Preaching Community in a Cause Obsessed Culture

Preaching Community in a Cause Obsessed Culture

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?


Who is the “person of peace” that God is calling you to stay with?


  1. This is a really great post. The only thing I notice differently from my experience of having grown up hi-risk, and now ministering relationally with hi-risk communities is that neighborhoods are defined by geographic boundaries AND socio-economic measures. Maybe that’s not so on paper, but socially, economically and physically, one can see a huge difference in a hi-risk community area and a secure community area….unless maybe you’re in a highly urban area that has a good area within a bad area and so on. But even then, the residents and non-residents are keen to the boundaries of divide. That said, I think one of the main factors that keeps folks from getting involved in a deeply relational aspect is that they are intimidated and even frightened to go into hi-risk areas to do the down and dirty work of relational ministry. It’s always easier for those groups of people to go in as a visitor, when it’s daylight, and maybe with someone they know who is familiar with the area and residents. That may sound cynical or overly criticizing, but I mean it with the sincerest heart, because I’ve been there. I am there now!

    So for me, practically speaking, my question is how do we get folks to loosen up, trust in God’s provision and protection, and enter into the community as more than just an occasional visitor? There is absolutely no doubt that more mutual respect, genuine fellowship, and a sincere willingness to receive what one brings comes to those who are willing to take the plunge and integrate themselves more fully into the communities they want to serve. How do we encourage people to take the plunge without the ability to ensure that they won’t get banged up a bit on the way in? You and I both know that once the hurdles have been successfully completed, there is an abundance of mutual blessing in the relational work that happens within these relationships that we invest in. But that’s a really hard sell to those looking from the outside in. Your thoughts?

    • Last January we started doing something new called “Dream Teams.” The basic idea was to meet the ‘outsider” where they were, in the suburbs. We took our best neighborhood leaders out to our strongest church partners and started meeting on their turf where there was a sense of security. We asked the sponsoring church simply to join our leaders in prayer and to dream together how God might be calling them to join together as a team to strengthen families in both neighborhoods. It took a while but the team is now gathering both in the burbs and in the neighborhood. The only way to overcome the fear is to build the relationship first and with that bond between people, the geography becomes secondary. I am tagging a few members of that team who now go into Hillside regularly and who have developed real authentic relationships with the neighborhood leaders.

      • I think you also have to be very intentional about establishing rhythms and routines that are easy for folks to join in. In Hillside the team hosts a monthly fellowship event that is open to all residents and any groups who want to support the work in Hillside. The Hillside team does a great job of making every guest feel welcome and accepted and appreciated. It is always on the 4th Thursday at 12:30 so it is easy for folks to remember. The team uses the opportunity to talk about what is happening in the neighborhood and sharing how people can get connected. They also celebrate neighborhood leaders which fuels a culture of service which is core to the DNA of our work.

  2. Claudia,

    My husband made the same observation about neighborhoods being geographically and socioeconomically defined. Sadly you are both correct. Even if I wanted to move to Hillside Court, I could not since it is a government subsidized complex.

  3. Your comments addressed the other point I wanted to offer, which is that many times we must begin our relational community work with a Program or a Cause as the introductory phase. Your point is well made in how at some point, hopefully sooner than later, we must move out of the program/cause focus to engage relationally long-term.

    My husband and I serve the poor in Ecuador. But on many fronts, we experience the same challenges you do. Many people want to get involved, but essentially beyond the thrill of the Program/Cause, there just isn’t much interest or steam. We’re the perpetual ground workers here, my husband and I, so we must be relational for any of the efforts to be long-lasting and life-changing for those we serve. And the last thing we should be doing is making those we minister dependent on programs and “stuff”. Right?! The ultimate goal, hopefully, is to bring a long term vision of sustainability and community socio-economic improvement and growth within the context of the culture. But it is a process that our works chip away at. It is impossible to do without building relationship, because it takes everybody being involved “together”, as you well know.

    One of the ways we encourage those who come and work alongside us for short or long term is to introduce them by presenting a program, a means to get everyone acquainted. And then after a few visits a familiarity is established, and with the help of God relationships progress. Then we encourage a continued involvement by means of supporting the community leaders in some way–those who are working on the ground relationally within the community full time, because we all have the same goal ultimately. It’s hard when we have groups that want to stay focused on the short vision. But we continue to support them coming and doing, because it;s as much for their good and learning as it is for anybody’s. Discipling (teaching and learning alongside one another relationally) is a multi-faceted, multi-directional action, at least as we have found it to be.

    I am encouraged by your post. I am encouraged by the exchange of dialog. And I REALLY hope that folks who are working alongside us for various occasions, as well those in your sphere of influence and beyond will find this helpful in their consideration of how best to serve in a relational capacity, whether it is the poor or any other demographic community. Lord Bless you and your ministry work, Wendy! I am always inspired by your reports.

  4. Claudia,

    I know the challenges you are facing. While many “volunteer” through a more programmatic entry point we try to make our entry points more “hospitality” based where both parties enter into the exchange as guest and host. The suburban volunteers host our urban team and then our urban team hosts them and before long it is not “us” and “them” but “we.”

    i have had groups come to events like our MLK Day celebration and leave saying “I don’t feel like i did anything” not realizing that their willingness to share stories and be present is a gift few are willing to give. Even allowing our urban friends to be the host when they are rarely seen in that way is a gift. It is healthy and a sign of growth when people who are always wanting to “give” actually stop and receive the gifts of others.

    Some of our entry points like our housing rehab project and mobile food pantry are harder to make relational so we try to start with a time of introduction and prayer and try to end with a time of theological reflection and relating. It does not always happen but we try to make space for unpacking the shared experience. It is always fun to see how people from different backgrounds see an experience. Very educational for everyone.

    I pray some day I will get to come visit you and see your work first hand. I have so enjoyed getting to know you both via your writings. I do wish i had my own airplane and could visit all the amazing people I have met through social media. What an amazing time we live in.

    • Indeed! Thank you for being a very clear and practical example! I still have so much to learn, but in learning something new every day, it reminds me that I am still alive and Jesus finds me still worth teaching. So thankful for connections like this, with you and others who have heart and mind to serve others with love and compassion, bringing a Christly Kingdom Culture without destroying the cultures we are called to serve. There’s a huge learning curve in just that alone! Keep up the awesome work. To God be the glory, and we will look forward to hearing those beautiful, musical words, “Well Done My Good and Faithful Servant!” :)

  5. Our society is obsessed with causes and starved for community.

    This is such an important observation and very well-stated!

    The group we are a part of in Danville has taken just the approach you recommend–building relationships and community in the blighted downtown neighborhoods. It has been my experience that folks want and need this kind of love, respect and attention more than they need more temporary charity. It is difficult to do. It takes time and patience and it can be messy. But I do believe it is the best way to truly make a lasting difference/impression. And it will open eyes and hearts to new and different ways of seeing things.

    Thanks for the great and thought-provoking post.

    • “Messy” is an understatement! I would also add “life changing, heart breaking, joy producing and sometimes insanity producing. Thank you for your comment. It is good to know you are doing good work out in Danville. I do believe I heard about your work from Caitlin at VBMB. Is my memory correct?



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