(Jimmy Dorrell will be leading a workshop at the Micah 6:8 Conference March 31-April 1 at Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio. His workshop is titled "Christian Community Development: How to Do It Where You Live!")
While the church and her people may have forgotten the poor and the call to justice at various times in history, God has always cared about the whole person and the whole city.
"If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?" 1 John 3:17
The Old Testament Law, the eighth century B.C. prophets, the gospels, and teachings of the apostles remind us over and over that God's heart for the poor and marginalized is intrinsically connected to our call as followers of God. Even the affirmation of Jesus as Messiah was embedded in Isaiah's prophecy and Luke's reading that the Lord was "anointed to bring good news to the poor" (Isaiah 61:1). Biblically speaking, we honestly cannot say we love God and ignore the hungry, thirsty, stranger, sick, or imprisoned.
The vestiges of the fundamentalist/moderate fight between 1900 and 1930, known as the Great Reversal, wreaked havoc on the 20th century church, dividing evangelism and social action.
In the second half of the century, the more conservative church often validated the biblical mandate through attempts at relief efforts, clothes closets, and food pantries. Yet the clarion call of Jeremiah to "seek the shalom of the city" and confront social injustice were deflected as the responsibility of government or secular entities.
The growing postmodern culture seemingly could not accept the validity of a church that ignored the needs of the culture and neighborhoods. Into this malaise, a rediscovery of the whole gospel to the whole city has reemerged in the last two decades.
The roots of Christian community development are foundational to God's purposes. Groups like the national Christian Community Development Association, Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, and the Texas Christian Community Development Network have created connectivity among churches, non-profits, and individual Christians and created principles of the movement that are motivating those in the pews to find meaningful ways to engage in their cities and neighborhoods.
Built around the presupposition that "those with the problem(s) must be a part of the solution to those problems," empowerment has replaced "cheap charity" that often deepens dependency and fosters manipulation. New forms of education, training, networking, and advocating for the poor are helping Christians engage in varied efforts – job training; urban youth programs; alcohol/drug recovery; literacy training; medical and legal clinics; economic development in under-resourced neighborhoods; and efforts to prevent predatory payday loans, create living wages, and end sex-trafficking.
The challenges are significant, especially as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer in our nation. The economic gap creates more distrust among the haves and have-nots, often exaggerated by racial tension and political extremism.
Training churches to understand Christian community development principles and then engage the body of Christ in restoring "bad neighborhoods" requires intentionality and engagement from busy church members who often have been indoctrinated by consumerism and apathy.
Christians stand in unique roles in our culture to be salt, light, and yeast by confronting systemic injustice, healing communities, and pointing to a loving God who redeems and overcomes through sacrifice and servanthood in our cities. And the good news is, "As they prosper, we will prosper, too" (Jeremiah 29:7).