Churches are rediscovering their neighborhoods as fertile mission fields, and they're forging dynamic connections with community leaders and organizations. An example is happening in Lents, an under-served neighborhood in Portland, Oregon.
If Portland conjures up images of vegan food carts, fixed gear bikes, and activist hipsters, pause for a moment. Lents is in the rough part of the city's Eastside, described by Willamette Week as "a landscape of chain link and surface parking … so devoid of landmarks, public spaces and commercial centers that some residents simply call it The Numbers."
The once independent community was absorbed by the expanding city, and eventually halved by an unpopular interstate freeway, and is now a high density multiethnic neighborhood (45 languages are spoken in a local elementary school). Infrastructure is poor, crime is high, and nobody seemed to care. At least nobody used to.
Now community partnerships are springing up between Lents's churches and the neighborhood. Facilitating these connections is Second Stories, a ministry based in Lents and dedicated to "transforming neighborhoods by equipping churches to create community partnerships."
Clark Blakeman, founder of Second Stories, is a veteran pastor with a passion for neighborhood outreach. Blakeman trains local Christians in both theology and savvy community development theory. Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) is an established model that Blakeman's team presents as a practical, gospel-oriented model for local action. He encourages individuals and churches to partner with their neighbors to do two things: (1) identify the positive aspects of their neighborhood (their assets), and (2) create partnerships in the community to capitalize on those assets.
So far, people from more than 30 churches have participated in the training.
Blakeman sees the interest as a return to the days when community networking was the primary form of social service. "Neighbors used to turn to neighbors for help," he says. "Today, they turn increasingly to professionals who, though useful in acute cases of need, are rarely able to offer long-term solutions."
In Lents, the list of community assets seemed rather short at the beginning. Strong points included multi-use trails, Kelly Elementary School, the Lents Neighborhood Association, and Operation Nightwatch (a homeless ministry). But the biggest assets of Lents are the churches committed to caring for their neighbors.
With a robust volunteer base and shared mission, Lents's churches are well positioned to reach beyond their walls.
A key moment in the process was a one-day event. Eight churches and 30 social service agencies partnered to put on Compassion SE. The event offered a range of services, from emergency dental procedures and medical exams to pet vaccines.
The energy and connections fostered that day brought local churches together for ongoing partnership. According to Blakeman, it's essential to create relationships and to begin changing the mindset of local services from that of "service provider" to that of a partner with the wider community.
"Rather than being simply need-meeters, which tends to disempower people," Blakeman says, "we need to be facilitators of engagement." This philosophy, paired with grounded theology, is transforming Lents and the people who call it home.
Operation Nightwatch is crucial to the mission of relationship-building. In a charity culture that frequently sees the homeless as so many meals, beds, or even liabilities, believers in Lents are learning to see them as people.
Working out of a repurposed RV, volunteers from four churches staff Nightwatch's "mobile hospitality center." They spend time with people off the street, just building relationships. The center is open past closing time for shelters and food kitchens. Under canopies, volunteers play board games and drink coffee with the regulars.
"We're building two-way relationships" says Blakeman. "We both give and receive from the people we connect with." Folks using the hospitality center coach volunteers about the changing needs of the homeless community. Based on these relationships, a new church—"A Place of Worship"—has started, meeting in the building of partnering Lents Baptist Church. It's comprised of people from both on and off the streets. The homeless are integral to the leadership and ministry of the congregation.
John, a deacon at a partnering church, Lents Baptist, began his participation in the hospitality center with the perspective of doing one-way ministry "for" the homeless. Now he attends A Place of Worship, sitting under the leadership of Ben, a maturing Christian and worship leader, who has recently found permanent shelter.
After the multi-church clinic, a group of neighborhood pastors formed a multi-church group for pastors' prayer and decided to participate in a Second Stories training. As they prayed together, they decided that rather than pursue parallel or competing outreach plans, they would pool resources.
Together, they staged a block party for Lents. One church hosted the event at their property. One church took charge of music, another provided children's activities, and another provided food. As a result, a block party traditionally owned by one congregation became an organic neighborhood event.
The belief that everyone has something to contribute extends beyond one-day events. Blakeman tells the story of Evelyn, a woman who found her own niche of service through a neighborhood partnership:
"John at Lents Baptist began a clothes closet. It is run by people who might not qualify to serve in a typical church. One of the key volunteers struggles with mental illness. But she has a great heart, and wants to help people in need. We asked her to facilitate this ministry. She's found an identity for herself as someone who can contribute to her community. She can see a tangible difference in the community because of her efforts."
Creative ways to share resources are being discovered, as well. One of the larger church facilities in the community shares its building with three other churches, two recovery programs, the clothes closet, a monthly community breakfast, and weekly breakfasts to give space for the homeless church's fellowship. Because of this last connection, Ben was invited to lead worship at the host church's VBS club.
"We still have a long way to go; it's messy," Blakeman says. "Church members have mixed motives and are often confused about how to engage with their neighbors. There's a lot of 'God complex' that gets mixed in. 'I'm the one with the food. I'm the one with the gospel.' We have to work patiently and encourage humility."
But for Second Stories the strategy is not to "fix" people first but to get them engaged. In the process, coaching and debriefing ministry experiences contribute to transformation. Real relationships change everybody. In the end, transformation of the neighborhood, and the church, begins with individuals.
Even with the best of motives, engagement is rarely easy. A persistent challenge is the tension between the "doing" and the "telling" of the gospel. Many react negatively to models of evangelism that focus on proclamation while ignoring human need. Likewise, many condemn the opposite error-handout-style social service that never mentions Jesus. The church is not a stand-in for underfunded social agencies.
Blakeman feels this tension keenly.
"Many people think that 'the doing is the telling.' It's not," he says. "We have to remind people that just 'doing' isn't sufficient. Still, the more common problem is for people to fear that the doing is empty, just padding people for a more comfortable journey to hell. For them, we work to show that proclamation is insufficient apart from the demonstration of the gospel. We're working to push both sides toward a common, biblical symmetry."
What does a symmetrical approach look like? First, it means opening space for people to be authentic and focusing on common ground. Social services may be initially hesitant to partner with churches ("proselytizing"), but they are quite open to conversations about enrichment of their communities.
Churches can stress that they're committed to the greater good while being authentic about who they are. Authenticity means that when appropriate, a worker can explain what motivates him or her. Service providers can have different motivations with the same goals. Desiring the health and wellbeing of the community opens doors far beyond the church foyer.
Blakeman has seen this strategy work in Lents. "For a long time I'd hear people say that 'schools don't want Christians.' Each time, I'd think, Well, maybe if you looked a little more like Jesus, they'd want you there. That's exactly what we're finding. We've been asked by Kelly Elementary School to lead community development training for school faculty and interested citizens. They know I'm a Christian, a pastor to pastors. But because of our positive connection, the principal consistently asks me 'What does the church think about this issue?'
"In addition to this, they've hired Rusty, a local church planter, as a full-time teacher's aide, knowing full well who he is and what he stands for. Rusty is responsible for guiding the community in a listening project."
God is a God of the unlikely. As Lents begins to reshape its identity and grow as a community, the idea of churches partnering with their communities doesn't seem so farfetched after all.
Paul Pastor is an editorial resident at Leadership Journal.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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