My last twenty-four years of local church ministry were spent in an up-and-coming suburban church. Like most suburbanites, many of my flock were into getting ahead, building fences around their homes, chauffeuring their children to this-and-that, and distancing themselves from the rift-raft of the world. . Most of the members were content with living lives isolated from the rest of the city and in many ways isolated from one another. I was 29 years old when I began my ministry in that church.
During those years I noticed several things about suburban Christianity and the city of San Antonio, TX. For one thing, suburban Christians thought salvation was something intensely personal and individual. It never dawned on them that biblical salvation is both individual and societal.
Two other things caught my attention- when it rained hard the majority of homes on the West side of town flooded, and even though 75 percent of the city was Hispanic, all eleven city council members were Anglo. Neither of these conditions seemed right to me.
That all changed somewhere around my tenth year as pastor. I became involved in the Industrial Areas Foundation a community organizing effort of churches began by Saul Alinsky. Over the next decade I was to have the biggest learning experience of my life.
Societal Salvation is War
When I began my journey into helping change the city for Christ, I was totally naïve. Like most suburbanites I thought all I had to do was meet with city council people and alert them to the injustices of our city and they would listen. Boy was I wrong. My first encounter with my own city councilman resulted in being ushered out of his office with a clear ‘don’t come back.’ I was soon to learn that in the absence of organized people, money makes all of the decisions in life. From that day forward I knew that being the pastor of a large congregation didn’t make any difference – unless that congregation was organized and formed alliances with other churches through out the city.
People of power aren’t very likely to relinquish their power without a fight. Most suburbanites don’t understand this fact until they come face to face with such power. Perhaps they are used to getting personal favors from their councilman or mayor such as special permits, or reductions of fines, or the cancellation of traffic tickets. But, when it comes to asking those same people to change the balance of power or to spend large amounts of money to improve the life of those who don’t have enough to participate in a quid-pro-quo relationship, individuals find they are barking up the wrong tree. Societal change doesn’t happen unless people organize to make it happen.
Staring the Problem in the Face
I remember when I first started talking with my congregation about the need for our affluent church to join the community organizing group. I was met with quite a bit of confusion. We had been growing at a fast pace. The number of new members each year was outstripping all other churches in the area. Many of the leaders couldn’t understand what more I could want. When I would say ‘but is it making a difference in the city. Is the city itself being changed; is crime down; are the people on the West side still flooded when it rains? I was greeted with blank expressions. After all we were converting and baptizing many individuals.
Most suburban Christians are victims of Western individualism. Discipleship is defined as salving souls, one-by-one. But this is only one-half of the equation. God’s redeeming work includes reducing crime, reclaiming our streets, the regeneration of failing systems, and the transformation of corrupted political power -for such changes to occur churches must have a critical mass of individuals and churches banning together to challenge the sins of society.
In order for churches to make a difference in their city church leaders must:
• Think bridges rather than buildings.
• Measure impact rather than attendance.
• Encourage members to serve more than attend services.
• Partner with other churches and groups rather than duplicating services.
• Pray for the city instead of condemning it.
• Think parish more than church.
Best Practice Churches
One of my joys of the last two decades has been watching the rise of thriving suburban churches that understand the dual nature of salvation and are taking responsibility for their city. They not only focus on saving souls but also on redeeming their cities. Embracing both evangelism and economic development each congregant is encouraged to embrace Jesus’ mission of identifying and holistically meeting the needs of those around them.
Let me share some examples of these churches.
Under the leadership of Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, Windsor Village UMC in Houston converted a former K-Mart into their “Power Center.” Since 1999, the Power Center has had an estimated $30+ million dollar impact on the community creating hundreds of jobs and serving over 9,000 families a month. They also have developing a 24-acre planned residential community consisting of over 450 affordable single-family homes.
First Baptist Church, Little Rock, has joined with over 100 other churches and thousands of volunteers in the greater Little Rock area to transform their communities by building parks and playgrounds and refurbishing schools. They set records for Red Cross Blood donations and have enlisted thousands of new organ donors. They began reaching out to the community through “LifeSkill” classes (on finances, marriage, wellness, aging, etc.) in public forums like banks and hotel rooms. The churches of greater Little Rock have donated more than a million dollars to community human service organizations that are effective in meeting the needs of at-risk youth. They have renovated homes and provided school uniforms, school supplies, winter coats, and Christmas toys for hundreds of children.
In 1994, 21 year-old Pastor Matthew Barnett began the Los Angeles “Dream Center” by walking around his neighborhood looking for unmet needs. He saw the thousands of outcast people living on the fringes of society. Today, the Dream Center – “the church that never sleeps”- has adopted 50 city blocks which it serves with 200 volunteer staff. Its Franciscan Hospital campus houses 400 people in its rehab and discipleship program and feeds more than 25,000 people a week. They have a free 24-hour medical clinic, a mobile medical unit and dozens of effective ministries that are finding needs and meeting them.
The next time someone asks you the size of your Church give them the population of your city. The next time you want to evaluate how well your church is doing measure the penetration rate of your church into the city.
Oh, by the way, when I left San Antonio in 1993 the Westside no longer flooded and only four of the city council people were Anglo. We had begun societal salvation. Individual Christians can make a difference if they band together.