Community Organizing and the Gospel

As I get excited about community-based organizing here in DC, I cannot help but notice the parallels between the work of the organizer and the labor of the gospel minister. When I reflect on the work of Paul, Margaret Fell, George Fox and so many other servants of the gospel, it seems clear that their ministry did not consist of simply delivering a verbal proclamation about Jesus and demanding intellectual assent to certain propositions.
Nor did they limit their ministry to individuals. Christ’s apostles throughout the ages have clearly seen their role as being to challenge and nurture entire communities. The gospel is not merely limited to some sort of interior heart-change; everywhere that the good news of Jesus is authentically proclaimed and received, the Holy Spirit unleashes a wave of counter-cultural activity, transforming communities in the very practical details of their lives – spiritual, social and economic.
Throughout the Scripturesand the history of the Christian Church, there is a strong connection between sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ and empowering local communities to work for justice. Faith without works is dead and, in the grand scheme of things, works without community are limited, at best.
When I recognize that Jesus founded his ministry on a proclamation of debt forgiveness and human liberation, the implications are clear. No longer can I let myself off the hook, imagining that the purpose of faith is to make me feel good, or even to make me personally righteous. Instead, I must face the reality that my own salvation is bound up in the groaning of all creation, and that I have a role to play in the story of cosmic liberation.
At the same time, my role in this grand narrative usually does not seem “cosmic” at all.¬†Organizing for justice is some of the most brutally earthy work I know. What could be more tangible than walking into a neighborhood where you do not live, knocking on the door of someone you do not know, and asking whoever answers, “What are your deepest concerns? What do you and others in your community feel passionate about? What is the change that you wish to see?” Community organizing is all about particular, personal relationships. We often only see the transcendent once we have taken the plunge into the terrifying work of being human.
What is the connection between gospel ministry and community organizing? When I go canvassing in DC neighborhoods, my goal is not to convince those whom I meet to accept the gospel as I understand it. Instead, I am focused on practical human needs, obstacles that have been placed in the way, and the tools that we need to get our community’s needs met. The immediacy of the human precedes the transcendent. If we see God, it is only from behind.
But that does not mean that there is no divine connection. As I understand it, the goal of community organizing is to draw out the hidden creativity, passion, energy and thirst for justice that lies latent in all human communities. For me, that hints at something even deeper. Where does that hidden power come from? Who is the source of our hunger and thirst for structural justice and personal righteousness? Who inspires the love that allows a community to unite around its weakest members and see an aggression against one as an attack on everyone?

I believe that this Source Jesus Christ. If I can be an instrument to call out the secret power that lies waiting in every human community, I believe that I am nurturing the life of the gospel. If I can help equip a community to draw nearer to the source of all justice, righteousness and love, I know that I am participating in the process of drawing people to Jesus through the power of his Holy Spirit. I trust that, through this process, the Lord will provide me openings to share about the source of my passion and joy. If I am ready to give an account of the hope that is within me, some may be encouraged to explore a deeper, more explicit relationship with Jesus.

How have you seen God at work in your community? What has been your experience of being part of a community that is lovingly challenged and nurtured – whether by explicit gospel ministry, Spirit-led eldership, or apparently secular community organizing? How have you experienced God calling you to organize in your community, to lift up the hidden life and power of God?