Listening to Your Community
It is noticeable in Niddrie that there are many housing association groups and various other social agencies, largely staffed by outsiders, who impose their ideas and ideals on to the community without much prior discussion. It is taken for granted that the ‘professionals’ know what we need. Often, many church plants can be guilty of the same attitudes. A team can move in to a scheme with a cunning plan and yet their strategy have very little impact on the ground due to lack of research and cultural understanding. In fact, a great danger of only researching the facts and figures about an area from government websites is that it skews our understanding of what a community needs in order to change. A good church planter must not only research and observe, he must also listen. There are questions to be asked. For instance, who are the main players in the community? What community groups are there? Which are staffed by local people and which by outsiders? What do local people think that some of the biggest needs of the community are? As I’ve stated, it is easy to think ‘scheme’ and then come with a whole set of presuppositions which can often bare little relation to life on the inside. What do people dream about? What are their ambitions (those that have them)? What do they think that the community needs in order for it to improve? Where would they start? Here’s one of the most important ones. What could they contribute to all of these things? Robert Lupton, notes:
This is often referred to as the felt needs concept. Listening is most important, as the people of the community are the vested treasures of the future. It is important not to focus on the weaknesses or needs of a community.
That last line is interesting. Why does he emphasise this? Well, he advocates an approach to community development that helps us to try to focus on the desires of community residents, what gift sets they have, and then to think of these individuals as ‘community assets’ upon which we can focus our energies. Of course, his context is in reference to community development, but I think we can use the principle in planting.
As a planter the question becomes how we harness some of the talents of local people in tandem with the great commission. Again, it is easy to look at a scheme like Niddrie and point to 10 things that need fixing. But what we think may need fixing from the outside may not even be on the agenda of an insider. What do they think? Certainly the church can help in alleviating some of the great needs of the community but we do it a disservice if we take the burdens solely upon ourselves. In fact, we can be as guilty of weakening the community if we try to solve every problem for them. Many times in my pastoral ministry over the last decade I have had to deal with people disgruntled with ‘institutional church‘. People wanting to leave and move somewhere else, somewhere ‘better’. My answer to these individuals has always been consistent.
“You cannot change a thing by moving on from it. You can only effect real and lasting change from within. Now, what do you think needs to happen and how are you going to help me make it happen?”
I know it is not the most powerful argument ever, but if we’re going to be staying in a community and listening to it then we need to be prepared to hear a lot of talk defeatist about ‘things never changing’. We need to be helping local people see that they, under the Lordship of Christ, are the answer to their community’s problems, not solely outside agencies, and not even the church.
Of course, spiritual regeneration is the ultimate aim, but we need to be developing our listening skills in order to inform our evangelism, alongside discipleship methods that enable people not only to take responsibility for themselves and their community but empower them to get involved. We must constantly assess what we are doing and questioning whether we are moving people toward or away from dependency on anything other than Jesus Christ.
If we are going to bring about lasting change on housing schemes then everything we do must be sustainable. That’s why, as we listen, we ought to be developing ministries that will harness people in their gifting and encourage them to stay put for the benefit of all. This is hugely difficult stuff in our individualistic society. That’s why it must start within the body of Christ. If we are moving in, using our gifts, serving one another for the benefit of the whole and all the while, listening, then this is a great, living model for local people.
Listening to people. Not as easy as it sounds is it?