Community-friendly Theology

Author: Bob Lupton

Real estate agents who know the Atlanta market will tell you that the single most stable middle-income neighborhood inside the perimeter is Toco Hills. Over the years shopping centers and road widenings have nibbled at the edges of this residential community but its quiet streets and modest homes have remained virtually undisturbed. Nor is there much turnover here. Homeowners seem to want to stay in Toco Hills. There are even second generation families here who have chosen to raise their families where they grew up. The reason for this remarkable stability?  Synagogue Beth Jacob.

Not that everyone who lives in Toco Hills is Jewish, of course. Not even a majority. Actually only 20% or so of community residents attend the synagogue. But this orthodox congregation embraces a theology that has powerfully influenced the stability of the neighborhood. An observance that derives from the Torah’s Sabbath day teaching encourages the devout to refrain from driving their automobiles on the Sabbath. Living in proximity to the synagogue allows the faithful to walk rather than drive to services. Consequently, the desirability of having a home close to the synagogue has caused turnover to be low and the entire residential area to remain largely  immune to commercial incursion. Whether intentional or not, this obscure theological teaching is responsible for unparalleled community stability for many decades.

In another part of the city, a very depressed inner-city area, I discovered another religious group whose theology has also had an impact on their community. The Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam bought a vacant strip mall in the East Lake neighborhood and established a mosque there. They mounted loud speakers on the four corners of their building and in the orthodox Muslim tradition issue a call five times daily for the faithful to gather for prayer.  Proximity to the mosque has an obvious benefit for the devout. Many members have purchased homes and established businesses within the sound of the speakers, allowing them convenient access to daily communal prayer. The effects on the surrounding area are tangible. The presence of honorable, hard working, faith-motivated homeowners and shopkeepers in this high-crime community has helped to restore order and stimulate legitimate enterprise.  Their school, which invites non-Muslims to attend, has brought top quality education back into a community that the public system failed long ago. An age-old prayer theology—not a community development strategy—is the driving force behind this congregation’s positive impact.

I am searching for a theology that causes Christian churches to be agents of transformation of the neighborhoods in which they are located.

For some time now I have been looking for a Christian belief system that is equally community-friendly.  I am searching for a theology that causes Christian churches to be agents of transformation of the neighborhoods in which they are located.

There is one such church in the very rough ghetto on Chicago’s south side.  It started some years ago with a bunch of street kids whose volunteer wrestling coach introduced them to the Christian faith.  After a rather rudimentary study of scripture, they concluded that their little group met the definition of church and asked their highly reluctant coach to be their pastor.  Amazingly their church began to grow and soon was attracting members from well beyond their turf. Distressed by the growing influence of these "outsiders," they voted to exclude anyone from membership who did not live within the boundaries of their neighborhood.  This would prove to be the most community-friendly decision they would ever make.

As these young believers reached adulthood and found jobs that would allow them to "move on up," their desire to remain members of the church held them in the community. With growing resources the church was able to send some away to college with the understanding that they, too, would return to the church and community. The vibrancy and vision of the church attracted other talented people to move into the neighborhood to be part of the new life that was sprouting up everywhere.  Today, their church with hundreds of members—all living in the neighborhood—has established a multimillion dollar real estate development company that is restoring blocks of abandoned housing units, the largest Christian health care clinic in the city, a variety of new businesses, residential rehab programs for drug abusers, sports leagues and computer training, to name but a few of their activities. The Lawndale Community Church, through establishing parish boundaries, has become a powerful agent of transformation in their community. Their theology of turf, though originally somewhat mixed in motive, has caused their neighborhood to blossom.

Churches with community-friendly theologies do exist but they are hard to find.  Often they minister in obscurity, off the radar screen of the religious establishment. About ten years ago, a handful of disconnected urban ministry types who had somehow found each other decided to get together for a day of discussion. We reserved a small meeting room at O’Hare Airport. To our utter amazement, the room was soon overflowing with more than sixty urban ministry leaders from all over the country who had learned by word of mouth about the gathering There was enthusiastic consensus that some mechanism was needed to identify and nurture those ministries who labor unnoticed to restore hope in their communities. The Christian Community Development Association was born that day.  Its momentum has been growing steadily ever since.

Several weeks ago I attended the annual gathering of the Christian Community Development Association which was meeting in St. Louis. More than 2000 people from nearly 200 cities assembled, mostly grass-roots practitioners living and serving in communities of need, all working out practical theologies of community. The energy and passion that permeated the assembly kindled hope within me that perhaps a new movement is stirring across  our land. Perhaps the parish church is not dead after all!