Outside of the Pews: The Church’s Role in Fostering Opportunity

Commenting on a recent New York Times article about a new study indicating a geographic regionalization of upward mobility in the U.S., James K.A. Smith pointed out that it failed to consider a key question.  “What are the features of these locations that correlate with upward mobility?” Smith asked. As he noted, along with stable, two-parent family structures, a strong presence of religious communities are one of the most powerful correlations to upward mobility. For Christians, the importance of the Church’s presence in ensuring social opportunity and flourishing shouldn’t be surprising. Indeed, as Andy Crouch has reminded us, even when cities were at their worst, “the churches never left...Famously, in many struggling urban neighborhoods the only functioning institutions are churches and liquor stores."

Given that many churches have indeed remained present among the poor, this initial diagnostic question is not just about whether churches are geographically grounded among poor populations, but whether they are also organically present, engendering deep rootedness within their communities. In this kind of presence, churches can foster an interdependence with their communities that enables them to recognize their neighbors in need, partly because their own membership includes those who are in need.

Institution and Organism

Twentieth century theologian Abraham Kuyper brought clarity to the distinction between the Church as an institution, with her responsibility of ministering to God and His people through her gatherings of communal worship, and the Church as an organism, with her responsibility of carrying out the Missio Dei in the world through her scattered priesthood of believers. Kuyper recognized that for the Church to be the Church, both of these are necessary. Unless the Church is rooted in her organic ministry to the world, she cannot not be grounded in her institutional ministry to the community of faith—and vice versa.

But while the Church’s faithfulness to her calling as an institution can be gauged relatively easily by her faithfulness to Scripture, it is certainly much harder to determine whether the organic Church is being faithful to her calling. There are many ways the organic Church can effectively fulfill its role in helping society flourish, but what does it look like in terms of alleviating poverty?

"..what metric should we use to consider whether we are faithfully leveraging our churches to follow in this pattern of organic ministry?" 

"..what metric should we use to consider whether we are faithfully leveraging our churches to follow in this pattern of organic ministry?" 

Hunting Park Church Plants

The Hunting Park neighborhood in North Philadelphia is an example of the kind of remarkable social renewal that can take place when the institutional and organic Church work harmoniously. Flowing out of the neighborhood-focused vision of the multi-ethnic evangelical church, Spirit and Truth Fellowship, that was planted in the neighborhood in 1999, seven daughter churches have been planted in the surrounding areas in the past 14 years. The positive effect of their presence certainly goes beyond their institutional roles and responsibilities.

The fruits of the organic ministry in the Hunting Park neighborhood are unmistakable. Fueled by a theologically based desire to seek the flourishing of their neighborhood by addressing its complex needs, many local members have started diverse Christian organizations within blocks of their churches. A community outreach center houses an art initiative, offers after-school programs, and informs neighbors of civic meetings with local political representatives. A Christian K-8 school provides its students with a quality, affordable education, and a legal clinic provides free consultations to clients on a wide range of legal issues. A well-respected health center and a community bike shop are two other examples of outreach ministries that have risen up. Through the pairing of institutional and organic ministry, impoverished neighborhoods like Hunting Park have begun to see glimpses of renewal. As community leader & local church member Ryan Kellermeyer notes, “It's what happens when a church decides to love a community. A more intentional spirituality, seeing our whole lives as an expression of faith in a specific place.”

The Creative Engine

If the work of these ministries in Hunting Park provide a model for how a synthesis of institutional and organic ministry can faithfully counter the complex problem of alleviating poverty, what metric should we use to consider whether we are faithfully leveraging our churches to follow in this pattern of organic ministry? 

1) Is the Church discerning need?

In the institutional Church, faithful functioning requires leaders who exercise careful discernment regarding the spiritual health of members. Faithful discernment for churches rooted in their communities means identifying not only spiritual poverty, but the other forms of poverty that exist in their neighborhoods—whether physical, emotional, intellectual, social, economic, or even aesthetic. In many communities, this means not only discerning the different types of needs of individuals, but also calling attention to the corresponding aspects of societal flourishing that have become neglected in their surrounding neighborhoods. It is through discernment that the organic Church can recognize other institutions that will help to promote the kind of robust civil society that would provide greater opportunity for social mobility.

Esperanza Health Center is part of the transformation taking place in Philadelphia's Hunting Park Neighborhood. Photo courtesy of  ayudacommunitycenter .

Esperanza Health Center is part of the transformation taking place in Philadelphia's Hunting Park Neighborhood. Photo courtesy of ayudacommunitycenter.

2) Is the Church serving sacrificially?

If churches are organically present where there is need and discerning which aspects of personal and societal flourishing are missing in their communities, then the final question naturally follows: how can the Church serve their neighbors and fill the voids in their community? If existing schools are failing to instill discipline, love of virtue and learning, some may find themselves called to serve by founding schools that will enforce rigorous standards. If a lack of stable homes and family life leaves many with low chances for improving their social situations, sacrificially serving neighbors might look like inviting single parents into church communities full of surrogate fathers and mothers committed to helping them raise their children.

Holistic Flourishing

For the Church to remain faithful in her calling, we must recognize that her role in promoting holistic flourishing—especially with regard to caring for the poor—incorporates both the responsibility of the institutional Church to disciple congregations in gathered worship as well as the responsibility of the scattered Church, rooted in our communities, to be intentionally present, to discern the different needs of their neighbors, and to sacrificially serve them. In our emphasis on the importance of diverse societal institutions, advocates of a public justice perspective have rightly focused on keeping the institutional church accountable for conducting her ecclesial responsibilities. Yet given this dual nature of the Church as institution and organism, we must not fail to also carry out the organic Church’s calling to promote public justice in all spheres of society. Especially in low income neighborhoods that lack access to a healthy plurality of societal institutions, a faithful organic Church ministry should involve strategic strengthening of  these institutions to promote the common good and allow for greater opportunity.

-Jeremy Chen graduated in 2011 from Princeton University with a Bachelors in Civil Engineering &  a Certificate in Architectural Engineering and is now back in his home state of Pennsylvania, pursuing a Masters of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.