About Me

Seeking The Good For Your City…

This weekend I’m presenting at the Renew Conference in Fresno, CA. Jason Locke, the very capable preaching minister there, left the field wide open in terms of what I could present. That’s always a mixed bag. If you’re assigned a topic and flop, at least you can tell yourself you were put in a corner – which, my wife tells me, no one ever does to Baby. But I digress.

I’ve opted to talk about pastors and churches as community leaders for the common good. For two years I’ve served as a board member for the Peninsula Clery Network, most recently as President. Our goal is to connect clergy to one another and with civic and governmental officers and agencies. Surprisingly I have found that most Christian clergy have no imagination that their vocation connects with civic and community leadership. We do not see ourselves as community leaders. I can conceive of several reasons for this. Among them:

  • Most congregants just want their ministers to care for them and their needs. Anything else is a waste. “We’re paying you, Buddy.”
  • Ministers have a profound time crunch. In any week they have multiple public presentations, an organization to run, staff to oversee, visitation, and, ahem…blog post to write (late at night, of course).
  • Ministers have believed that the state actually wants separation of church and state. Trust me (and I’m in California), local, state, and federal municipalities are dying for congregations to take leadership in their communities. Don’t believe either the mainstream or conservative media hype about this. It’s just false!

Churches and clergypersons have been decentralized as community leaders and we did it to ourselves. Not to put too fine a point on it: We abandoned our cities to work in our churches and now both are in decline.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero. Though rightly remembered as a Civil Rights leader, King’s fundamental self-perception was that of a preacher. When King arrived as the boy-preacher at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, he did not come to start a movement; he came to preach. As a matter of fact, when he arrived he brought in hand a 39-Point plan to turnaround the congregation. In it were such revolutionary items as buying a new pulpit. What’s more, king saw himself as simply carrying on the family business. His father was a pastor, his grandfather was a pastor, and his great-grandfather was a pastor.

Duke Divinity School professor Richard Lischer writes this about King.

“In September 1954, Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Montgomery, Alabama, to assume the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. He brought with him a small cache of sermons which he had already preached in his father’s church in Atlanta and in the pulpits of black congregations in the greater Boston area while a graduate student at Boston University. In Montgomery, he polished these sermons and, by several accounts, worked very hard at producing and memorizing new manuscripts, which he preached to an appreciative if not enthusiastic church that was usually about one-half to two-thirds filled. The word around Montgomery on the young Reverend King was that he was a “good but not great” preacher.

Within a year, Martin Luther King, Jr. was the recognized leader of one of the most creative local black protests of the twentieth century and within another year an international celebrity and the subject of a cover story in Time magazine. Everything in his life had changed dramatically save one thing: he continued to preach in local churches. The sermons that originated in his own pulpit he repeated hundreds of times in churches all over the land. Much of the material in his sermons he transposed to addresses and mass-meeting speeches, which he considered an extension of his pulpit ministry. King was a parish pastor who, like all preachers, worried about where his next sermon was coming from as he sought to evangelize the members of his own congregation; and he was a preacher to the nation, whose one unceasing, peripatetic sermon reawakened a people to its own identity and ultimately transformed the consciousness and the socio-political structures of America.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a product of the black church and maintained a pastorate throughout his adult life. He increasingly came to explain his public positions and actions as those of a “Baptist preacher in the black church.”

Lischer is saying that King’s civic leadership – at least as far as King saw it – was the outcome of being a local preacher. The burdens of his community, not just his church, were King’s burdens and King brought deep theological reflection and theological remedies to those burdens. Is it any wonder that King succeeded in realms where the early Malcolm X and the Black Panthers failed? King was a preacher bringing the full weight of his preaching, his congregation, and his religion (which is why we need religion and not just a “personal relationship with Jesus,” thank you very much video guy) to bear on the issues facing his congregants and friends. He changed the world with his preaching, yes. But it was also meeting with city-council persons and mayors. I’d bet many preachers don’t know their city council persons or mayor. How then can we expect to shape our communities for the Kingdom of God, when we’ve abandoned a central realm of influence?

Someone will surely now say, “We are concerned with spiritual matters.” Fair enough. Is racism in your city a spiritual matter? Sexism? Pornography? Equal opportunity? Health care? Children of unwed mothers? Alcoholism? Healthy Eating? Disaster Preparedness? Food and clothing for the homeless and under-resourced? These are some of the issues we’ve tangled with in the Peninsula Clergy Network. We’ve tangled with them because it is evident that these burdens cheapen the ikons of God. It is a theological issue.

Well, I don’t want to ruin my conference session so I’ll stop there. But tell me what you think?

How can clergy and churches help serve the common good in their communities?

  • Carl Flynn

    I think there are two levels here…and I love what you have said above about MLK as a model and the vacuum that exists (which surprises me, frankly) between churches and their communities.
    (1) More passively, a church impacts a community by its very existence because it is part of the social fabric within a particular geography. Churches occupy physical space. Whether a congregation constructs and operates a facility or occupies a school, house or some other structure, the existence of the spaces within which a church shares its life impacts both those who interact with that church (i.e., postal service, contractors, service vendors, physical neighbors, etc.) or those who simply witness its way of being day in and day out. The question is, what is our awareness of and intentionality within these passive structures?

    (2) More biblically, the church exists within the ethical framework of loving both the neighbor and our enemies (sometimes they are one in the same). These Words (and many others in the Scriptures) place a demand upon God’s people to act intentionally within their local geography, getting to know our literal neighbors and loving them as God calls us to love them in and through that encounter. Our engagement with our neighbors entails interactions with existing civic leaders. As we encounter our neighbors we take up a prophetic and servant role within our communities. Prophetically we call and work toward justice/God’s righteousness in our communities. That “work” manifests itself in acts of service/works of love in and for our neighbors.

    Looking at the question from these two vantage points, a church that is not engaged with its community is simply not possible. The Church of Jesus Christ calls its name (and existence?) into question if it becomes too solipsistic, seeing and serving only those who are part of the community.

  • Max Chance

    Great, great stuff. I laughed out loud several times in this- and let me just say, when I want to snuggle in to a romantic evening with my wife, all I need do is simply play the MUSIC from that late-80s Dancing movie you referenced! …Not to be put in a corner, indeed!

    And Dr. King… I love the audiobook version of his Autobiography, because- since the book itself was compiled of his letters and sermons, the audiobook simply presents his sermon recordings in the book’s chronology. I often listen to it when driving, and many times have had to pull over either with tears, or to give over to what the Holy Spirit was saying through him with great, great power.

    I add my “huzzah!” to your call on clergy to get locally active (and I’ve been on a couple of clergy councils in NY, with varying results). I would also add that Dr. King was a man of clear vision for positive change. I believe, and think we agree, that his vision came directly from God, which is why it began in- and was carried entirely through- his pulpit ministry. As you said, he succeeded where others failed. I think some of that secret is in the fact that he generated a DREAM… not just bolstered or amplified public outcry. Despite the prevalent beliefs about Evolution, we are actually drifting only toward destruction, were it not for the Word from the Creator, which even now sustains us. But His people- all people- perish for lack of vision. If we don’t seek it and then carry it, we needn’t gather after services on Sunday and grouse about the President or the Congress.
    Well said, Sean! Thanks for your observations and your work, and may God speak through you at the conference!

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