What would happen if local churches came together to love and serve our cities?
Upon hearing such a question, our minds are prone to imagine an assortment of “outreach ministries,” from food pantries to homeless shelters to community events to street evangelism. But while each of these can be a powerful channel for love and service in our communities, what about the basic vision that precedes them?
Before and beyond our tactical solutions to immediate needs, how can the church truly work together to bring economic flourishing that will endure for years to come?
In a recent talk for Made to Flourish, Pastor Christopher Brooks explores that question at length, drawing from both scripture and personal experience to provide a framework for re-imagining the church’s role in urban and community transformation. “God places his people in the hearts of cities, and cities in the hearts of his people,” he explains.
As pastor of a church in Detroit, Brooks speaks to the range of challenges that local churches faced in responding to the chaos that surrounds them. In his own experience, that included the disruption that followed the financial crisis and, later, the devastation that came from the city’shistoric decline into bankruptcy. The people of Detroit were hurting, and local churches were struggling as well, quickly retreating into isolation and division.
Eventually, Brooks was able to meet with several local pastors and begin to sow seeds of unity and collaboration. Together, they agreed to focus on spurring a revival of “good news” and “good works” across the city—economic, social, spiritual, and otherwise. “We were captured by a vision that good deeds would produce good will that would open the door for the good news to be shared,” Brooks explains.
As a result, that small group of pastors and churches slowly grew, now including over 500 churches from across the Detroit area. All are coming together in shared purpose, making a covenant to love their city well do so by working together.
As far as the methods, the outcomes have varied, ranging from training programs to personal discipleship to networking activities to economic activation. But regardless of the tactics, these churches are growing in a shared understanding of the real issues in their community, as well as their roles in training up believers for stewardship in the broader social and economic world.
To give a taste of that vision, Brooks offers the following lessons he’s gained on how we might change our perspectives and truly love our cities well.
1. Poverty isn’t permanent when the church comes together.
It’s so easy for us to lose sight of this reality and to feel overwhelmed, in particular when we work in isolation…We think that cities can’t be changed or that the Gospel can’t work in certain zip codes or neighborhoods. But when Jesus said, ‘The poor you will have with you always,’ he didn’t intend for that to mean that poverty was some unfixable disease or some incurable condition. No. We can see poverty change by unleashing the entrepreneurial, enterprising spirit that God has placed within each and every person within our community. When we begin to see them not just as mouths that consume, but minds that create, God restores flourishing.
2. Diagnosis determines treatment.
The church has been misdiagnosing poverty. We’ve been narrowly defining poverty as the lack of resources. But as a person who grew up poor, let me tell you, poverty is much deeper than that. It’s the lack of positive of relationships. Who’s better at giving people a network of positive relationships than the church? What people need most is not a check or a handout. They need a network of relationship that can provide intimacy and restoration and healing…God changes lives through relationships.
3. Our cities need Christian community development.
Never forget that what we bring to the table is Christian community and economic development. Don’t forget that part. Because…if God does change lives through relationships, and if…poverty is…a lack of positive relationships, then here’s my question: “What is the greatest relationship that a person can have?”…It’s not a relationship with you or with me, but it’s with a Savior, who can not only fix us on the outside, but renew us on the inside, and transform our hearts and our minds. This is what our communities need. They need more than just creative programs or initiatives. They need Christ.
In the end, its about forming networks of fruitful relationships for the Kingdom and the common good. When the local church is working together with that bigger picture of human needs and creative capacity, transformation will follow, in turn.
“It is when we begin to collaborate with one another, forming these networks of relationships in Christ, that our communities are transformed and flourishing returns,” says Brooks. “Let’s love our cities well and complete the love story.”