It seems like every time I read the paper or scroll through the news on my phone, there’s another story about the church in decline and its failure to address the pressing issues of our time. These articles are favorites in the media, and to be honest they really stress me out. Not only because there is so much urgent truth to be heard in these warnings, but also because of the ways I internalize these narratives and begin to focus on my fears for the future and my own failings as a disciple and follower of Jesus.
This internalized narrative often trains my brain to believe that our communities—and I, personally—don’t care enough, or don’t have the capacities to be impactful and compassionate neighbors. Left unchecked, it puts me in a position where I act from a place of guilt and shame, rather than justice, mercy, and compassion.
This obviously translates into the way we do ministry. How many times have you sat around a table at your faith community circuitously discussing the church’s responsibility to address the many needs present in your neighborhood, never arriving at a clear action step, but always coming away clearer about the church’s shortcomings? Ever come out of those meetings feeling energized and excited about what’s possible? Me neither.
When we perpetually focus on what we haven’t done, and on the myriad needs we assume are present in our communities, we double down on dangerous practices of hopelessness and objectification. Hopelessness because we internalize narratives about our failures as the church and begin to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, as members and communities. And objectification because we begin to see our neighbors only as needs for us to serve, often as a means to our own survival.
This is why I think asset-based thinking should be our modus operandi as we begin to think through ministry after COVID. Asset-based thinking places our attention on our communities as networks of gifts and strengths, and our action as the offering of these gifts for the sake of others. It empowers community members to see themselves as full and capable members of a community that values them, not as needs to be addressed.
Asset-based thinking has been a longtime principle in community organizing and community development and was systematized by the teacher and developer John McKnight as Asset-Based Community Development. His work and the work of so many other asset-based thinkers can be a great resource for congregations as they begin to dream about what’s next.
So many of us are beginning to imagine what church will look like in the next generation, and we have the opportunity to reframe the stories about who we are as the church. We don’t need to internalize the narratives about church decline, because we can take comfort in the fact that community is always an abundant reality in God’s vision of Beloved Community.
To be clear, asset-based thinking doesn’t avoid or bury painful truths; rather it embraces these truths as part of what it means to be in human community. We are fallible, and our churches will continue to miss the mark until Jesus returns, but we can take comfort in the knowledge that no matter our failings, Jesus has set us free and empowered each of us with gifts and strengths to share with the human community.
This thinking also sets us free from thinking of our neighborhoods as networks of needs, and our neighbors as objects of that need. Our neighborhoods are replete with gifts aplenty, and our neighbors are uniquely gifted individuals, beloved by God, with capacities and stories and power to share. When we stop looking for needs to serve, and instead start looking for neighbors with gifts to share, we will be shocked by the immeasurable capacities for transformation in our communities.
Rather than planning around which needs to serve, challenge your congregation to meet as many neighbors as possible and to identify the gifts and strengths present in the community. Instead of internalizing the narratives about a failing church, ask yourself how God has empowered you to be an asset in your congregation. Let’s leave the needs-based lens in the pre-COVID times and enter this next generation confident in God’s activity in our communities and in our capacity to be part of it. We may find a new and energizing way of being church together.