Community work and Christian missions

Community work and Christian missions

Community work is a concept that we are not unfamiliar with, be it school-based community service projects or volunteering in our spare time. In this article, the theological underpinnings of Christian and church-based community work will be discussed.

Types of community work

Firstly, what is community work? Here are four different, if somewhat overlapping, types of community work in churches, some of which you might have participated in yourself.

  • Community service

Some churches set up projects which help specific groups such as soup kitchens for the homeless and youth clubs. Church members may volunteer to participate, or provide the occasional prayer or gift.

  • Christian advocacy

Christians have a duty to speak and act against social ills and unfair practices for those unable to fend for themselves, as we grapple with what it means to be salt and light (Mt 5:13-16).

  • Professional community development

A new profession of community work has emerged, complete with training courses, qualifications, and recognised salary scales. Some churches have been able to get grants and funding to employ community workers to strengthen their missions.

  • A commune church

Under Churches of the New Testament were a mass movement of people in communes involved in the struggles of everyday life. The concerns and work of the people, of the Christian community, and of God himself are one and the same.

Community work such as establishing schools, training projects for unemployed youth, and welfare projects for the elderly are now common. Its roots are in distinct minority (sub-)cultures and experiences of oppression or discrimination. Such indigenous-led (IPLC)1 initiatives and the theological thinking behind them present a fascinating contrast and challenge to the community work of 21st-century urban churches.

Integrating community work and missions

Sometimes, community work also takes us beyond Singapore’s shores. Missions involve sending individuals and groups across boundaries, most commonly geographical, to carry out evangelisation, church planting, and community work. If one of the objectives of missions is church planting—the building of a commune church—how can community work be integrated into our thinking and practice of holistic missions? Here are three different views we can consider.

Firstly, the Fundamentalist view perceives the world as intrinsically evil and sold under sin until Christ’s return. Evangelism is seen as a rescue mission—to rescue as many souls as possible before they are lost eternally. Social action, other than minimal pastoral care for converts, is seen as a dangerous diversion from mission.

In the Church Growth view, it sees the primary task of missions as the making of disciples and the numerical expansion of the church. It acknowledges social action as a secondary concern. The tendency is to view community work as bait for evangelistic “fishing”. The church will gain credibility from its good works and build relationships which will be fruitful in making disciples. Community work is a social service which facilitates church planting.

Finally, the Holistic Mission view asserts that missions are broader than evangelism. Evangelism is viewed as an equal partner with social action as two sides of the same coin. Missions comprise all that God is doing through his church to bring about his Kingdom on earth.

Community development is an essential part of God’s mission, whereby the church promotes active citizenship to enable people to work together to improve human circumstances for the well-being of their communities.2 Christians engage in community work regardless of whether it brings people into the church. We should be willing to work alongside non-Christians on specific issues in the community, while not embracing non-Christian world views and lifestyles.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of the perspectives of community work, let’s explore some theological pointers related to Christian community work.

We can refer to Genesis 1:28 for the Creation Mandate. The starting point for any human involvement in God’s work should begin with the doctrine of Creation. In God’s creative order, human beings are stewards to care for and develop the resources of the earth. As imago Dei,3 we share in his creativity, moral judgement, and provision for needs. Everyone has an equal claim to respect, dignity, a just share in resources which are available, and a responsibility to contribute to the community and environment.

Therefore, Christians should work towards these ends and be willing to work alongside all people on the basis of common humanity alone. Part of the task is to enable people to see themselves as fully human, and not as powerless and dependent on other people. We also need to assess our community work practice in the light of scripture and ensure that our practice enables and empowers the kind of community which God desires.

In Micah 6:8, Micah paints a picture of a just yet merciful God, and we his people as his agents. God has shown us what is good—the very words used in the Creation narrative in Genesis 1:26-31. As his regents in a world misguided by sin, the Restoration Mandate calls on us to act justly, embrace his lovingkindness to reflect his covenantal promise, and live humbly, aware of the abiding presence of God.

Finally, Philippians 2:6-7 reminds us that at the heart of the Christian faith is the message of God with us—Jesus emptied himself and took on the form of a servant, who although rich became poor for our sake. We are called to follow the example of Jesus, not claiming our own rights, but to take the role of servants. We need to be willing to wash one another’s feet and not refrain from costly involvement in people’s lives and struggles—not providing mere “first aid” activities but transformational changes. It is here we need the wisdom of God and not just the ideology of community work.

When engaging in community work, we need four things.

Firstly, we need analysis—sociological, political, and theological—to understand why things are as they are and how they ought to be. Secondly, we need our emotions as we respond to people in their hurt, by aligning our feelings with God’s own heart. Thirdly, we need vision for how things should be in specific contexts, and clarity so that we can set realistic, measurable, and achievable goals for our community work.

Finally, and most importantly, we need a Godly boldness that will enable us to work tirelessly, and to persevere in our missions and ministry of reconciliation—reconciling the fallen world to our Creator.

1 The term “Indigenous Peoples and local communities” and its acronym “IPLC” are widely used by international organizations and conventions to refer to individuals and groups who self-identify as indigenous or as members of distinct local communities.

2 Msebi, Mawethu, 2022. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/363905435_An_Analysis_of_the_Role_of_the_Missional_Church_in_Community_Development

3 Ref Gen 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Prof Dennis Lee serves as Director, Strategic Planning and Capacity Building, at Methodist Missions Society. He was a Visiting Professor with Copenhagen Business School, a Fellow with Singapore University of Social Sciences, and an alumnus of Regent College (MTS ’88 & MDiv ’89). He worships at Kum Yan Methodist Church.