Thursday and Friday of last week I spoke at a “leadership conference” presented by the Zoe Group based in Nashville, Tennessee.
My good friend Mike Cope linked me into this group of really nice people.
I must admit that it took me a day to “find my place” in the conference. I battle cynicism about churches in general and “praise and worship” in particular. Please understand. I am confessing my sins at this point.
What is a guy like me, who feels as if the church has walked away from its essential work of establishing justice, equity and fairness in our nation’s urban centers, doing at a conference of “worship leaders”?
What I discovered was a group of people who, just like me, are trying to find their way in a rather confusing world of need, prejudice and alienation.
It was a most interesting two days for me.
I was fortunate to be able to team up with Leonard Sweet in four of my five seminar sessions. Leonard has written more full-length books than I have blog posts! Prolific doesn’t come close to capturing the breadth and scope of his amazing work product. A United Methodist by religious “tribe,” to use his word, Leonard likes to talk about the necessity for change in order to insure the maintenance of life.
After being with this really bright group of caring people, I have decided that most churches don’t have a clue about how to respond to poverty or to the people caught in its ever-widening web. While filled with well-intentioned, middleclass folks, the church is paralyzed in the face of America’s most embarrassing, yet undeniable reality.
What can be done?
First, communities of faith must “reframe” their understanding of their purpose in the world. If we are to take the documents of the Christian faith seriously, then it is clear the church must care about and devote itself to the issues of poverty and injustice. Worship needs to be redefined to include consistent and determined efforts to work for and among the poor. These efforts, if biblical, will progress beyond charity toward the establishment of systemic fairness both in their own systems, as well as in the larger world of public policy.
Second, people of faith need to be challenged to dream bigger dreams. Nothing but will and organizational priorities stop local churches from engaging the need for more fit and affordable workforce housing in cities like Dallas. Only a narrowness of vision prevents our churches from getting busy addressing the real and pressing needs of thousands of our fellow citizens. Many churches control the property and have the wherewithal to act for the poor. All that is missing is a compelling vision and leadership to point the way.
For several years now we have been asking churches to consider setting aside just half a tithe from every capital improvement building campaign to be deposited in a renewable community development loan fund that could be utilized by competent community development corporations for pre-development funds to bring new housing to depressed and rebounding communities. Business people in the churches where we have “floated” the idea tend to really “lean into” such notions. But church leaders never seem to get the point. Maybe we need to try harder!
Third, churches need to “get outside themselves” for the good of the community. Far too many churches need to undergo a hard-nosed, evaluative audit about how resources are utilized. Churches that take a fair look will find that they exist largely to care for their own members. Resources set aside for work and activity outside the church’s own interests usually are motivated in part by a desire to provide members “meaningful volunteer opportunities." Such concerns are not the work of establishing justice.
My conference time was not a waste. I came home feeling renewed about the possibilities of working with thoughtful church leaders to make a difference in communities across the country.
Time will tell if my new found hope is naïve.
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