There are two general postures a church can take in its local community – either “withness” or “themness”.
The “themness” posture says, “WE are here to help THEM. We are here to help THEM because without US, they would be in big trouble.” Sometimes churches get very excited about changing, fixing or serving the world. Often this a good thing, but sometimes it can be threatening, or perceived as arrogance. In our post-Christian, postmodern era, the “we have all the answers and we’re here to rescue you” kind of posture is difficult for culture to track with.
I’m not saying the church doesn’t have something valuable to say or contribute. We are witnesses to the greatest story ever told aren’t we? And besides, God has sent us to love and serve and share the good news with the world. So please, don’t get me wrong.
But what if we changed our posture? What if we sometimes took on a “withness” posture? This posture says, “WE are here to work WITH you to create something great.” Would that change the dynamic of our relationship with our local community?
I mean, who would you rather work with? Someone with a “themness” posture or a “withness” one? Ever participate on a work team project with someone who had all the answers to every problem?
A couple of weekends ago (June 22-23), I was able to see a lot of “withness” ooze from the pores of our Crosspoint church community. We had the privilege of participating in the Northeast Community Summer Festival in northeast Edmonton. This festival has been operating for multiple years and this is Crosspoint’s third year helping out. The festival is organized by people representing a number of community organizations. Two of our staff members served on this team and many of our people volunteered during the weekend.
It’s a very unique event – an open-crowd festival that focuses on fun, engagement, cooperation and community. People who stay for the day typically walk away with a greater sense of solidarity and belonging. You can learn more about the festival here.
For us, the best thing about the festival was that it wasn’t our idea. Rather, it was already happening and we simply jumped in as learners and supporters. You might say we were practising our “withness” posture. By the end of the weekend, we walked away humbled by the creative ingenuity, tireless effort, and inclusiveness of our local community.
There’s a significant spillover effect to practising “withness”. We have built solid trust relationships within our community. Our eyes have been opened to see our community in a different way – more as insiders and less as outsiders. Our love for our community has grown because we are part of the community. And perhaps we have shown our community that we care, not just by our willingness to serve, but by our willingness to learn and to be served.
So a word to churches. To engage your local community, you don’t need to start everything. I’m not suggesting you stop hosting car shows, pancake breakfasts, and kids events. Personally, I’m a fan of big jumpy castles and bacon. I’m simply asking: why not find out what is already happening in your local community and support it? Exercise your “withness”. The greatest contribution you make might simply be to roll up your sleeves and honour what they are already doing.
Churches that authentically engage their local communities from a posture of “withness” will inevitably gain a voice at the table. They have earned the right to be heard because they were willing to cooperate, listen, and serve. It’s called humility – and God’s a big fan of that.
Churches, maybe it’s time to fess up. We don’t always know the best way to do things. We don’t have every solution to every problem that’s out there. We don’t have a corner on the market of creativity. (And if the theological hackles on your neck are rising, just remember the doctrine of Common Grace.) So maybe we just need to seek to understand before we are understood. Maybe by extending trust to our local community, they will trust us more. Doesn’t trust, after all, beget more trust?
Remember, don’t stop your “themness”. Just practice your “withness”.