by Jimmy Dorrell
The advent of year 2000 is causing unprecedented evaluations of our past, present, and future. Prophecies and predictions already abound and more will follow in the months ahead. These examinations and forecasting are also helping churches to look within at who they are and where they are going. But beyond our casual self-studies, a disciplined church study is needed. Until we seriously look at who we are, we cannot gain adequate honesty and courage to face what we wish was not there or admit what we wish was not.
According to futurist Tom Sine, the number one problem of our churches is a "crisis of vision." In the face of so many urban and moral dilemmas, the church has retreated to a "fortress mentality." Instead of seeing the problems of our decaying neighborhoods and communities as challenges, many have accepted status quo as normative. Maintaining membership and budgets have replaced the aggressive call of declaring war on the sins of the city. Fear of crime, drugs, and poverty have been hidden by a safe theology of privatization and protection of self and family.
But the church is our only real hope for the city. "Churches with vision and tenacity are reversing the trend toward urban decay and social disintegration. Even non-Christian community developers admit that now. "There is no substitute for the resources of energy, enthusiasm, political clout." Corporate leaders and government officials are enlisting religious institutions more than ever, primarily because the statistics show that churches are the most powerful agents of change in decaying areas. "The National Institute of Health shows that teenage students who attend religious services at least once a month are about half as likely as other teenagers to participate in socially destructive behaviors. Richard Freeman of Harvard University shows that among black males, church attendance is a better predictor of who will escape the destructive cycle of poverty, drugs, and crime than any other variable-including income, sports, and family structure." (Signs of Hope In the City, p. 6) Catherine Hess, director of New York's first methadone program for drug addicts, concluded that Christian drug rehabilitation programs which emphasize prayer, conversion, and the Holy Spirit are much more effective than secular programs. Even community and economic development that is grounded in the church has a higher success rate. "I will never again attempt to help people with economic revitalization unless it is under the umbrella of a church" said a well known developer in New York. "It makes no sense to leave the church out. It is the most important institution we have." (p. 8)
Yet the church is still mostly uninvolved. A Lilly Foundation-funded survey on "church and family life" showed that among the churches that identified crime, drugs, unemployment, and AIDS as major problems they faced, only five percent have programs that directly addressed these problems. Single or disconnected programs are not enough because they are not mutually reinforcing. "Community revitalization is not achieved through a housing project here, a new school there, a job program somewhere else. It begins to look like a circle of things." (Churches, Cities, and Human Communities, p. 286) Groups like Mission Waco, Lawndale Community Church in Chicago, Bethel New Life, Inc. in Chicago, the Nehemiah Project of East Brooklyn, and others have discovered the "circle of mutuality." At Mission Waco and Jubilee Center, job and computer training, children's programs, youth development, G.E.D. classes, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, Church Under the Bridge, small groups, and other programs all feed each other. Community problems are "systemic", i.e., they are tied to other issues and realities that must be examined from a holistic view. For example, a group of gang-related teens in one city agreed to turn in their guns in exchange for jobs. Getting to the root causes requires sacrificial commitment and resources. Token band-aid ministries or an occasional mission trip will do little to offer real hope. It takes church leaders from various denominations to struggle and pray together at the same table. It takes leadership skills from various walks of live including religious, social service, city planning, political, and neighborhoods to acknowledge, then overcome their differences to bring healing and hope back to the decaying neighborhoods. It calls for a renewed biblical theology that sees the city from God's compassionate eyes.