Problems v. Opportunities

Note: Before reading this, you may want to read this, this and that.

If we can agree that Christian communities should be both winsome and engaged with their neighbors and students of their context...

... if we can agree that a Christian community's work amidst their neighbors should be organized around the hopes and needs of that context...

... what does this say about the relationship between God and said context?

It says that we are convinced that God is at work in that context. It means that we believe that Holy Spirit is as active in the world as in our worship spaces. This does not make are worship spaces any less sacred, or important. But this conviction ought to effect our language about our communities, our neighbors, our context... what we would call the "secular."

Too much supposed "missional," even "evangelistic" language, implies that God is experienced in Christian spaces alone. My most frustrating moments in seminary was with a professor that kept illustrating through Scripture God's presence in the world and then encouraging us to take God into the world... I don't think he understood his self-contradiction. When we get lazy with this language we do a disservice to those God has called us love and care for as we would ourselves: our neighbor.

Here's how this can play out:

You will often hear Christian leaders that are presumably neighbor-focused speak of changing neighborhoods and meeting needs. This makes the assumption that the neighborhood does not have the tools within itself to meet a problem or need and the church or parish does have said tools. This approach diminishes the dignity of the neighbor and props up the position of the congregation in an unwarranted manner.

You don't have to engage your neighbor this way.

Certainly, communities have needs that often resources from outside can assist in addressing. But if we believe that God is at work within any given context, we must practice a discipline, a holy curiosity, that teaches us to notice and name the gifts within a community first and foremost. There is, in my experience, as many gifts and opportunities as there are needs and problems in a community. No matter the class, income level, ethnicity ... whatever! The Spirit is present. Hope is deserved. Christ's kingdom is coming. As Zach Hoag always says, "The Light is winning!"

With this posture, neighbors become partners in transformation, not simply recipients. In doing so, you will be transformed as well.

Related to this, I wholeheartedly recommend Peter Block and John McKnight's work on asset-based community development.