Map Your Community
Adapted from Mobilize My Church.
When local churches try to engage in ministry that allows their members to be more present in the community around them—outreach, evangelism, or mercy and benevolence work—they often recognize that connecting with others is much more complex than they expect. Leaders and volunteers can end up feeling disconnected from the more natural pathways to connection and relationship-building that seem to work in other areas of their lives.
Sometimes a church or ministry steps in to provide tangible material resources or services but isn’t ready or able to be at the table consistently with other community partners and neighbors experiencing poverty.
But as the embodiment of the presence of Christ in a community, the local church should be engaged in these conversations and not just popping in and out to provide things that may or may not serve our neighbors well. Through the redeeming power of the gospel, we are uniquely equipped to care for people and walk with them over time, but will we take the steps necessary to do that well?
Flowing In, Flowing Out
Churches can be tempted to focus too inwardly—running the risk of not reaching out to the margins, not engaging people with a different life experience from the majority of our members. In that situation, we may find ourselves like the “dead sea,” where ministry efforts, resources, and spiritual gifts flow into the church but little or nothing flows out. But when nothing goes out from us, there’s no health, there’s no vitality, there’s no life there.
If we truly want to pour into our communities, churches need to understand poverty, especially its root causes and ongoing drivers, and to connect meaningfully with individuals and families experiencing material poverty. This calls for humility. When we begin recognizing our own limitations and getting counsel from those who better understand the problems we are seeking to address, we might be better equipped to move beyond one-way, transactional approaches to ministry that fail to acknowledge and the dreams, goals, gifts, imagination, and vision that our neighbors might have for themselves.
A church’s ministry efforts might start with some “standard” programs—a food pantry, tutoring programs, etc., that try to apply well-known answers to common perceived problems. It’s not that these might not be good answers, but the process is way off. If the work of poverty alleviation is fundamentally about reconciling flourishing relationships with God, self, others, and creation, then we have to go about any ministry in a more participatory way. We want to see individuals, families, even whole communities, looking at their situations and making decisions to improve those situations and then acting on those decisions. It’s about doing things with one another, not for someone we deem to have more material needs than we do.
Discovering and mapping what God is already doing in a community is perhaps the best strategy for addressing poverty in a holistic way. Here are some proven, effective strategies to begin taking an asset-based approach to community ministry through your local church:
- Approach people with an open mind and listening ears—Don’t come into a conversation thinking that you know a person or their situation fully. Be a friend, be an ear, be a shoulder to cry on, but don’t start with solutions.
- Listen Strategically—The goal of asset-mapping is not only to hear people talk off the top of their heads about different things that are going on or bothering them in the community. You’re listening to find out A) what people and resources God has already placed in the community and B) to find the people who actually want to make something happen in their community. Every community has people who care, and that’s who we want to begin with because we can start from a shared place of love and concern. Invite your conversation partners to reflect on their community and what’s good about it, what they love, what they once had and would love to see come back, what is there now that they’d like to get rid of.
- Identify Assets—Once some core themes have bubbled up in your conversations, start to look harder for all the assets present in someone’s life or in their community. Assets aren’t merely financial resources, but people, institutions, spaces, materials, and more. Assets are found in associations—the relational dynamics of the community.
- Listen for Gaps—Sometimes, as you listen to those in the community you serve, you’re going to find gaps where something the people in the neighborhood want or need isn’t there. And that’s maybe where your church could come in and say, “Hey, we could actually help fill that gap together with you.”
- Be Open to “Unlikely” Alliances—Building bridges with people outside of our churches (or perhaps even outside the Christian community) can feel awkward, but we can work together for the good of communities we love. Don’t forget government representatives—city council members, mayors, school board members, etc.—or staff and leaders at other social services agencies in your conversations. Don’t see these people and groups as obstacles but as potential co-laborers for development.
- Elevate Local Knowledge and Experience—Don’t only listen to visible leaders in the community but try to find out what drives other members of the community who may not be as quick to step forward to share. Churches often neglect the testimony of people in material poverty because they’ve had to experience a lot of shame and they’ve not been given opportunities to lead in the ways they’ve been gifted to lead.
- Take Some Baby Steps—Don’t try to take on huge, huge things. You’ll find that there’s already a lot going on in every community. God really is at work and people really do have good ideas of what they want for their families in their future. And then you get to be part of helping them succeed, just not all at once, and not without their buy-in and collaboration. Doing this type of work is success in itself—being faithfully present is indispensable to work toward any bigger goals.
We live in a culture that looks for quick fixes, immediate solutions, and measurable, attainable results—even in the church. Scripture certainly gives us a paradigm that looks toward fruit. We should expect fruit because God’s Spirit is active and moving and powerful. At the same time, the fruit in God’s paradigm looks a little bit different than the fruit in our cultural paradigm.
Sometimes, the best place to start isn’t just to plant seeds, but to see what abundance God has already planted in a community so that our churches can be faithful partners, not heroes.
Work “with” the neighborhood, not “for” it. Good.