I’ve long been interested in two topics that might not, at first glance, appear to be critically related. The first is the integration of faith and work. The second is city transformation.
We will not see revitalization in our cities without individual congregants coming to a deep understanding and practice of whole-life discipleship. Congregants need to have a vision for how their daily callings—their professions, their family life, their call to citizenship—connect with God’s mission to bring renewal to all things, and particularly to the hurting parts of our cities.
We won’t see transformed neighborhoods when the strategy for getting there is to draw upon congregants’ limited slice of time called “volunteering through the church.” The challenges—poor schools, lack of affordable housing, fatherless families, high unemployment, substance abuse, and a dozen others—are just too complex. Church leaders desiring real change in their communities must equip the scattered church to grasp how they can advance the city’s common good in and through their daily work.
Why a Plea for Volunteers is Insufficient
In in the early years of the urban ministry I directed I would stand up in front of my large congregation each September and make a plea for parishioners to volunteer: to serve as tutors and mentors, computer class teachers, basketball coaches, Bible study leaders, and so forth. I confess I looked out and saw our congregants generically: as bodies that might be able to fill the many volunteer “slots” the ministry had. I didn’t see the parishioners as unique individuals with highly particularized skills. I didn’t see them as the lawyers, educators, auto mechanics, business owners, counselors, bankers, nurses, accountants, and plumbers that they were. I just saw them as generic men and women who perhaps would step forward and put their names on my volunteer sign-up sheet and come down and spend a few hours in Prospect.
This was a major mistake. Because over time I realized that the challenges that the Prospects community faces are not going to be fixed at their root by Christians volunteering a little slice of their time. No, what’s needed is for Christians both inside and outside of Prospect to look at how they spend the 40-50% of their time at their work, and to ask how that work might contribute to bringing about fundamental change in the neighborhood. I came to realize that I didn’t need our church’s bankers being basketball coaches as much I needed them to design some kind of alternative to the payday lenders that were oppressing the families in the Prospect neighborhood. I didn’t need the real estate agents giving a few hours during the week of our summer camp as much as I needed them to get a vision for using their influence to promote the building of more affordable housing in our city, and for getting tough on slumlords in Prospect who were treating our neighbors unjustly. I needed businesspeople in the church to link arms with Prospect’s entrepreneurs, to jointly start new commercial ventures and create jobs.
Vocation as Ministry
I needed all these folks to see their work as their ministry . . . as the platform through which they could do their part in joining God in his work of advancing the shalom of the city. I needed them to have a big vision for their vocations, a vision of how their daily callings as blue collar workers and white collar workers and unpaid homemakers and retired professionals could be wedded to God’s Kingdom work.
I needed them to see the connection between the conversation on faith and work and the conversation on community transformation.
On October 17, look for to 5 stories that illustrate how the faith-work conversation actually transforms cities.