a difference.
When work is done at the local level it is much harder for individuals to take advantage of the system. Instead of a check coming in the mail, or an impersonal handout that diminishes dignity, Christian community development seeks to empower everyone involved to use their own gifts to earn the things they need. When done well, it creates a feeling of ownership within the community.
In the end, it’s all about relationships.
Whether you call this incarnational theology or missional ministry, the Bible is very clear that the church is built through getting involved in the lives of others. In ancient times God sent leaders to his people to live among them (Isaiah), speak the word(s) of the Lord (Jeremiah) and gather the gifts of many for the benefit of all (building of the tabernacle, support of the priestly class etc.).
When the time was right, God did the ultimate relationship building work of coming into our community himself and reconciling us to him. As the Spirit then sent out the apostles, he equipped them to transform lives and communities.
They went to urban areas first, where the greatest impact could be made. They did the tough job of doing life with many for the sake of loving God and loving others.
Michael Middaugh is pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. He serves on the board of Lutheran Inter-City Network Coalition-Twin Cities.
Young man in subway photo, PashOK / Shutterstock.com