The church was a large downtown one with a tall steeple. The skyline of the city rose to its north, a blighted neighborhood lay to its immediate south. The music and preaching were superior - that's why it had grown to several thousand members. Ten years ago I was invited here to speak at an urban missions week. The church seemed serious about reaching out to their community so I decided to take a calculated risk. I told them that if they really wanted to change the neighborhood, they needed to move in, become neighbors, and begin to take seriously the great command to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. A couple of members had already taken this courageous step. I encouraged the pastoral staff to lead the way for others in the congregation. That was ten years ago.
Recently I was invited back. The pastor's son, now an associate minister, led me proudly to his office and showed me a large map of the city. Blue dots pinpointed where every church member lived. To my utter amazement, the neighborhood around the church was nearly solid blue. "How many members do you have living there now?" I asked. "Nearly two hundred fifty!" he smiled. He and his wife had bought a home there, he said. So had his dad. And a number of the staff. I was speechless.
"And so what has happened in the community?" I was eager to learn. They had started a number of programs, he told me - an after school tutoring program, summer camp, ESL classes, a counseling ministry to single moms. They had formed a community development corporation (CDC) and had hired a full-time director to coordinate these programs and mobilize volunteers to run them. "And what is happening in the community?" I asked again. The pastor's son seemed a bit confused by my question but courteously repeated the list of programs he had just described. "Yes, but what is happening in the community?" I persisted. "Has crime gone down? Has drug trafficking dried up? Has prostitution left? Has the education level improved in the neighborhood schools?"
"No, not really," the young pastor admitted. The streets were still unsafe. There were still a lot of break-ins, a lot of crack houses. The schools were still bad. "Sometimes I wonder if our living there really makes any difference," he confessed quietly. I picked up a note of discouragement in his voice. Property values were edging up, he was pleased about that. But the neighborhood association was ineffective - run by a few loud-mouthed activists who were always bickering over city grants and never getting anything done. No, the neighborhood hadn't really changed all that much.
I was stunned. I had obviously made a wrong assumption. I had assumed that if resourced Christians relocated into an area of need they would have a transforming impact on their neighborhood - if for no other reason than their own self-interest. I was wrong.
How could two hundred fifty committed Christians, all with a concern for the poor and sufficiently motivated to relocate in the inner-city, have such little influence in changing their community? In the meetings that followed with the pastoral staff and other church members who had moved in, I probed deeper. The programs were definitely helping some of the kids and families, they told me, but their converts were not coming to church - the class and cultural divide was too great. Their vision for a multi-racial church was not working as they had hoped. They were now exploring other options. Should the church change its style of worship to accommodate more ethnic diversity? Or perhaps they should start new churches where the poor and immigrant populations would feel more comfortable? Each time I asked about life in the neighborhood, the responses seemed to end up on the issue of church. "Is there a vision for the community?" I pressed. The question drew puzzled looks and more talk of evangelism and getting people into the church.
And then it dawned on me. These were suburban Christians, born and bred in individualism, who had brought into the city with them a church-centric theology of personal salvation and corporate worship. Ministry to the poor - ministry to anyone - was evangelism-driven. A vision for the rebirth of a community could only be understood through the lens of saving souls and church growth. The reclaiming of dangerous streets, the regeneration of broken systems, the transformation of corrupted political power - these were aspects of God's redeeming work that had somehow been omitted from their Biblical teaching. Of course they had no vision for their community. They had no theological framework on which to fashion one.
It would be a serious error to diminish in any way the wonder of God's transforming work in the heart of a woman or man. It would be equally wrong to devalue the importance of worship. To even hint at such things would have brought our dialogue to an abrupt end. Yet, if this church was to ever grasp a vision for the transformation of their community, they must begin to consider that there is more to salvation than the saving of an individual soul. Redemption has societal implications, not merely personal. Closing down a crack house that is destroying the lives of youth is as least as redemptive as rescuing a child from its clutches. Organizing a crime watch to eliminate break-ins is an important part of establishing the Shalom that God desires for all His creation. The love of neighbor - not a small concern to God - is best seen and is certainly more effectual on the streets where they live than behind the walls where they worship.
We definitely have more work to do.