Why Civic Engagement Belongs in Every Church's Mission Statement
Michael Decker wants to make the name of Jesus famous in Costa Mesa, California. How? By caring for his city's people, their leaders, and their place. In 1995, when he was invited by Costa Mesa's chief of police to volunteer as a police chaplain, Decker became attuned to the value—indeed the calling—of all Christians to see their civic engagement in light of the social responsibility entailed by the gospel. This involvement also became a catalyst for recognizing how largely unconnected he still was from non-Christians. "I said that I loved lost people and had a desire to be in relationship with them, but when I looked at my life, I was in relationship with very few." Since 2000, he has planted Palm Harvest Church, joined the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce, and helped birth One Church for Our City, a coalition of Costa Mesa churches whose members and leaders seek to bless their city in concrete and strategic ways. Reflecting on his journey, Decker says, "I am not on some mere career path, waiting for the 'next big thing.' Where I am serving now is the 'big thing' because here is where God dwells and I am seeking to obey the call to love what He loves where I dwell … unless God says otherwise, I am here for the long haul."
Whether we are businesspeople, parents, church leaders, civic leaders, Decker's journey and practices are an example of how churches might steward and unleash their members' vocations for the good of others.
Mike, I appreciate your story and service, especially since it so practically informs your 2011 D.Min. dissertation at Biola University's Talbot School of Theology, about "Church-Based Strategies for Civic Engagement." What can this engagement look like?
Engagement involves relationships with people affiliated with the local schools, Chamber of Commerce, Departments of Public Safety, and other agencies in one's community. These agencies are vehicles through which God's kingdom presence can be expanded.
What fuels my civic engagement is the desire to be a witness for Jesus and ambassador for him in these circles, while influencing people for righteousness.
As you surveyed pastors and congregations, what were some of the most fruitful discoveries?
First, I'd say that effectual civic engagement activity is ultimately rooted in a theology of mission and a recognition that the presence of the kingdom of God is real and consequential for all areas of life, not just for when the church is gathered.
Moreover, fruitful engagement has intentional longevity associated with it; it is generational. It involves decades of practicing faithful stewardship and blessing of a city, her inhabitants, and her leaders.
Finally, it's not about merely "doing ministry in the city" as much as being a minister—a call to care for a people and their place. I love Costa Mesa not only because I live here but also because I am called to love my neighbor here. I care for where they dwell; I care for them and their leaders.
What might motivate a local congregation and its leadership to take civic engagement seriously?
First and foremost, people need Jesus; without him they are destined for hell. This is the plain, sobering fact of the matter. The reality of hell is not cause for disengagement but engagement.
Second, throughout the Bible, we see that God's people had relationships with Gentile civic leaders. Scripture illustrates how the early patriarchs, Jesus, the apostle Paul, and other early church leaders engaged in civic work. These examples suggest that civic engagement is one element of following God.
God's gift of Jesus is the ultimate act of engagement. Jeremiah 29:7 reminds us of God's invitation to "seek the welfare of the city." It is my conviction that God is still initiating and inviting his church to participate in his redemptive activity.
It's a powerful initiation and invitation to be sure, but pastors and their members often experience barriers to engagement.
Yes, that's right. Over the years, I have discovered several barriers, and I have had to confront many in my own life and ministry.
A basic barrier is simply the lack of civic relationships among church members and church leaders. It really takes years to develop trusting relationships with civic leaders. Christians must be committed to live and serve in their community for at least a decade and up to four decades if they truly want to impact their community. We need more of an incarnational model, and less of a hit-and-run model for loving the city.
Is inattentiveness to civic relationships the most prominent barrier?
Maybe. But it's likely that a self-absorbed, inward focus can be as prominent. Many pastors and their members believe their top priority is to focus on fostering spiritual growth in their own lives as well as the life of other believers. Consequently, quite often their entire activity remains inside the church. They focus on themselves, their facilities, and filling their buildings.
To be sure, a civically engaged church doesn't mean that you'll have a small or big church. Church size is not causally related to engagement. For civic engagement—even as an instrumental value for the sake of merely "growing the church"—can also fall into self-absorption.
Such self-absorption can also reorder priorities, can't it?
Yes. Sometimes pastors and congregants are confronted by competing priorities. Many struggle with the amount of time that should be allocated between "church activities" and "community involvement." Most experience tension while trying to balance ministry to their Christian flock and ministry outside their church. A church budget, for example, can be as much revealing as a doctrinal statement in these areas.
How about competition?
Competition is a problem strategically used by the Devil. Churches must work together if a city is going to be reached. That's the plain fact of the matter. This can't be one-man or one-church showmanship. One-upmanship has no place in the kingdom of God, period. But we must face whether our city or our own self-absorption matters more. Entire churches, even if they are "into" community, can also be individualistic.
Any other notable barriers?
I'd say a fear of compromise, or at least an anxiety related to the potential for compromise. Some object to civic engagement due to a concern that such activity will lead to compromise in the area of fundamental theology and cause leaders to fall prey to the lure of political power. To be sure, this can be a problem. But the solution isn't disengagement; the solution is engagement as full-orbed disciples of Jesus!
Part of your research focused on "civic engagement strategies" that you've seen at work (in whole or in part) in the churches you studied. You categorize these as "Internal" and "External" strategies that are interrelated by what you call "Bridge" strategies. How might helping congregants identify and steward their vocation play a role in articulating encouragement toward civic activity?
As a preacher, your best object lessons are the experiences of your people. Any time you have a member give a testimony of how God is using them to share God's love in their various circles of influence, that testimony serves as a great opportunity to reinforce our universal call as Christians to live as salt and light. As you celebrate what God is doing through specific members, it makes civic activity more tangible for everyone.
But a church doesn't just automatically mobilize its members for civic engagement, right?
Right. There's what I call a bridge strategy at work: It involves the intentional identification of church members who have existing civic relationships in the community and the deployment of church members into those arenas. Coupled with this is ongoing prayer by members.
I can't overstate the power and value of prayer in this endeavor. It is more than mere churchy activity or correct pastoral behavior. It is the very lifeblood of being fruitfully present in the world for the good of one's neighbor. Without prayer as a way of life, we are left to mere mechanics and engineering of civic engagement. My neighbor doesn't deserve that.
What might these prayerful external strategies look like?
External Strategies involve being a student of the city, being available and present, building relationships, maintaining a low profile, having a designated point person to initiate, collaborate, and coordinate activity with civic leaders and among churches, and a commitment to longevity.
Effective engagement requires being proactive. If a church waits for civic leaders to invite them to do something, an invitation may never come. Ministry opportunities must often be initiated by the church and/or church leader. Theologically speaking, all healthy missiology will recognize what God is doing in a particular context. Civic engagement external strategies help us understand our missiology and responsibility to it. Our ecclesiology also morphs, so that we become intentional about discerning how God has invited us to join him in what he is already doing in a particular context. Civic relationships simply help open the doors for community ministry.
Can parachurch organizations, especially evangelical colleges, universities, and seminaries, help prepare students for fruitful stewardship in their cities?
Most definitely! We do need more collaborative thinking and work among various Christian institutions in this area. Most evangelical institutions already offer evangelism and missions classes to their students. Adding a "civic engagement" component to the curriculum would be very beneficial.
Here in Southern California, I know of at least a dozen civically engaged pastors who would be thrilled to collaborate with educational institutions and their students, both from a tutoring perspective and for partnering on community projects.
How have you seen the Lord at work in Costa Mesa, as you have engaged in intentional, long-term and collaborative civic activity?
For 16 years, a few pastors have been praying together for Costa Mesa. Last March 2011, we created a church coalition called "One Church for Our City." Our mission is to connect Christ followers to bless Costa Mesa.
Currently as church leaders, we are working on five key initiatives that target immigration, homelessness, schools, crisis response, and business. Each initiative is led by a key leader who coordinates specific ministry activities.
Just a few weeks ago, 10 congregations partnered together to paint, clean, garden, and bless 12 public schools in our city. On May 15, ABC news covered a story in which we were able to reconnect a man experiencing homelessness with his brother in Colorado, and put him on an airplane to help get him there. We accomplished this in cooperation and partnership with our city staff and police.
Over the past 23 years, God has entrusted to me some key relationships within my civic community. It is my responsibility to leverage those relationships for his glory.
But it's not just me, as a pastor, living out my vocation in Costa Mesa. For example, Kirk Bauermeister, a member of Palm Harvest Church, is the principal of Estancia High School in Costa Mesa. Kirk has been instrumental in leveraging his influence to create both a mentoring and reading program within our local schools to assist students. Through Kirk's Christian leadership and influence, OCforOC has been able to unleash its members to invest in our children. To date, we have trained about 100 mentors. All of this through, in part, Kirk's partnership and leadership.
Joseph E. Gorra is the manager of academic programs and research for Biola University's graduate program in Christian apologetics. He is also a contributor to the Christian Research Journal, for TheGospelCoalition.org, the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, and for Patheos.com. He can be followed on Twitter @GorraResearch.