Gifts That Churches Bring to Community-Building – Head Space
The Church can give a community head space, thinking room…
by Rev. Dr. Cameron Harder (Part 1 of 6)
I once asked Carl Dudley who has done hundreds of studies of how small churches and communities have turned around, what the most important factor was in revitalization. He said “the belief that they can.” Problem is, communities often get caught in a trend of worship – inevitability thinking. It’s an old feature of human thought. Looking back we can see that history has been anything but linear. It’s full of loops and twists, unexpected disasters and wonderful surprises. Yet when we look forward we assume the future will simply be a straight line, an extension or intensification of the present. Communities that are prospering tend to think the good times will keep on rolling. Communities that are struggling tend to assume that their problems will get worse – that if services are being lost, more will be lost; that if a town is depopulating, it is moving inevitably towards death. The future looks like a black hole. Trend worship sucks the energy for change out of a community. People don’t try because they think there is no possibility of change – and so of course things don’t change, reinforcing the despair. The Church can give a community head space, thinking room. It can help unlock the imprisoned imagination of towns and cities so that they can fully explore life’s possibilities. We tell the story of a God who saw His Son fall into a nightmare of betrayal, capital charges and death and yet – to great surprise – raised that Son to indestructible life. The church claims that ancient hates and corrupt states, even the powers of death and hell have no ultimate authority because our common life is held by One who raises the dead. That surprising God is our future. This is what it takes for a community to change: to believe that because God is on its side change is possible; to take stock of how God has been at work among them, especially in their darkest hours; and to map its resources fully and offer then to God. Such a community knows that it can choose a future different from its present no matter what the trend. Essentially the church is called to stimulate in our communities the exercise of a rebellious imagination: to enable others to conceive of and work toward a new world. A recent study of community resilience in Queensland, Australia found that communities that are healthy, able to bound back from shocks of various kinds, have a number of common characteristics. One of these is a ‘positive outlook’ – hope in other words. People need to believe that change is possible if they are going to make any efforts towards it. Without hope, they don’t try – and things just get worse. But how does one hope in the presences of overwhelmingly powerful forces that seem to be crushing the life out of our community? That’s where another of Queensland criteria comes into play. It turns out that resilient communities have a set of ‘beliefs’ in something greater than themselves, and a sense of purpose or mission. They believe that lives are not ultimately controlled by economic trends, but by a God who cares about them and has a purpose for their existence.