I get several emails a week from people wanting to meet with me to learn how their church can transition from relief based approaches to more relational ministry. They arrive with a laundry list of all the good works their church is doing. The typical list looks like this – a food pantry, serving at a homeless shelter, back pack drives for a local school, packing food for a foreign hunger relief program and so on. All of these things are wonderful. They are all needed. However, if you want to move beyond a relief approach to a more relational approach to ministry, you have to understand the difference between “serving a cause” and “building a community.”
Poverty alleviation in its various forms (homeless services, hunger relief, emergency financial aid) is a cause. Neighborhoods are communities. Neighborhoods have people experiencing poverty. However, neighborhoods are defined by geographic boundaries not by socio-economic measures.
For most, homelessness is a temporary condition. So if you want to build lasting relationships, doing it in a homeless shelter will not likely yield much in terms of long-term relationships. People move out of shelters into neighborhoods. So if your goal is to build lasting relationships with people who are at risk of being homeless or who have experienced homelessness – you will find them in a geographically defined neighborhood.
Many of the folks who approach me for advice get a bit flustered with me when I explain that you cannot do community development without a geographically defined area. They will say things like “We want to be open to everyone.” While I admire the desire to be all things to all people, the simple fact is that you can love everyone at a very shallow level or you can invest yourself in a more targeted way and go deep. Relationship building is depth work.
I encourage people with relief ministries who want to move to a more relational approach to figure out where the people who come to their programs are coming from. The best tool for this exercise is called Batchgeo. All you need is an excel spreadsheet with the addresses of people in your program and Batchgeo creates a visual map of your participants. It is a wonderful tool for thinking geographically.
I encourage groups to pray over those maps and look to see where God is already at work. Where are the most faithful people coming from? Where do you already have a relationship with a “person of peace” who can be a minister of introduction in the neighborhood? This is the fun part. It is a total God thing. You are living the story of the sending of the 72. However, many groups are resistant to thinking about investing deeply in one or two neighborhoods.
I would like to invite you to reflect on this passage of scripture and think about what it is teaching us about the importance of being rooted and grounded in a place.
“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.” Luke 10: 1,5-8
There is something very powerful that happens when we enter into the natural rhythms of a community – eating, drinking, and being present with the same group of people consistently over a long period of time. There is a “we-ness” that forms and it is that “power of we” that ultimately transforms neighborhoods.
Like many of the people who approach me seeking a more relational approach to ministry, I used to think I could develop lasting relationships through a programmatic approach. I even tried it for five years. So, I am not judging those who still think it is possible. I am simply pointing out that no matter how hard you try, it does not work. Lasting community transformation only happens through deep trusting relationships that are forged over long periods of time in a geographically defined area.
Our society is obsessed with causes and starved for community. We love programs that promise impressive outcomes but we struggle with Jesus instructions to go and simply be in community with others.
There are two ways of transforming a community from the inside out. The first is to move into the neighborhood. The second is to support the leaders who are already there. The two methods are not mutually exclusive but can be complementary. Not everyone can move into the neighborhood, but everyone can support local leaders. Both approaches require the same relational approach and the same willingness to be present and join in the natural rhythms of the community.
In April, I will be sharing the Embrace Richmond story at the Inhabit Conference in Seattle Washington with a group of people who fully embrace what it means to invest in a neighborhood. Our friends at The Parish Collective have done an amazing job of highlighting the importance of geographically defined communities. I look forward to sharing our Richmond story and to discovering how God is at work in neighborhoods across this country.
What neighborhood is God calling you to invest in?