Asset-Based Ministry (Part 2): Biblical Perspectives on Community

The concepts of Asset-Based Community Development has been effectively used by churches and faith communities to engage their congregations, explore new outreach opportunities and transform communities. While the approach is primarily practical, there are some key biblical concepts that corroborate ABCD principles. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m going to provide some of these connections to aid others in bringing ABCD into faith communities.

Pivotal to asset-based principles is the assumption that every person has not only value but also assets beneficial to the community. So use them. There are two biblical areas that I’d like to highlight. 1) Jesus spends a great deal of time calling us to see value where it was, and is, traditionally ignored. 2) The process of community throughout the Bible, and particularly the early church, gave rise to natural solutions through engagement. When finished, I believe we’ll see that not only are ABCD principles valuable to health and life of the church, but they are actually core Christian values found first in the life and teachings of Jesus and the early church.

On multiple occasions, Paul likens the church to a body, giving readers a vision for both the value of the individual and a vision for working within the community. 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 reads:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

This illustration highlights both the individual and the community aspects of ABCD. We must identify the unique gifts of every individual if we are going to be faithful to the call of community. As Paul continues, he clearly notes that the body of Christ can only function in this way. Even those who appear to be weak or of lesser value, he writes are to be lifted up with even more value than the others. We cannot deny anyone in our community of their gifts and talents.

If we understand this as properly restoring dignity to those in our community who are often left behind, then the function of the body must also be one of engaging the parts of the body. Just as ABCD calls for the engagement from the unique gifts of the community, so does Paul’s body illustration. What good does it do to identify the value and skills of an individual if we fail to engage them and provide a space for those gifts to be used? A body must engage all of its parts to function in the most fruitful and impactful ways.

The greatest struggle for the church in engaging these people might not be in finding value but in releasing control. It is certainly difficult to look beyond our social structures that relegates certain people in our communities, but once we do it is even more difficult to relinquish some of our control to allow these individuals to have a true stake in the community. Only through a sense of ownership can someone have a stake in the community, and that requires church leadership to let go of some of the power and allow more involvement as individuals (especially those relegated into the background) shape the identity and direction of the church.

This is asset-based ministry, and it is not simply a practical method for growth and engagement, it is a core value of Christianity and a central theme throughout the Bible.

Asset-based Ministry…A Fresh Approach to Engaging Community

On Saturday, I joined a few others from Open Door in attending a Jim Diers workshop, Neighborhood Power. I was first introduced to Asset-Based Community Development at Emory, and it has greatly influenced my view of community, my approach to ministry and even my understanding of Jesus’ work and revelation. So I was excited to attend this with some of our members to help gain a shared vision for “asset-based ministry.” Here I’d like to share some of what makes this vision unique and how ABCD can be utilized in faith communities.

Asset-based community development, as indicated by its name, is designed around the skills, resources and associations of a community.[1] Community development takes place when the community itself is impassioned and motivated by hope for improvement and change. These community resources can be found in gifts of individuals, community groups and associations, and local institutions. This sounds like common sense, and it is, but the vast majority of non-profits, churches and aid organizations operate under the antithetical principles of “needs-based” change and growth. Rather than being internally focused and relationally driven, the traditional “needs-based” approach is setup by an outside agency assessing the needs of a community, coming to external solutions to those needs, and finally supplying those needs with outside resources. The resulting actions, however genuine in their efforts, send the overwhelming message that the community is not capable of resolving issues on their own, reinforcing the lack of empowerment already experienced. Asset-based community development requires more work, more innovation, creativity, and collaboration, but the results are sustainable change, restored dignity and an empowered community.

Churches and other faith communities have found value in these basic principles by identifying individual capacities of its members to mobilize the church and by acting as yet another resource of the community in collaborative development.[2] Multiplying a faith community’s impact by focusing on both internal and external mobilization is obviously preferred, and I believe mutually beneficial to the church and the broader community. The easy part of this discussion is to acknowledge and take advantage of the abilities and capacities of individual members of a faith community. To call on someone for the musical talent to support or lead a worship team is a no brainer, and to use a business connection to save the church money is simply good business sense.

Asset-based strategies, however, are more about engagement than about business sense (although it has that added benefit). Engaging people in the life of the church requires discovering unique gifts of individuals and then allowing their passions to deepen community and to shape the outreach of the church. At Open Door Church, we’re exploring a new warehouse communal space for our gathering grounds that would serve the community and the church in endless ways. While the idea developed over leadership meetings, it took life when we began asking for congregational input. Excitement grew as each individual shared their own ideas and passions about how to engage the community with our new space. Can we offer bike repair, or teach others? Can we invite local bands for shows and talent nights? Table tennis? Mechanic work? Their gifts and vision for growth in our community will shape the outreach of Open Door as we continue, and if we fail to foster this engagement, we will ultimately fail in engaging our community as well.

Read here about how these concepts are supported and understood biblically.

[1] J. P. Kretzmann and J. L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets, ACTA Publications: 1993.

[2] S. Rans and H. Altman, Asset-Based Strategies for Faith Communities, ACTA Publications: 2002.

From Non-Profit to Ministry

It was my theology that moved me to non-profit work initially following my M.Div. at Emory, and after two years of working in various capacities with non-profits, I begin making my journey back to ministry. It is necessary to explore what has led me back to church ministry, and because the work was tied so closely to my faith, I have to find a way to utilize my education, experiences in and passion for non-profit “ministry.”

I was drawn to community building in non-profits, because I believe the church often misses the needs of the neighborhood community, in particular the community that lacks a voice or the unity to find a voice. It was also appealing that non-profits reach out to their community with no alternative motives; it is because one cares to make a difference, believes change is possible and believes in the untapped potential of those they are reaching. I idealized the space created by that “freedom” in non-profits and assumed that those involved were there for the same reasons. I was disillusioned by my own ideals of the non-profit community. Like a lot of churches, many non-profits are unorganized, lack direction and practice their work in ways that further dehumanize individuals rather than lifting up and helping one realize their voice and individuality. The reality of the true non-profit landscape is one of the reasons I am led back to church ministry, where I spent almost 10 years prior to my non-profit ventures in New Orleans. However, I cannot leave behind the ideals that I first saw in the non-profit field, and I will not forget the organizations that successfully carry out those ideals and practices in sustainable and empowering ways.

The second large piece of the puzzle came in understanding the great deal of community work that is needed within churches. Though a different stage and organization, much of what moved me to non-profits can and should be practiced within a church community and from within the church, as every church sits in the midst of a broader neighborhood and community. Where I saw a particular need being neglected in churches, I now envision an area of growth, learning and opportunity for the church. The “freedom” in non-profits is not exclusive, and I believe it could be tremendously helpful to discover this freedom in our ministry and outreach, the freedom to love, minister and offer support without condition or alternative motives.

Additionally, the further I was removed from church ministry, the more I missed it. I miss the studies, the environment, the supportive community and the unique opportunity to take part in the faith process of individuals on a daily basis. Returning to church ministry has not been a light or easy decision, and I have been thankful to have mentors and friends helping me think through the process. With their support and the support of my family, I am excited about the new possibilities and adventures that are inevitable.