Nathan Dean, center, is co-pastor of Edgewood Church in Atlanta, with his wife, Carrie Dean. They believe much of a church’s role is outside its building. (Edgewood Church photo)
Nathan Dean, center, is co-pastor of Edgewood Church in Atlanta, with his wife, Carrie Dean. They believe much of a church’s role is outside its building. (Edgewood Church photo)

Churches being pushed to see selves as guests in own communities

A post-Christian culture means churches no longer enjoy privileged status in their communities, and must work to be part of their neighborhoods.

By Jeff Brumley

At Grace and Main in Danville, Va., organizers have ceded much of their power to the people they came to serve.

“A lot of our leadership is made up of those who are or were hungry, impoverished and homeless,” says Joshua Hearne, a missionary with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship who helped establish the intentional community built around hospitality principles.

The idea is to let the people affected by those issues decide what the solutions are, Hearne says. The concept stems from Grace and Main’s self-perception as a visitor, not a host or savior, in the community in which it exists.

JoshuaHearneMUG“We very much understand ourselves to be guests in the broader sense of the word,” Hearne said. “We see ourselves as joining an already existing community and that we don’t have all the answers.”

That’s a ministry model that may alarm some church leaders. But it’s also one that most church leaders must embrace as soon as possible, said Rob Nash, an associate dean and professor of missions and world religions at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.

Nash is taking that message on the road with a workshop titled “Becoming the Other: The Church as Stranger in a Brand New World.”

Nash, who formerly directed the global missions engagement for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said it means conceiving of church and ministry as guests, not hosts, is no longer a necessity limited to intentional communities and urban missionaries. Ongoing societal views about religion are making it mandatory for even the most established of tall-steeple churches.

Thanks to the current post-Christian culture, he said, most congregations have already become outsiders in their own neighborhoods.

“They really have — they just don’t know it yet,” Nash said.

‘They aren’t coming’

That many churches have yet to catch on to the loss of privileged status is clear from the jargon they use around membership and ministry, Nash said.

“We use host language at church — ‘how do we make people feel welcome here?’”

Proof that such concepts are ineffective is evident in the results being experienced across the church.

RobNashMUG“We are sitting around waiting for people to come to us, and they aren’t coming.”

But Nash added that the analysis isn’t really bad news for churches at all. Instead, it’s an opportunity to model what it means to be good guests in a community.

“Another way to look at it is: how do I make my neighborhood a better place?” he said. “How do I follow the footsteps of Jesus? By getting involved in my community.”

‘Moving beyond ourselves’

Nash’s observations are “absolutely in line” with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s assessment of the church-cultural environment and with its ongoing missional church planting campaign, said Bo Prosser, coordinator of missional congregations for CBF.

It’s also in line with CBF’s Dawnings initiative for existing churches, and with the larger missional church movement, Prosser added.

“Missional is about moving beyond ourselves and our walls and engaging the context where we find ourselves,” Prosser said.

That often means agreeing to serve in local ministries and projects not connected to the church, Prosser said.

“We don’t have to build a community garden, we can go participate in the [existing] community garden,” he said. “We don’t have to house the homeless, we can go where the homeless are housed and pool our resources with other ministries.”

‘Gifts and abilities’

Giving up that control may seem intimidating, but the benefits are immense for congregations who can make the paradigm shift, Prosser said.

bo prosser mug“Sometimes we give the blessing, sometimes we receive the blessing — and sometimes we forget that when we get caught up in our important selves.”

It’s a realization that global missionaries have been aware of for decades. Prosser said CBF Global Missions has long abandoned the model of being outsiders with all the resources and answers for those in need.

Residents of impoverished communities, in the U.S. and abroad, “have gifts and abilities,” Prosser said. “If all we are doing is plopping down resources, we are robbing them of being able to use their gifts.”

‘Don’t … reinvent the wheel’

Letting others lead can also be a blessing for often over-extended ministers, said Nathan Dean, co-pastor of Edgewood Church, a missional CBF congregation in Atlanta.

“On community clean-up days, I like it because we are not running it all the time,” Dean said. “Projects like that are very helpful.”

That doesn’t mean the church doesn’t introduce programs to help neighbors. Sometimes it hosts events and ministries, at other times it plugs into those of others.

“We don’t try to reinvent the wheel.”

The important thing is to assess what the community’s needs are and then figure out how to be of most use, he said.

Often that means knowing where the “broken places” are in a community. For Edgewood Church, that involves helping local schools.

‘Empowering parents’

The congregation hosts a school supply store in a local school where parents can purchase up to 10 items for $1. Usually they can provide all their children’s needs for $3.

Proceeds are donated to the school as a “ministry fund” to be used to help with uniforms, shoes or other needs determined by administrators and teachers.

NathanDeanMUG“It’s empowering parents who are poor because they can buy supplies instead of getting them as a hand-out,” Dean said.

The church also recruits tutors from the congregation and from the neighborhoods surrounding schools.

‘Living in the kingdom’

It’s also helped combat crime by starting a security patrol in which residents chip in $200 a year for an off-duty police officer to patrol trouble spots.

All of those initiatives come after being constantly present in the area, Dean said. “We’ve gained enough trust in the neighborhood that we can do that.” 

As radical as this approach to church may sound, it’s goal is the same as most ministries historically have been.

“The overall agenda at the end of the day is to get people to become Christians and to be living in the kingdom of God,” Dean said.