By Shannon Youell
I remember the tension between the closing of a Tim Horton’s location and a church in my local community. Both had been permanent residents for many years – the church for about thirty and Tim’s for as long as I’ve lived here.
Our local newspaper splashed their front page with the story of the beloved coffee shop that had one day enticed those around them to come in for coffee, donuts and conversation, and the next day had all the windows papered up and doors locked. The community was thrown into a state of disbelief. I overheard conversations around this bombshell where ever I went in the community: where will we meet our friends, our co-workers? Where will we go for community without Timmy’s?
Down the road, a church, too, had closed its doors. The congregation of faithful people had slowly declined and those remaining were finding it more and more difficult to keep the lights on and the building kept up.
However, there was no headline, no dismayed buzz in grocery store lineups, no fanfare whatsoever. The neighbourhood and the community didn’t even realize that a church gathered there. They simply saw a building one passed everyday on the way to whatever their everyday looked like.
I remember hearing Bill Hybels tell the story of the man looking for his cat. As Bill did his final checkup of the Willowcreek facilities after hosting several Sunday worship services, he found a man wandering around in the mostly-empty parking lot. He asked the man if he could help him and the man said he was looking for his cat. So Bill joined the search. They engaged in some conversation as they walked the entire lot and at one point the man asked Bill what went on in this place.
Bill was stunned, not that this man was randomly inquiring to the purpose of the place, but that the man was looking for his cat. He lived in the neighbourhood. He wasn’t someone unfamiliar with the neighbourhood, yet he had no idea what this place, where multitudes of humanity who are joining Jesus on mission flowed in and out of, was.
I tell these stories, not to discourage us, but to acknowledge that many of us as church communities find ourselves disconnected from our communities. Some are struggling with what that means for the future of a Christian faith presence in those places. And these struggles are real and hard.
Re-engaging our communities will take some hard examination of our entrenched understanding of the things we do. I’ve spoken often that we must shift our thinking from doing to or for the communities around us to doing with.
As people who traditionally have engaged in issues of injustice, of oppressed people groups, of those who hunger and thirst, of those society has marginalized or dismissed, we can look at our neighbourhoods through only that lens, and with all goodness of intent, find “solutions” we can take to those affected. However, when we come up with the solution to what we perceive to be the presenting issues, and impose them on a community, we presume we understand the deeper issues and we don’t include that community in the conversation. This creates an us and them community rather than fostering a we community.
Community engagement experts across not-for-profit and community service sectors advise us that actually getting to know the stakeholders in any neighbourhood or community (Luke 10 calls them people of peace), is the first necessity of building relational trust. Listen to what matters to them, what their passions and concerns are. Let them know you share these same passions and concerns because you are equally as invested in this neighbourhood, in this community.
Re-engaging our communities should never stem from a project mindset but a love-of-neighbour mindset, which means allowing ourselves to be equally loved and cared for by the community around us.
Over the next several weeks we will looks at ways two of our churches are investing in relationships to re-engage their communities: one a familiar CBWC church and one a brand new affiliation in process. Then we will look at some fresh expressions of others ways to engage and bring the presence of God’s shalom into our neighbourhoods, communities and towns.