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In the Community, For the Community

In the Community, For the Community

Different people have different perceptions of “the church” in the community. For some, churches are a place of safety and community; for others they are places of exclusivity. Some see the church as a benevolent organization, while others perceive it to be self-serving and self-important. Some people think church is for good people; others think church is for dressed-up hypocrites. Perhaps most importantly, while some perceive the church to be an important agent of healing in our communities, there are many whose experience of church, past and present, leads them to believe that the church is more harmful than healing.

As I prepared to write this article on the church “in the community, for the community,” I have found myself confronted all week by these different perceptions. And I was struck by something: if we are not listening to how “the community” already feels about the church, then we will never effectively be “in the community and for the community.”

I will give you one example. At our recent Jobs for Life breakfast, the question was posed, “Why is the church necessary for effective poverty alleviation in a community?” Hands went up, and a number of good and important things were said. The church is a built-in network for people. The churches have financial resources and are usually full of individuals with financial resources. The gospel of Christ compels Christians outward into our communities. I could go on, but one answer stopped me in my tracks. A gentleman who grew up in Huntsville’s public housing and now works with residents of that community said, “The church is a necessary part of the solution because they were a part of the problem first.”

His experience with churches led him to understand quickly that they did not want anything to do with people “like him.” They were not interested in being associated with the troubled kid, the societal outcast. They might take up a collection for his neighborhood at Christmas, but no one in the churches around him wanted to get to know him or his family. The churches he encountered were serving a different community—one that did not include him.

This feeling is not isolated to individuals in public housing; it can be felt across socio-economic lines. There are incredibly successful business people who feel somehow that their wealth and pursuit of business makes them a lesser member in the kingdom. This phrase “in the community, for the community” is not as simple as it sounds. Our community is diverse! It is made up of dentists and hookers and everything in between. There are businesses in our community, and there are government agencies. There are homeowners and public housing residents, thriving schools and struggling schools. What in the world does it look like for Southwood to be in the community for the community?

We have always believed that the church is an organization that exists for others—to bring the good news of the kingdom to those not yet a part of it. We have prayed for years at Southwood that God would make us a church that if God suddenly took us out of Huntsville, the community would mourn our absence. We are on mission to express the grace God has poured into us right here in the Huntsville community where He has sent us. What would it mean, then, for Southwood, individually and corporately, to be in the community and for the community?

First, I believe it means understanding that “in the community, for the community” is not some initiative Southwood started, but rather it is the natural outflow of the gospel itself. Our Savior entered OUR community, not for his own comfort or pleasure, but for OUR good. He came for the rich and the poor, the accepted and outcast. The only requirement for welcome into His fellowship was (and is) the belief that we desperately need Him. The church is called to be a reflection of our bridegroom, Christ, so our lives and consequently our church should reflect that same willingness to enter into a community for its good and not our own. “In the community, for the community” is not a community development principle so much as it is a gospel principle.

Second, it means that we must genuinely lay aside our sinful agendas and thoughts about “what would make Southwood look good” and consider what is best for our community. This is why we continue to preach the challenging truths of salvation in Christ alone, through faith alone, despite the unpopularity of that message in our cultural context. We might not become the biggest church, but we continue to preach the truth because we know that the truth, spoken in love, is the best thing for our community. This is also why we carefully evaluate any potential short-term mission trip, whether local or international. We avoid the glossy trips that make Southwood look like a hero, and instead we opt for low-profile opportunities to serve, and we only go if we are invited by our partners. Our priority is the good of our neighbors or ministry partner, not the glory of Southwood.

Third, it means real sacrifice. Entering into the hurt and pain of an individual’s life is challenging enough. Entering into the hurt and pain of a community is overwhelming! If we say we are here for our community, for THEIR good, not our church growth or program statistics, then we are going to have to take on heartache that is not our own. We are going to have to care about parts of town we do not live in, and both corporately and individually we will be called to seek the welfare of others over our own. This is HARD. It is easy to talk about, until it affects who lives in my neighborhood or attends my schools. We want to consider others more important than ourselves, but sometimes our property values feel more important than the lives on the other side of the debate. This is why we should care about and be involved in the expansion of Downtown Huntsville, the vitality of our neighborhood school, and the development of relationships across racial lines in our city. This is an exciting time to live here—lots of things are changing. However, if we are really FOR our community, then that means we need to consider how the changes will affect everyone involved, and make sure that justice is done for our neighbors who have less of a voice in subsidized housing.

If this seems overwhelming, it IS! So here are a few practical things to consider as we seek to move forward in the community for the community.

If we are going to say we are “in the community, for the community,” then we had better get to know it. Communities are not entities in and of themselves. You cannot talk to the Westside community; you can only talk to Westside residents and business owners. Jones Valley is made up of people (and a few cows), and if we say we are “here for them,” then we need to know them. This is the challenge my friend was referring to when he said the church was part of the problem. The churches he encountered had distanced themselves from him and from his community, so they could no longer effectively love or walk with this struggling community.

This is why we do Jobs for Life, for example. It gives us an incredible opportunity to be practically FOR jobless individuals, local businesses, The Huntsville Housing Authority and The CornerStone Initiative. We work hard to get to know each student, each business, and each organization we work with so that we can most effectively support and encourage them.

I am desperate to move beyond trite sayings and theoretical ideas. There is too much hurt and suffering for us to linger in meaningless talk. If we say Southwood is “in the community, for the community,” then there should be practical implications both for our corporate gatherings and for our individual lives. So I encourage you to consider this reality whether on your way to work, or while walking around HeyDay this fall meeting tons of guests. Consider what it would like for us as a body to be in the community for the community—and then help us move in that direction!