Churches and Government: Partners in Community Development

Governments across the country have been criticized—and rightfully so—for their failings with regard to community development. Unfortunately, churches have made many of the same mistakes, but on a smaller scale.

Here are some suggestions for changing this situation, and for how government and church can even work together.

By Jim Herbst

Basic neighborly values have declined in some places to the point that government offices have begun offering programs to reintroduce them. This is a great opportunity for churches. Jesus, after all, had a few things to say about neighbors.

The post-World War II growth of the suburbs, and other factors, changed the ethos of neighborhoods. No longer did people form primary relationships with people in their immediate neighborhood, but instead through regional groups, organizations, and hobbies.

The role of churches in neighborhoods also changed. Church leaders and members, for the most part, no longer lived near their church, so they weren’t woven into the fabric of a specific neighborhood. Many churches took on more of a regional benefactor role than a localized neighbor role—doling out money and volunteers to other organizations rather than having direct and regular contact within a specific neighborhood.

But recently there has been a resurgence of traditional neighborhood planning. These changes offer an opportunity for churches, but may require that each church relearn how to be a neighbor and not a benefactor.

Churches and their members must be wary of missteps. For instance, when outsiders use phrases like “adopt a neighborhood” or “save the hood,” it has two negative effects. First, it can reinforce a victim/dependent mentality to neighborhood insiders. “Adopt” implies a parent/child role. Second, it can further deter good people from moving into the neighborhood because it reinforces the stigma of a troubled neighborhood.

Sermons and discussion groups about being good neighbors are a better starting point than simply creating more programs. Practical steps toward being a good neighbor can be inexpensive, but make a huge difference—steps like interacting with neighbors, hosting block parties and resource fairs, maintaining property, being good landlords, and employing best neighborhood practices. The website has gained popularity in promoting neighborliness.


Being Informed and Making a Good First Impression

Building positive relationships with those serving in local government can also have positive results.

Church leaders and government officials (along with politicians) are naturally skeptical of one another, and there can be good reasons for that. But it is beneficial for all to build positive relationships and get accurate information. For example, an individual may be aware of an underutilized program that would be beneficial to the public, but without open dialogue, the program likely would remain largely unknown. In our church’s case, we’re looking for ways to reduce government dependence and refer people to nongovernment resources.


Creative Solutions and Partnerships

I am not a fan of government dependence or big government. But in many cases the government is the only source for long-term funding, and it often is the only agency with the professional staff to perform community development.

08_Herbst_JNChristians traditionally are on the front lines helping the homeless by providing food closets, soup kitchens, and emergency shelters. But that should be just a starting point. The bigger challenge is helping to lift entire neighborhoods out of poverty situations.

The Virginia Beach Community Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental nonprofit, operates a continuum of services: an emergency shelter; transitional housing; permanent rental housing; senior and disabled housing; and home ownership opportunities through below-market mortgages, home renovation, and new construction. This movement of people out of poverty requires case managers, psychiatrists, rehab facilities, health professionals, educators, grant writers, property managers, accountants, planners, attorneys, architects, engineers, builders, real estate agents, bankers, and community organizers, to name a few.

We’ve also learned a hard lesson in government housing: it’s better to create mixed-income neighborhoods with higher-quality housing than opt for cheap public housing. Over many years, government has spent billions of dollars building barracks-like housing in low-income neighborhoods, only to see these developments become blighted areas of concentrated poverty in about 10 years when the housing has no resale value on the open market. More recent federal programs like Hope VI and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative have dispersed poverty and created mixed-income neighborhoods.

Here’s the point: few Christian organizations have the capacity (or sometimes the desire) to fund these needed services, and often these organizations are reluctant to form partnerships that make these services economical. Rather than criticize big government, it would be more productive for churches to partner with government to provide a continuum of services.

Many churches have the attitude, “If we’re not in charge, we won’t participate.” Fortunately, some churches have discovered you need not agree on every aspect of theology to promote literacy, pick up garbage, or do home repairs.

A popular faith-based program in Norfolk, Virginia, used volunteers every summer to do minor renovations to low-income homes. One church partners with local businesses to provide job fairs and training. Three churches help maintain a community garden. Regent University, a Christian institution in Virginia Beach, is partnering with a local elementary school to operate a literacy program. A local branch of the Southern Baptist Convention makes available three entertainment trailers for block parties. Some churches have purchased novelty ice cream trucks for neighborhood events. A Pittsburgh church helped revitalize a business corridor by investing in a popular restaurant. And more and more churches are incorporating community centers with gyms and fitness centers into their buildings rather than building grand edifices that are used only a few hours per week. This is good stewardship and saves taxpayers money.


Earning Trust and Being Competent

Prior to engaging in community development, however, perhaps the most important conversation church leaders should be having is how to be excellent at the eternal. A consultant told us the change in neighborhood dynamics requires trust and competence. Our job, the consultant said, “is to find the gap between a neighborhood’s stated values and their actual behavior and then find a gentle way to rub their nose in it.” Couldn’t the same statements be said of the preaching and teaching ministries of the church?

If churches are not building trust in neighborhoods, and they’re not communicating their message with competence to changing demographics, what good will more community development do? Churches are far better equipped at changing hearts and minds. If the church is not adept at transforming lives, then doing cleanups or entering housing projects is of secondary importance.

A strategy employed in neighborhood development is having neighbors form “values groups” that meet in living rooms, backyards, and coffee shops, These groups discuss the values neighbors want for their neighborhood—such things as property appearance, supervision of children, being neighborly, and respecting others. We do this because government has wasted a great deal of money on projects that don’t change the underlying values and behavior of a neighborhood, and values are better changed through peer, neighbor-to-neighbor relationships than by government edicts. That government workers, and not churches, are doing this is indicative of the cultural changes in the last 50 years.

A positive side effect of the recession and the growing national debt is a reduction in public expectations. It is dawning on many that the government cannot solve everyone’s problems. It is also clear to city managers that more federal cutbacks are on the way. How this void will be filled is the big question. Some productive conversations today may lead to wise community development investments tomorrow. If you’re successful, government will no longer have to offer programs on being good neighbors.


Jim Herbst is a neighborhood development specialist with the city of Norfolk, Virginia.

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