Over the past few years, I’ve talked with leaders at various churches about community engagement. I have found that there is a strong desire in churches to connect with their surrounding community in order to put faith into practice by serving those around them especially in an age when fewer and fewer Americans are part of their own church. There is less of an understanding of how to get there.
So how do you get there? And how do you even define what is “there”? Many conferences are hosting trainings for community engagement or offering grant money for community initiatives and church plants based on the idea that we (as the church) need to rethink our approach to church and subsequently community. My area of expertise is not in church leadership or theology, but rather helping folks get from A to B. My background in community arts has spanned non-profit management to socially engaged arts practices, combining processes and language from across a spectrum of disciplines all aimed ultimately at building better communities. This perspective can help churches think differently about community and community engagement.
But, what exactly do we mean by community engagement? Community engagement is a relational process in which an organization and their community work together towards a variety of outcomes. What this process looks like and how it happens varies based on the communities, organizations, and individuals involved. Same for the outcomes. That means that in this case, Point B, the outcomes, are determined by both the church and the surrounding community, together.
I maintain that while we would all like to view the church in its most holy and pure sense, the reality is that often, churches are human structures. They are organizations. And, churches need more folks knowledgeable about non-profit administration to help lead them forward as they strike a balance between mission/vision and its activities.
However, viewing church simply as another non-profit is not enough. There is a higher calling. Many point to Acts 2:41-47 as foundation for church development, but I like to also consider the story in Acts 6:1-7 of the Election of the Seven. The early church was not adequately caring for Hellinist widows, the outsiders. This conflict was resolved by calling together the community and electing seven leaders to be in charge of the management of the church’s resources to serve the needy.
There are several notable elements of this story that parallel, for me, the values underlying community engagement. First, this story points us back to justice, particularly distributive justice, as a vital mission of the church (v.1). Second, calling together the whole community to decide how to proceed, everyone is given a voice (v. 2). Not just the rich. Not just the powerful. Not just the Twelve. Not just the men. Everyone. Verse 3 provides a list of attributes for leaders and that everyone has a job (v. 4). This was not to be isolated work, but rather collaborative and communal. And finally, the seven who were elected to distribute the church’s resources were Hellinists themselves. The community elected those who knew the community best to figure out how to serve them best. And, as a result, “the word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly…and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7 NRSV).
Acts 6 shows us what community engagement for churches involves: reaching out to the community, listening to the community, and working with the community together to build a better community.
Putting Acts 6 into conversation with community engagement offers much to churches as they navigate the process of moving from point A to B. Basing community engagement on fundamental values of respect, reciprocity, and relationship creates a foundation that we – churches, communities and the people who comprise them – can work together towards building a more equitable community for everyone.
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Ruth M. Smith
Community arts educator and researcher. Drinking coffee. Home educating. Making art. Listening intentionally.