Acton Institute Powerblog

Why An Urban Church Abandoned Traditional Charity

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In the early 2000s, Broadway United Methodist Church had a series of outreach programs, including a food pantry, after-school program, clothing ministry, and a summer youth program that served up to 250 children per day. Today, these programs are completely absent, and it’s no accident.

“They’ve been killed off,” writes Robert King in a fascinating profile of the transformation for Faith and Leadership. “In many cases, they were buried with honors. But those ministries, staples of the urban church, are all gone from Broadway. Kaput.”

“One of the things we literally say around here is, ‘Stop helping people.’” says Rev. Mike Mather, the church’s pastor. “I’m serious.”

Although Mather was the first to initiate many of these programs, with some efforts going back as far as the late 1980s, after a series of circumstances, including a series of community tragedies, he began to believe that a new approach was needed. “I started paying attention to what they really cared about,” he says.

Rather than simply identifying and meeting immediate needs, the church has decided to emphasize, affirm, and elevate the gifts and contributions of those in their community:

“The church, and me in particular,” Mather said, “has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”

With that in mind, Broadway has — for more than a decade now — been reorienting itself. Rather than a bestower of blessings, the church is aiming to be something more humble. “The church decided its call was to be good neighbors. And that we should listen and see people as children of God,” said De’Amon Harges, a church member who sees Broadway’s transformation in terms not unlike Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.

Harges was eventually hired as a “roving listener” who “wound up spending hours sitting on people’s porches and hovering near them as they worked in their backyard gardens,” writes King. Yet unlike similar positions where the goal would be to uncover surface-level “holes” in the community, Harges is listening instead for “hints about their gifts.” “I was curious about what was good in people,” Harges says, “and that was what I was going to find out.”

The approach has been called “asset-based community development,” a philosophy that professor John McKnight of Northwestern University helped conceive. McKnight has personally visited Broadway to observe the various goings on, and he acknowledges it as an astounding success:

“What [Harges] is listening for is their gifts — ‘What has God given you?’” McKnight said. He doesn’t advocate ignoring people’s needs and problems, but rather to look first for solutions within the community itself. Later, he said, institutions and services can help.

“John 15:15 tells us that, at the Last Supper, Jesus said to the disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants. … I call you friends.’ So the final way of defining what Christianity is based on is friendship, not service. … I think Mike and De’Amon are guided by that spiritual principle.”

The new approach has led to people rediscovering and harnessing their God-given gifts, sharing in various services and activities with those around them, uncovering a renewed sense of dignity and purpose, pursuing paths to new businesses or livelihoods, and discovering an overall sense of community connectedness and flourishing.

And indeed, it shouldn’t be a surprise. As Christians who believe in a God who fashioned us with dignity, creativity, and capacity, freeing us unto love, service, and sacrifice through the gift of his own Son, it’s an approach that we would do well to heed. As resources like PovertyCure and For the Life of the World continue to proclaim and affirm, we are created to be gift-givers and image bearers, not mere consumers or objects of pity. Our stewardship, generosity, and exchanges with others ought to reflect that reality.

In Episode 1 of FLOW, Evan Koons puts the bigger Biblical story of all this in perspective, explaining how, despite our fallen nature and brokenness, God made a way to restore us to that original priesthood. “All is gift,” he reminds us.

God himself becomes a man, and the gift he offers to the Father is himself, and all of creation is in tow behind him. Once and for all he restores the way of our purpose. He restores our priesthood. We can once again offer to God our lives, our work, knowledge — everything. We join our gifts with Christ, to offer the world to the Father in love and for the life of the world. And that is the purpose of our salvation. That’s what it’s for — for the life of the world.

As we seek to alleviate injustice in the world — familial, social, economic, or otherwise — we can look to Broadway as a reminder of how we ought to approach our neighbors: not out of humanistic striving or materialistic shifting, but by affirming and stirring up the gifts of others for the glory of God and the good of the world.

As John Perkins says in Episode 4: “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.”

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles DVD

For the Life of the World: Letters to the Exiles DVD

For the Life of the World is an entertaining film series that explores the deeper meaning of Salvation. Have you ever wondered, “What is my Salvation actually FOR?” Is it only about personal atonement, about getting to heaven, or something that comes later? Is it just to have a “friend in Jesus?”

Join Evan Koons and his friends – Stephen Grabill, Amy Sherman, Anthony Bradley, Makoto Fujimura, John M. Perkins, Tim Royer and Dwight Gibson – as they discover a “new perspective,” the BIGGER picture of what it means to be “in the world, not of it.” This seven-part film series will help you, your friends, church or organization investigate God’s Economy of All Things – OIKONOMIA (a Greek word that has a lot to say about God’s plan for his creation, the world, and us.)

Explore how God’s purposes are woven into every area of our lives: family, work, art, charity, education, government, recreation and all creation! The Bible calls us Strangers and Pilgrims, living in "the now and not yet" of God’s Kingdom Come on earth. We are also called to be salt and light, to have a transforming presence among our neighbors. Rediscover the role of the church and how our lives lived on earth matter in God’s plan for the world.

Designed for deep exploration, the series invites viewers to watch the series again for new insights. Also, check out the companion Field Guide to jump-start group and individual investigation and enhance the film experience! FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD Field Guides are available in print or via streaming access at StudySpace.org.

2nd Edition

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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