Over the last few months, new needs have been springing up in many neighbourhoods throughout our country. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by these, not knowing how to respond. Andrew Reyngoud shares a few helpful pointers from his own faith community’s experience.
For the last 13 years I have been pastor of Flaxmere Baptist Church, a church that is smaller than most, in an area with more needs than most. In our journey, we have developed several neighbourhood initiatives such as an op shop, food bank and cooking classes. We have learned a few lessons that I am sharing with the hope that they would be useful to others.
1. Ministry like this runs deep in who we are
George Wieland (Carey’s director of Mission Research and Training) often says that the “God of mission has a church in the world”. This means that we are participating in what God is already doing. Community ministry is not something extra; instead it is a core part of who we are.
2. First to the family of God and then to the wider community
When we are prioritising where to put our effort, we first focus on our local gathered community. This is the family of God and we have a special responsibility towards them, as highlighted in James 2:15‑17 (NRSV):
If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Our responsibilities then flow to other Christian communities. As an example, in the early church Paul took an offering from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem (Romans 15:26).
We also have a responsibility towards the wider community. The story of the good Samaritan involved crossing outside the bounds of faith. Paul, reflecting on how the leaders of the church had sent him and Barnabas to the Gentiles, wrote “They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10, NRSV).
3. A strengths-based approach works well
A normal project planning approach is to start with a plan, determine what resources are needed and then find a way to gather these. This works well when resources are plentiful, but when resources are scarce, we end up with a list of the things that we do not have. Our eyes are naturally drawn to what is lacking, leading to us feeling overwhelmed.
In contrast, a strengths-based approach reverses the process. We start by looking at what we already have—even if it is five loaves and two fish—and then work out what can be done with it to meet the needs.
4. How is what we are doing different?
I am indebted to Nettie Holm (former head of Baptist Community Ministries) who encouraged me to always ask, “What is different about what we are doing and how we are doing it compared to those who are secular?” For us, this has led us to do things like having morning prayers before food bank, and to focus on building relationships and structuring what we do to enhance people’s mana. This has also helped us to determine what our unique role is.
5. How can we enhance people’s mana?
In what we do we try to strengthen people and enhance their mana. There is some variation in how we do this. For example, we have found it is better if the sausage a person gets from a sausage sizzle is free because everyone’s is free, rather than there being a special deal that they can ask for privately. However, when it comes to the op shop, we have found it better to keep prices low rather than gift items. This means people can choose and decide for themselves what to purchase.
6. There is no need to try and work out if people are ‘deserving’ or not
Hungry children are hungry, no matter who their parents are. God showed grace towards us even when we did not deserve it.
7. Presenting issues
Often a person will have numerous needs. The one that is on the top of the list is often a physical need such as food. Underneath this need there are many more issues, and over time they will surface. There is no need to rush this process.
The approach we used is that of being ‘client-centred’, which starts off by asking the person to tell you what they need. This allows us to focus on the issue that is most important for that person. We do not need to have all the solutions, but there may be some things that we can help with.
There have been times when a person has come with an almost overwhelming list of issues. When asked what would be most helpful, they have responded by asking for prayer and some food for the next day. At other times, the most important thing has been someone who listens. We are always honest about what we can and cannot do, for example we do not give money, and we will refer people to other organisations.
8. There will be bumps along the way
The first dispute in the early church was over the distribution of food to widows, with some complaining that they weren’t getting a fair share (Acts 6). There will be similar disputes that happen and that is just part of the territory. In dealing with this, the approach used in Acts is a great place to start—having leaders who are of good reputation, and who are full of the Spirit and of wisdom.
9. Do a trial
We can pray and think about what God is up to, our God-given resources and the community needs. Once we think we know what to do, we can run a short-term trial and evaluate what happens. God is at work in all of our communities and we can participate in this.
Contributor: Andrew Reyngoud
Andrew was a chemical engineer for more than 20 years before hearing God’s call to ministry. After training at Carey, he has been pastor at Flaxmere Baptist Church for the last 13 years.