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Creating change: faith-based organizing and the church

A few years ago, an independent, evangelical church slowly began taking over my small Illinois town. Led by a new charismatic male pastor, this church launched a “listening campaign,” setting up tents at street fairs and feedback boxes in the library and other public spaces. They asked community members what the greatest needs were in our community and how the church could best “love them.” As an outsider, I don’t know what answers they received. But the church has responded.

For years, churches in our community partnered to cook and serve Thanksgiving meals to hundreds of hungry people. This program needed new leadership and energy, so this church stepped in and took over the Thanksgiving meal, rebranding it in their church’s name. They opened a biblical counseling center and their own food pantry to feed the hungry with groceries and an invitation to accept Christ, though we already had a community food bank that other churches supported. When the high school needed a portable speaker system for outdoor commencement, the church donated theirs, along with their pastor’s services as announcer and DJ. He invited the gathered crowd to his church during every lull in the ceremony.

I don’t care for this church’s theology or the evangelistic agenda and self-promotion behind their mission efforts. But I do wish the other mainline protestant congregations paid more attention to the way the new church is engaging our community, listening for needs, and responding with organized, strategic efforts.

In pulling this issue together on faith-based community organizing, I’ve become fascinated and encouraged by the power community organizing methods have to create change. Movements, marches, and protests highlight injustices and coalesce the energy of concerned citizens. Beyond that, community organizing births real, positive, sustained change.

Some characterize community organizing as activism that can only be accomplished in large urban communities. Others say it is too confrontational, too time-intensive, too divisive. In this issue, we hope to highlight not only the opportunities for anyone, anywhere to engage in this work, but how churches and communities can be transformed and revitalized through it. Catherine Knott writes about students organizing on their college campus. Katrina Pekich-Bundy organizes in her small, rural community. Angela Cowser highlights how the strategies of community organizing align with our biblical tradition’s call to the prophetic work of social liberation.

Perhaps the prominence of the Poor People’s Campaign and the NAACP’s Moral Movement in North Carolina have awakened progressive Christians to the potential of community organizing to meet real needs. More opportunities to get trained and resourced in community organizing have become available. NEXT Church will be offering trainings in partnership with Johnson C. Smith seminary. Tim Conder and Dan Rhodes, from the Black Mountain School of Theology and Community and authors of Organizing Church: Grassroots Practices for Embodying Change in Your Congregation, Your Community, and Our World, have a new Lilly-grant-funded program with Montreat Conference Center to train congregations. On March 31, 2022, the Presbyterian Outlook will host a webinar on faith-based community organizing with Tim Conder, Dan Rhodes and Angela Cowser.

As a Christian called to the work Jesus articulates in Matthew 25, it’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of our overwhelming and complicated social problems. In our competitive, commodified culture, church growth can easily take precedence over social and global mission. But we, collectively, have the power and the necessary resources to create positive social change. The season of Lent offers us the opportunity to examine what or who has been dominating our attention and refocus our priorities of faith. This issue of the Outlook invites us to turn our Lenten attention to our communities, to the work we have and have not done on behalf of our neighbors, and to the strategies of community organizing as a means of creating faithful change.

Peace,

Teri McDowell Ott

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