May 28, 2013 / David Fitch

Project versus Presence: Leading Our Churches into Engaging the Neighborhood by David Fitch

Recently Life on the Vine and other churches  gathered as a group of church planters to discuss how we might lead our churches into our surrounding communities. I started the discussion with describing the difference between “Looking for a Project” in the neighborhood  and “Developing a Presence” in the neighborhood. We discovered just how fundamental the question of posture is to incarnational presence in the neighborhood. Here’s some of our takeaways.
The Difference Between “Project” versus “Presence”

Often a church seeks to engage the community by “looking for the Next Project.” We seek a “need” in the community where we can help, bring resources and the love of Christ. What can happen though with this mentality is we A.) come to the project out of a posture of “pretending not to need.” We come with resources from a distance, not listening to the lives of people very well. We come out of a posture of power, control. B.) We thereby unintentionally make the people/issue we are helping into a client/object. These dynamics work against the Kingdom.  C.) We often turn this into a volunteer effort/program where we contribute a few hours a week and it is separated from our everyday lives. D.) Since it is mainly “us” doing something, this approach eventually leads to church burnout. It leads to a continual diet of “projects” and we never get to developing a “presence.”

“Developing a Presence” on the other hand, A.) enters a space out of one’s own needs. We come to be “with” the people in our context. Think of how different the dynamics (to use a suburban example) are when a new parent joins a parents group in need of a place to share the loneliness/ tediousness of caring for a new born child versus a church that sets up a day care center, B.) We come out of a “mutual” relationship sharing in what God is doing, C.) We do not come into a context as “volunteers” offering a few hours a week. Instead, the hours we spend with people, working for justice, come from places we inhabit regularly as part of our everyday life. We hope to spend years together living life in the Kingdom, D.) We become conduits of God’s work, pointing out what God is already doing, or where there are already resources right here to help. We therefore never run out of gas. We are truly energized. Of course we will offer our own resources not as a solution but because we are friends, part of this social reality God is bringing into being.

When “looking for the Next Project” churches will often look for places of need in the local context. But that need will be seen through our eyes. We might even create a project or a program. When “Developing a Presence”  we seek to understand “need” and the dynamics surrounding that need from the eyes of those we are “with.” We look from within for what is happening. We ask a lot of questions, spend hours/days/weeks/years listening. We in essence then attempt to hop on to something already in motion. Development follows justice relationally.

Things we Might Do To Train/Disciple People into Presence in The Neighborhood

In trying to lead a people into developing a presence in the neighborhood, we came up with these ‘tactics.’

  1. Individual Life Inventory: We can help each other inventory our lives and ask where we are already intersecting with people’s lives and become more aware of relationships and what God is doing around us. We can look at individual habits and locate where we are doing some things either as isolated individuals or with our church community that we could instead do in more public places, or with people in the neighborhood. The result should be that by adding no additional time or tasks to our lives we become more present in the neighborhood just out of living our everyday lives more intentionally.
  2. Third Places: Churches can look at their neighborhoods and locate third places, places where people hang out. We can locate various places where basketball games, parent groups, park district clean-ups are already happening. And we can say, instead of doing these activities ourselves as a church, let us get involved with what others are already doing. We can look for places of need, homeless shelters, domestic abuse counseling centers, etc. where we have already interested people and “send” them there to be present in everyday life. We can in essence organize people to do things in programs already going on instead of starting them ourselves.
  3. Bring the practices of the Kingdom: We must train people how to “bring reconciliation,” “proclaim gospel,” use the gifts of the Spirit in healing and renewal, “practice hospitality.” By learning how to embody these practices we are training ourselves to be present in a way that includes are being sent. Being “sent” means we witness to what God is doing and are ready, when the occasion erupts, to become the conduit by which God works to point others into the Kingdom
  4. Do it in groups of two or three. We must train people how to invite others to be present with them when God is working in the neighborhood. We need to join with other believers from all churches. We need to invite those who do not yet recognize the Kingdom. We must become skilled into how to lead u=others into the practices of the Kingdom, including reconciliation, hospitality, gospel proclamation, being with those who have less, etc…
  5. “Projects” out of our “Presence.” We must develop a mindset that projects develop out of presence and when they do we invite the larger church gathering to join in.  As a result, we must not be afraid of projects, just recognize that it is through developing a presence that projects can keep from becoming about us, and thereby resistant to Kingdom transformation in the community.

Final Comments

I hope the last point helps us see that we need not polarize Project versus Presence. Instead we see how one flows from the other.

In addition, I just want to suggest, especially for large churches, that it is best to start “developing presence” in the neighborhoods through small groups of 12. One small group of 12 learning how to be present in a neighborhood can change a whole church over time!

Blessings on all our efforts to lead our church to be present in our neighborhoods. Please tell us of your successes. What have been your hurdles? Have you any ways you’ve learned to disciple people into living their lives in the presence of the KIngdom?