Because of my work, I’m often in spaces where people want to discuss current trends in community engagement. One of my favorite stories from a friend of mine was exceptionally telling. His organization, which focuses on economic development, had a booth at a large Christian conference in their display area. Next to them was a well-known ministry. In response to a recent natural disaster, guests at the booth next to my friend could pay $20, write a note of prayer, and stick it in a backpack that would then be shipped to this devastated country. It was earnest, it was heartfelt, and is a pretty typical response from a church.
However, as people would approach my friend’s table, he would explain to them that they were doing work to rebuild the businesses that were lost in the very same country their neighbor was working in. You see, they were supporting a local businessman who was employing his neighbors and fellow citizens in a workspace he was building. But since this natural disaster, he has had to lay off his workers. Then eventually he lost his space. And now, he was bankrupt. His business? Backpacks.
As I tell and re-tell this story, I am always anxious to gauge an audience response. In our rush to resolve the tension of suffering, are we participating in ways with local communities that promote dignity and self-sufficiency? Or do we position ourselves as rescuers with power and answers? Worse yet, do we really want to commit to the long-haul marathon of building relationships of mutuality and deep respect that require us to ask, “What do you have? And what do you really need?”
In Genesis 3:9, God is walking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day, and looking for a very ashamed Adam and Eve. The idea that an all-powerful, all knowing Creator of the Universe would do that seems absurd. He asks, “Where are you?” Would not the person who placed each star in the heaven know where two naked people were hiding? Of course he did!
Questions like these allow people to locate themselves. Three gospel accounts show Jesus doing the same – “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29, and Luke 9:20). It gave the disciples (and specifically Peter) a chance to name their thoughts about who Jesus really was. It located Adam and Eve, when they responded with fault-finding and shame (Genesis 3:10-13). Whether hard stories or bold declarations, questions allow people to self-identify what they need or where they are at in ways that give incredible and invaluable insight for the discerning. Questions locate.
So before you plan another program or outreach, ask a few questions. Ask community agencies, “Where are your gaps? If there was one thing you need that you think the church could do, what would it be? What are your thoughts about us?” I wonder about the answers you would hear. I wonder where the community would locate itself. But more importantly, I wonder how the answers will locate your church … or you.
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