Church Refugees: Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith, by sociologists Josh Packard and Ashleigh Hope, addresses the needs of a class of Christians sometimes called the “Dones” — as in “done with church but not Jesus” — or the “dechurched.”

The book concludes with several practical suggestions for how to keep the Dones in church — even to attract them back. We’ve already covered many of them as we worked through the book.

One of particular interest to me is Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). The problem to be solved is the fact that most forms of church aid either create or do nothing to eliminate dependency. If we feed the poor for free — a very good thing — we may encourage the poor to become dependent on our hand outs. Indeed, we may communicate the unintended message that you aren’t able to care for your own family and so you must come to us for help.

Not only do people who are in need wait around for services from people with resources, but agencies and organizations with resources actually create a sense of need simply by supplying the resources. The very act can inadvertently communicate that people in need are incapable or in national surveys and books based on personal observations. The empirical research presented here is even more evidence that churches are perceived to exist primarily to serve their own needs and desires. Churches’ response to this perception is, understandably, to tout the community service efforts they’re engaged in. It’s true that the church is a fundamental source of charity in our society, but when it moves beyond its four walls, it tends to do so on a one-way street. How, then, can the church continue to provide services but at the same time be in ongoing, caring relationships with those in need?

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 2086-2101). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The solution to dependency is, first, relationship. If I become friends with the people I help, I can see dependency developing and perhaps avoid it. Perhaps I can help my friend learn the skills needed to be independent. I can encourage her to see the value of being self-sufficient — indeed, able to help others.

The same problem arises within a church. If the staff plans everything and provides all the leadership, the members become dependent. They become convinced that they can’t do these things on their own. They need “expert” help to plan events and run ministries.

The asset-based approach starts with a detailed inventory of the strengths of a community. In a church, this means taking the time to sit down with all of the congregants and asking them what they’re good at, what they do in their free time, what gets them out of bed on Saturday mornings when they don’t have to be at work.

For a detailed example of an inventory as well as specific strategies for implementing this approach in a congregation, I highly recommend Luther Snow’s The Power of Asset Mapping: How Your Congregation Can Act on Its Gifts. This book demonstrates how to implement asset-based approaches that engage the Dones and the soon-to-be Dones without alienating the vast majority of congregants who still want the church to provide some fundamental programs and services typically associated with the church.

Of course, it’s not enough to simply account for a congregation’s assets, though there’s great power in that simple act. Assets must be mobilized and utilized. If there’s a commitment to discover assets, there must also be a commitment to collectively utilize those assets in order for the church to truly be shaped by the people who call it home.

In addition, allowing space in a church for the agenda to be driven by people’s skills and talents means giving up some centralized organizational control.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 2101-2112). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

The authors offer this example —

While the survey revealed there was little formal education in the community, it also showed a large pocket of people in several congregations who were gifted, experienced, and well-trained gardeners. These people were finding space in the city to grow substantial amounts of food. Many of them had come from rural backgrounds, and some grew food out of necessity.

Tapping into their skills, we developed an entire curriculum around gardening that involved math, science, and reading. Congregational leaders worked together to coordinate the activity and provide space for the gardens.

Perhaps the most interesting discovery was that congregational leaders had no idea that these were skills that could be mobilized. Of course, they knew there were people in their congregations who gardened, but they didn’t recognize this as an asset.

A telling postscript: When we had first approached the pastors about this project, their common response was that they didn’t have any money to give but that the children in their congregations could sure use some help. By the time I left the project, pastors were reporting higher levels of congregational activity than ever, and several of the congregations were planning more asset mapping to reveal their next big projects.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 2116-2125). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

In this model, people aren’t “plugged in” to an existing program; instead, they’re supported with the full resources of the church to live out their callings. The result is a much more vibrant congregation in which people show up, not because they were cajoled by a volunteer coordinator, but because the things being done, the projects and programs being created, are their projects and programs, drawing on their unique talents and gifts.

Packard, Josh; Hope, Ashleigh. Church Refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are DONE with church but not their faith (Kindle Locations 2135-2138). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis in original.)

In other words, rather than beginning with a Pattern with spots to be filled by anyone willing, we envision the church as a body filled with gifts given by the Spirit with great intentionality. The gifts tell us not only what each person should do, but what the church should do. We become Spirit-led rather than trying to be like every other church in our denomination. We reject the franchise model of doing church and go with God’s model instead.

It could work.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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10 Responses to Church Refugees: Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD)

  1. David Himes says:

    This is a really important premise — but it requires true leadership to pursue

  2. John F says:

    I have had some (perhaps significant, depending on your viewpoint) first hand experience in Zimbabwe (less in Zambia) with relief efforts (James 1:27). The question of dependency continues to loom large. Side by side (relationship) we have encouraged partnership (let me help you prepare, plant, train to care for this garden — here are the seeds that can provide for you and for others. One in twenty is successful, perhaps five are marginal, the rest failures. What is clear is that if the “help” is “imposed” (from the receiving side viewpoint) the “imposer” has ALL the responsibility to complete the project. (Examples could be numerous — failed chicken, goat, cattle, vegetable, sewing, etc.). Corruption is rampant (donated items turned and sold for immediate gain rather than long term sustainability, including food intended for widows and orphans). We have seen request for aid continuing to be made from multiple sources EVEN after any local needs have been met. It is enough to cause one to want to “cut and run, cutting the losses.” And when supporting churches here have been provided undisputed proof of corruption ($250,000.oo for a non existent orphanage) the silence is deafening (afraid to tell your congregation they have made a poor decision(?). We continue with those who “have been found faithful.” But compassion is easier to feel than to practice. How to help in a culture of corruption (entitlement, really[?]) is a serious challenge.

    I appreciate the discussion —

  3. Dwight says:

    I think this is good “In this model, people aren’t “plugged in” to an existing program; instead, they’re supported with the full resources of the church to live out their callings. The result is a much more vibrant congregation in which people show up, not because they were cajoled by a volunteer coordinator, but because the things being done, the projects and programs being created, are their projects and programs, drawing on their unique talents and gifts.”
    Most congregations are program based, in that if there is not a program people won’t act. The people are almost afraid to act alone or have been programmed to act by way of the elders and preacher and committee or program.
    Christians shouldn’t be told to act, but encouraged to act by those who are acting in an active environment. People should be plugged into Christ, not the church and if they are plugged into Christ they will be active in their life, which will translate to being active with other saints…the church.

  4. Mark says:

    I am a Rotarian. Rotary does not build anything, via a grant, that a community does not want. That way the receiver takes care of it once it is constructed using the initial outlay of funds.

  5. Monty says:

    I ran across the book,”Discovering Your God Given Gifts” by Don and Katie Fortune a couple of years ago and taught this in my adult Bible Class one quarter and couldn’t even get the members to read the survey questions and check 1-5 on the questions asked to determine what area their giftedness was in. Ignorance is bliss.

  6. John F says:

    I guess my point — looking ahead, is that UNTIL the recipient is personally invested in the outcome (has some “skin in the game” [if that is not considered racist in today’s PC world]) the desired outcome has slim chance of success. I have seen “community gardens” abandoned because those who helped put them together thought that those to whom care was given would follow through — in their own self interest. Sad, sad, sad . . .

  7. Dwight says:

    John F, I think you are correct in some ways, but that sill doesn’t relieve us from doing the good we can, when we can in hopes that people will take initiative with the aid. The people though must feel that they are part of the solution. I know God saves us through grace and mercy and not by works, and yet the scriptures do say, “work out your own salvation”, so at to empower us with a responsibility towards where we end up. God won’t save us if we initially do His will and then turn from Him in rejection in either works or faith.

  8. The premise is important, but will be MUCH harder than anyone envisions. After spending decades getting people to commit personally to the stuff we do in the building on Sunday and finally becoming successful at it, we now hope to add outward-facing ministry without changing any of the ways we currently handle congregational resources of time and money. Brother Bob is called to feed the poor, and the church says “Yes!”, but Bob will have to continue to pay for the auditorium air-conditioning upgrade and keep teaching 4th-5th grade boys Sunday School. We fully expect those commitments to be met before Brother Bob goes out to stock the church pantry. His contribution having already been spent, Bob will need to pony up some more money now to fund what the preacher called last Sunday “the church’s real mission!” This leaves Bob to wonder what they have been doing with all his time and money prior to discovering what they were supposed to have been doing all along.

    The main obstacle to doing anything new is our inability to stop doing anything we were doing with those same resources yesterday.

  9. John F says:

    Dwight, I am still “working” in those areas; being burned is not a reason to stay away, but a lesson in being cautious, even after multiple “burnings.” What “burns” me more than being burned by those we try to help is the reluctance of churches to admit being “burned” to their congregations. Would it not be better to admit a mistake than being caught trying to “cover up”? What does THAT do to congregational trust?

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