Community engagement is about mission and mission is about being sent. Abraham was sent. Moses was sent. Jesus was sent. Being ‘sent’ requires going places and doing things. When Jesus called the disciples, they had to rearrange their lives. They had to put down their nets, follow Jesus, and then be sent out; doing things they’d never done before. In the same way, as Jesus sends us out he calls us to lay down possessions, assumptions, programs, and ideologies that hamper our complete trust in and obedience to him.
Have you ever wondered why, when Jesus sent his disciples out, he told them not to take any extra ‘stuff’ with them?
The disciples’ own vulnerability would lead them to a dependence on God that they had never experienced before. Although it must have been scary for them (and will be for us), leaving their power behind would allow them to engage their community with open hands and hearts, in order to see God’s redemptive and restorative power at work rather than their own.
In short, I believe the place we need to begin in engaging our communities is to first examine our own hearts and motivations in the work of mission. This is so important because the key question in this work is, “What are the needs and interests of those in our neighborhood?” The most challenging component of answering that question is first denying our own immediate responses. Jumping to conclusions based on our own assumptions neglects the hard and vulnerable work of listening well to others.
Community engagement in the Beaches area of Toronto
When I started this work at St. Aidan’s three years ago the surrendering of my own assumptions became a daily prayer and activity. Even as we engaged in healthy and productive conversations with our neighbours, we had to constantly bring to the cross our own ideas of what they were saying. We had to ask ourselves in what way was Jesus calling us to pick up our cross and intentionally to follow Him. What was the missional activity that God was already engaged in? To answer these questions we had to die to self and work at hearing others.
Connecting with young families
At St Aidan’s we felt well-suited to connect with young families – one of the neighbourhood’s key demographics. Before we projected onto them our own sense of what they needed, we had to first ask them what their own needs and interests actually were. We formed a “missional listening team,” and spent roughly eight months surveying the community and talking to friends and neighbours.
One of the moms on our team had a conversation with her neighbour asking, “What could our church do to serve the needs of your family?” The neighbour shared that meal preparation was a challenge for her as a stay at home mom. When her kids were napping she had to do meal prep, which meant no break for her throughout the day. The meal prep program we launched started with this neighbourhood mom sharing how we might support her and her family.
Our own vulnerability in the missional listening and discernment process, our ‘dying to self,’ allows us to create space where mission, evangelism and discipleship can happen. As we offer programs that meet tangible needs, our neighbours trust us. They believe that our faith genuinely seeks to serve them, rather than the other way around. We now have over ten families engaged in our bi-weekly meal prep ministry, most of whom are unchurched.
Should your church start running a meal prep program?
Maybe, but you shouldn’t do it just because you read about it here. Is it what your community needs? Have you asked them? Are you willing to listen and find out? Here in the Beaches, resurrection has meant opening up space and providing support to emerging artists, providing meal plans and cooking together in young families’ homes, offering quiet meditation for busy souls, providing mental health support for individuals and families, sharing Bible stories and songs with unchurched children, sharing fellowship with unlikely people. All of these activities were not born out of our own genius, but rather by the grace of God through converted and submissive hearts.
The Good Idea of this article isn’t simply about active listening.
Rather, it is about the conversion of our own souls as we engage our communities. Are we willing to be transformed as we head out on mission? Are we willing to be led by the Spirit, rather than just follow our own assumptions and desires? Being ‘led by the Spirit’ isn’t an esoteric endeavour by any means. Being transformed is a fleshly endeavour as much as it is a spiritual one. As we die to self and the Spirit raises our earthly bodies from the dead, we will begin to see resurrection possibilities all around us. Resurrection is about new life. When we die to self, pick up our cross and submit to God’s Spirit we will be led into ideas and relationships that are redemptive and restorative in the most practical ways possible.
When we’re born of the Spirit we will become interested in joining God in what God is already doing in the lives of those we seek to love. As our own lives are transformed in mission, we’ll find God transforming the lives and communities of those we seek to engage for His glory.