Meeting the Demands of a New Generation of Christian Leaders

By Tim Suttle 10-10-2012
Community concept, hollymolly /
Community concept, hollymolly /

The Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) has been a powerful force for Christian social action over the past decade. CCDA's leadership development, resources, and vision have been powerfully focused on helping pastors and community leaders facilitate the restoration of communities all over the country and around the world.

Born out of the traditions of the civil rights movement, CCDA is now engaging a new generation of pastors, prophets, and ministers. This next generation of CCDA will naturally look somewhat different from previous generations as they respond to the ever-changing landscape of our society. As it turns out, one major difference is a hunger among leaders for a more robust and powerful theological foundation from which to pursue ministry.

Practics has long dominated the field of Christian social action. What works? What strategies and techniques will actually bring about change in our community? These have been the central questions of past generations. However, among a new generation of church and community leaders, practical questions are not the sole concern, and in some cases not even the primary concern.

The reason for this is that practical questions and answers can only take a ministry so far. When addressing tough issues such as generational poverty or the complete and total social breakdown of a neighborhood, practitioners often come face-to-face with the limits of a good strategy. How, then, do we remain faithful when nothing we are doing seems to work? When all of the practical means have been exhausted and the ends have not yet been reached what do we do next? All of the best practices, strategies, and ministry consultants in the world can't answer that question because the answer is not practical, it is theological.

Part of the theology was there already for the CCDA. A deep faith in the lordship of Jesus Christ coupled with a desire to love one's neighbor — especially the vulnerable — has long drawn people to work with those who live on the margins of society. But part of that theology has been missing, or at least underdeveloped.

Chris Jehle, a member of the CCDA board of directors who founded The Hope Center, a remarkable Christian community development association in Kansas City, has written about his need for a deeper theology. Jehle found that the "gospel of sin management" couldn't come close to addressing the complexities of his own neighborhood. Although the Gospel as he then understood it propelled him from the suburbs into the urban core, in Jehle's words, "It did not fully capture the primary story found in the Scriptures and therefore offered minimal guidance once I began life and work in a low-income neighborhood."

Jehle's context — the frayed, hope-starved injustice of urban KCMO — would require a much deeper theological framework from which to do ministry. Thus after years working in the urban core, Jehle went back to school to get a seminary degree.

According to Jehle, this theological quest has made all of the difference in his day to day ministry. "My understanding of the Gospel now more fully captures the grand narrative found in the Scriptures. A more comprehensive understanding of the Gospel includes not only the salvation of individual souls, but also the restoration of life in God's good creation to his original intent, achieved through Jesus Christ." This new theological sensitivity now serves as the foundation for The Hope Center.

One of the steps the CCDA has taken in order to meet the demands of a new generation of Christian leaders is the development of the CCDA Theological Journal, edited by Chris Jehle, Soong-Chan Rah, and Brandon Wrencher. This brand new journal is meant to facilitate the kind of deep theological reflection many among the new generation of CCDA members are looking for. Through the journal, CCDA now facilitates theological engagement for her members without their having to leave their own boots-on-the-ground ministries in order to join the Academy. The result is an intriguing and fruitful mix of serious theological reflection seasoned with the often blunt, sobering insights of these hard-scrabble practitioners.

The first edition is free online right now. It focuses on the need for theological reflection, biblical, and historical precedent for engagement in Christian community development. The CCDA Theological Journal promises to be a source of wisdom and deep reflection for the church.

Tim Suttle is a pastor, writer, musician, and self-proclaimed, "all-around huge nerd." He's the author of two books: An Evangelical Social Gospel? and his latest, Public Jesus, and he sometimes writes for the religion section at the Huffington Post and "On Faith" at the Washington Post. You can read more of Tim's writing on his blog, Paperback Theology. Once upon a time Tim was the founder and front-man of the Christian band Satellite Soul. And he considers himself lucky to be the Lead Pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kan.

Photo: Community concept, hollymolly /

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