Friendship, Mission, and Community Development

How holistic Christian mission might be reimagined in friendship, patience, and Asset-Based Community Development practices

Table talk among friends

Gathered around a table for one final meal together, their host says, “I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

This moment is rarely the first one we look to when seeking to understand the nature and purpose of missional presence in the church. Which is a shame, really, because we should always pay more attention to what Jesus does when gathered with others around a table.

Around this table, he recasts their vocation. These ones whom he had sent out, two-by-two, to cast out demons and heal the sick, are now given a new identity.

“Servants no longer, I now call you ‘friends.’”

Starting with this moment and this shift toward friendship, I want to explore its impact on our organizational structures and missional practices in the local church.

Wasting time making friends

First, a terminological clarification. I use “missions,” complete with scarequotes, when referring to contemporary practices, modes, and organizational structures in the local church. I do this to emphasize a fair amount of skepticism: first, because I’m not sure where that language comes from theologically or scripturally; and secondly, because I’ve been shaped to believe the church does not have a “mission” inasmuch as the church is a mission. Namely, the church is Trinity’s missional means of smuggling salvation into the world.

This table talk between Jesus and his companions changes the transactional nature of “missions.” If missional work looks more like becoming friends, then it will necessarily mean paying attention to the gifts found in others.

Generally, when the “missions” team gathers together, their work is driven by a perceived need. Whether the impetus comes from outside the church walls (say, a Habitat for Humanity build campaign), or from a personal passion inside the congregation, much of our missional work comes from assessing a need and mobilizing resources to resolve that need.

But if we tarry a bit longer at the table with Jesus, we might learn that our missional impetus looks more like learning to spend time with one another, patiently getting to know them, letting them get to know us, and mutually discovering what our gifts and passions might be. This work looks like a blossoming friendship, the slow and patient mutual discovery that forms as a relationship grows.

Wonderfully, if we are looking for alternative models to help see how this patient friend-making missional work might work, there might be some options for us. Discovering gifts through friendship is the central task of community development, especially for what is generally called “Asset-Based Community Development.” Within the ABCD world, relational “Learning Conversations” and “asset mapping” are the core practices for discovering what is already present in us and our neighbors, and how those gifts might be used for the sake of building abundant communities.

So, what would it look like if we began to reorient our “missions” teams, moving away from needs assessment and missions proposal processes toward community development, with gifts mapping and learning conversations in our toolkits?

I suspect that we would find ourselves gathered around a lot more tables, sharing stories and talking about our passions with others, only to discover they share some of those stories and passions, too.

Learning to give thanks

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you.

It bears repeating that our economic structures, from the micro to the macro, are maintained by perceived lack. Scarcity of resources is the primary economic motivator, we learn in Econ 101, and any additional nuance is merely a gloss on that basic fact.

And yet these words quoted above are the opening salvo of the church’s great prayer, the Great Thanksgiving, the prayer that shapes our weekly worship and our liturgical piety. These words immediately challenge scarcity’s power, turning us from a fearful posture toward a hopeful one.

This prayer invites us to open our eyes everywhere we are to the ways that God has blessed this place with these people. This prayer invites us to recognize the wealth of gifts in our midst, the wealth of gifts in which we share, and the wealth of gifts we have yet to meet in others. This prayer invites us to live eucharistically, ready to give thanks and praise at all times for what God is doing right here and now.

If we spend a bit more time at the table with Jesus, we might see one of those many times when it seemed like there was not enough to go around. And then yet, after he gave thanks and broke open what was there, everyone went away filled.

Asset-Based Community Development invites us to stop imagining ourselves as benevolent service providers, and instead to celebrate the abundance God has already brought us into in the communities where we are. ABCD work is filled with gatherings, celebrations, and parties where we recognize the neighbors already giving to the upbuilding of the body, and invite others to join in with them. ABCD work calls us to recognize our interdependence and to focus on gifts and assets that might have little monetary value but have huge impact in our collective well-being (such as youth who love basketball being willing to run a summer basketball camp for neighborhood kids). ABCD might be a lot more doxological and eucharistic than much of what we currently do in our own local churches.

How might “missions” be structured differently in our churches if it were less about managing a budget line, fundraising for more money, in order to support outside services and support networks?

How might “missions” look if it were structured eucharistically, asking that we yearn to celebrate the gifts right in our midst, to celebrate the people God continues to bring us into relationship with?

I suspect it would look include a lot more parties, celebrations, festivals where we learn to give thanks for the stories of those already at work making our communities places of peace and joy.

One of my own lay leaders made an off-handed remark not long ago by asking, “What would it look like if we had to take every ministry we do, every missional activity we do, and align it with the Great Thanksgiving? What would we have to stop doing? What would we have to start doing?”

I am still haunted by that question.

De-colonizing “missions”

If I may, there is a deeper and harsher criticism still lingering in our “missions.” “Missions,” at least in local churches that look like mine, is also profoundly susceptible to continuing patterns of colonialism. These practices are colonizing because they uncritically assume that we are needed by the less-fortunate peoples in another place, and therefore we can and should go there do what we can to make their lives “better.”

Colonialist “missions” enacts an uncritical largesse, assuming that “the poor” are the strangers and we the blessed are their heroes-yet-to-be. The next time you happen to go to a soup kitchen across town, pay attention to how you feel while you are there. Even though the people eating there are likely there nearly every day of the week, 52 weeks a year, chances are you assume they are the strangers. That is called being a colonialist.

Now, I am aware that sounds harsh and overly critical. And I doubt most of us would question the value or merit of most of the missional work we do in our churches. Are there significant places of hurt, disease, poverty, and need? Without question. But that does not change the fact that the patterns we enact often look like sending a bunch of middle-class white folk into poorer, often darker-skinned communities in order to help “make their lives a little bit better,” all while rarely asking ourselves who are “we” and what does “better” mean.

And it is not just our summer youth mission trips that suffer from this colonialist disease. Take a look at the missional budgets in many suburban and urban congregations (I make this claim because these are the congregational settings I know best; perhaps more rural churches suffer from this struggle, too), and you will see a list of benevolent-yet-colonizing missional programs.

Yet if we stay at the table with Jesus for a little while longer, we might discover that our ‘task’ might look more like learning to be a guest as much as, if not more than, a host. Our work might also look a lot more like making room at the table for others to join in, rather than going and building a table only to leave before it is set.

Again, Asset-Based Community Development might be a helpful corrective for us to engage with in order to purge some of our colonialist practices. ABCD calls us to a more locally incarnational way of missional work, working from the “inside out” in order to help make a peaceable community. It means we will spend more time on the inside of our neighborhoods, walking our streets and engaging with our neighbors. It means we will spend less time on a service-delivery approach where we fund ‘experts’ to take care of our homeless, hungry, and jobless neighbors.

ABCD practices, quite frankly, mean we might have to become vulnerable. We might have to spend more time patiently listening to our neighbors and less time trying to diagnose their “problems” so we can fix them. It might mean we spend more time locally with more frustrations and fewer tangible “results” for a while, rather than going off for a long week somewhere far away only to return saying that we were blessed more than we were a blessing.

Asset-Based Community Development might also challenge us to look at the ways that the structures of service provisions many of our churches support have often done as much harm as good to local communities. But unless we are willing to take on this difficult work, we can never hope for friendship. We will, at best, have more “clients” or “service users” than we did before.

What would our “missions” programs look like if they were more localized? What frameworks and staffing structures would we need to be able to wander our streets, looking for what God is already doing and joining in?

Our work might look more like Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The church leadership hired a “listening rover,” a community member who goes block by block, listening to what is happening in the community and spending time with the neighbors to understand what talents are already there. Alongside this rover, the church leaders are always asking a simple question: “What three things do you do well enough that you could teach others how to do it?” New and fruitful work has grown through these simple-yet-completely-different practices.

Seeking the shalom of the city

I do not want to present any illusions that the shifts I have outlined here are a magical fix to our missional woes. I certainly do not believe that by simply taking up Asset-Based Community Development manuals and toolkits, we will resolve missional confusion and turn the tides of church decline.

I do, however, believe that there are rich resources in the ABCD world for living according to this vision that Jesus presents around the table in John’s Gospel. I do believe the church has relied far too long on the so-called “Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel for driving our missional imagination, and it is long past time we take a step back and ask ourselves, “Is this the best place to start?” And I do believe that friendship is a much richer and more faithful theological category than anything “missions” currently offers.

I will continue to offer here my reflections and further engagement with particular aspects of Asset-Based Community Development as a framework for holistic missions. My hope is that as I begin to take on some of these practices alongside my own congregational leaders, there will be more to say about this call to relationship, to interdependence, and to community, which is what Christians understand to be at the very heart of who Trinity is. With any luck, those reflections will look and sound a lot more like stories, signs, and foretastes of the feast to come.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.