Do you know your emerging community?

By the Rev. Alan Rudnick

When I was a pastor in a small town, there was a great sense of community. There were Memorial Day remembrances, firehouse breakfasts, ham dinners, the Holiday Parade, the annual Day of Prayer, Rotary meetings and community trash pick-up days. Many participated in community events regularly. However, a segment of the community was absent from those events. They were people from the emerging community.

What is an emerging community?

As a pastor, it was easy to see and meet the visible people in the community: the mayor, fire chief, bank manager, restaurant owner, school administrators and business association representative. Those visible people in the community were easy to identify and were regularly a part of community events.

As the years went by, I began to learn about people in the emerging community — people who were not easily seen but growing in numbers and presence. Individuals and people in the emerging community did not look or act like people in the visible community.

A pastor’s calling requires a pastor to be at a community’s connection points. Pastors ought to place themselves in places and spaces in town meetings, community groups, nonprofits and schools — the visible community. There are also times a pastor looks for the edges of the community, or places of growth. The new local moms’ group, the new restaurant that attracts people in their 20s, the growing food pantry or the recently moved assistance office — the emerging community.

Aspects of the emerging community that have a visible and immediate impact often are a welcomed presence. The new coffee shop that fosters connection points for people to meet and talk. The new workout studio that encourages people to be physically healthy, while joining others on the same journey. The new comic book shop that brings additional foot traffic to the streets. The community garden club that beautifies the town. The new neighborhood that is built.

The growth in the emerging community is not always welcomed by members of the visible community. Cries of protest ensued when a nonprofit sought to move into town to aid low- to mid-income families. Some members of the visible community expressed fear and anxiety about tax-revenue loss, zoning violations, decreased parking availability and increased car traffic. It took lawyers hundreds of hours and a state judge to decide that the nonprofit was allowed to plant itself in the community. It was a painful process.

Emerging communities often have different ethnicities, economic makeup, religions, cultural values or family status than that of the visual community. It is uncomfortable and risky to place yourself into an emerging community that looks or acts nothing like your own. Pastors and church leaders are called to such places, as Christ was called to such places. Jesus entered into emerging communities that had Gentiles, Roman officials, soldiers, sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. His religious contemporaries and members of the visual community did not approve. However, Jesus often came into the emerging community with no agenda. He sat, ate and listened. Only when a challenge or injustice arose did Jesus bring in teaching or a guiding moral principle, usually with story. He sought to make relationships, rather than fulfill a goal of setting priorities.

Churches, pastors and church leaders must understand that the way forward for a church is to be in touch with the visual community and the emerging community. The missional nature of the New Testament calls all who claim Christ to be in those times and places of discomfort to bridge relationships and connections that yield spiritual fruit down the road.

The Rev. Alan Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.