Book Review: Communities First

I pastor a Southern Baptist Church Plant north of the Mason Dixon line. I mean our city, North Tonawanda, NY has the name “North” in it! How can this possibly be a good fit? At times this can make for interesting conversations to say the least about the purpose of our denomination, or reasons why we affiliate with “those people,” especially the ones who “talk like that.” In recent years our denomination has voted and approved the synonymous title of “Great Commission Baptists” which is intend to work very similar to how the D.B.A. title works in the business arena, but really hasn’t been very useful to me. Nonetheless, I was at one of our annual conferences in Dallas in 2013, where I heard a church planter on a Q & A panel say something like “The greatest value our churches have to our community, is that we have and know how to recruit volunteers. In fact, our volunteerism comes from a higher power even! A Holy God who has commanded us to love our neighbor.”

I don’t even know who the speaker was, but I do remember that he led a church of less than 100 members, but was gaining tremendous influence in his city by empowering his people to be contributors to their local zip code, and had multiple stories to share about how they were seeing the Gospel change lives! Regardless of the fact I had learned this story at an SBC event, I knew I had to employ a similar strategy in our North Tonawanda zip code when I returned home. Imagine if you will, churches cooperating with their communities, their zip codes, influencing them in ways that make life better for everyone here and now. Would that area rejoice, and say "The Lord Reigns!" regardless of their own faith tradition? I believe unequivocally that they would!

Amy Sherman, in her book Communities First says “Christians and churches can bring unique gifts to the neighborhood and communities. Do you know of anyone else who lives to give themselves away?”  Sherman uses three words that were a great summation for me of the big picture in regards to reaching a community for Christ. The church should not just be "in" the community, where it takes up space in the neighborhood, and it does not desire to influence, assist, or give back to the community. The church should not just be "to" the community, where it desires to bless and make contributions to the community but on its own terms, making itself feel better, and assuming it knows what's best for the community. Perhaps, the church should be "with" the community, where it serves and develops a community for reasons and methods that bring transformation to the community and church alike? Should Christ being glorified be a higher goal than our church being recognized?

How can this happen? How can this be realized in real life, rather than just in theory? Sherman suggests that visioning is the real key for any church that expects to transform it’s own zip code. “Visioning is a process through which any community can develop a picture or series of pictures for its future. By picturing where it wants to be, a community can consciously and purposefully begin to create the future it desires.” In attempting to live this out, I have seen that the process of visioning cannot be reactionary to what other groups, businesses, or organizations are doing around the city, but must be a prayerful and apostolic desire to shape what the city will do and be in the next generation. Practically speaking, here is how I have seen the principles of this Sherman’s incredibly practical book played out in real life.

Our church has been in existence just 2.5 years in our area. Early on, I was prompted to reach out to other church leaders in the area, to see what they believed God was already up to in our community. Through a number of meetings, and a great deal of prayer walking together, we have begun to assist and support one another in multiple ways, and through various projects around town. The big wins have come of late however, when we have begun seeing the local North Tonawanda School districts which consists, citywide festival committees like Canal Fest which draws a quarter million people, and local branches of national organizations like The Boys and Girls Clubs, or even the Napa Auto Parts store begin contacting and partnering with our church(s) because they are seeing that the Gospel being lived out is actually worth investing in both financially and relationally. In numerous ways, Renewal Church and Lumber City Church specifically, have seen the “secular world” actually funding our evangelism efforts in the city because they see that our churches serve “with” the community. And guess what?  We also have multiple stories to share about how we’re seeing the Gospel change lives! God is so good.


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