The New ABC(D)s

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“What do you do well enough that you could teach three other people to do it?”

It’s not the typical question that is asked of people who are recipients of aid. The questions they are usually asked have to do with how many family members are living under their roof and how much money they make – questions designed to help a person prove that they are poor enough to receive the aid. Such questions destroy dignity.

Rarely do agencies who want to help – including churches – flip those questions on their head and start instead by asking – not what people don’t have or what people need – but asking what gifts and talents they possess.

Ironically, churches are pretty good about extracting this information from church members. We encourage people to share their gifts, and even offer classes to help them identify the talents God has given them. We honor these gifts and seek to match people up with ministry opportunities that allow them to use their unique talents.

But when it comes to mission ministries, we fail to notice that the people we want to help have plenty of gifts, themselves. Or perhaps our work is at such an arm’s length from the people that we don’t have an opportunity to ask or observe.

Asset Based Community Development offers an alternative model for connecting with our communities. It works from the bottom up, beginning with the strengths of the community and what the members of the community have to contribute (in fact, what they already are contributing).

The topic is vast, so let’s begin with a simple example.

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Some seminary students were participating in a seminar in an urban area where they were learning about the ministries available to the materially poor in that city. One of their assignments was to tour the city’s homeless shelter and then lead a worship service at the shelter. Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, the students crafted an order of worship and decided who would sing, who would read scripture, who would preach.

Later that night, the worship service began. One of the students brought a guitar and led the singing. There were no screens available for the lyrics, but the students brought copies of song sheets. The small group of students sang a popular praise song, but the residents of the shelter did not join in.

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Somehow, worship just didn’t seem to “go.” The worship leader tried a different song, a gospel hymn. Although there were no song sheets, the congregation started to join in. Then one man stood up and belted out the lyrics with a booming voice that brought the entire congregation to its feet. The movement of the Spirit was palpable, as hands clapped and feet began to stomp. The students realized that they were no longer the leaders of this worship service.

The service continued with the reading of scripture, and the congregation politely listened. But when the scripture reading was over, one man spoke up: “Now, I know you probably have someone up there who wants to give us a message. People are always coming in here to give us a message. But if it’s alright with you, we’d like to hear Brother William here speak some truth to us.” The student who was to give the message was astute enough to realize that the service the students had designed before they ever met this congregation was not the service that the congregation needed. He invited Brother William up to preach. And all who were present were inspired and uplifted by the life-giving words that gifted preacher spoke.

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One might assume that a group of students who are studying theology would be the best ones to lead a worship service in a homeless shelter. But that assumption would be based on the belief that the shelter residents needed something that they couldn’t provide for themselves…which turned out to be a false assumption. Fortunately, God is good, and even though the students didn’t take the time to talk with the members of this community or ask them what gifts they could share, the worship experience brought out the best in all of them.

Asset based community development. What strengths already exist in the communities that we are trying to serve? What gifts do the members of the community possess that can be used to strengthen the community? Do we know? If not, why not?

Prayer Focus: Pray for pastors who are beginning in a new pastorate, who will spend months preaching to a group of people they don’t really know, that both the pastor and the congregation will exercise patience as they learn about each other’s gifts.

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