STEWARDS IN THE COMMUNITY
by Monte Sahlin
Seventh-day Adventists generally have a strong church-life. In fact, in many places Adventists are perceived as a kind of subculture because our internal life is so strong, and we reach out beyond our church mostly for the purpose of recruiting new members. It could appear to some that we don’t do much that is beyond the self-interests of our own faith community; or that we don't care about the welfare of the larger community. Of course, this attitude would be directly the opposite of that which God expects of us. “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city,” God said to His people in Babylonian captivity, a situation often recognized as parallel to that of the remnant church. “Pray to the Lord for it because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). This direction would be controversial, God understood, so He specifically warned against voices among God’s people that advised against community involvement. “Do not let [them] deceive you. Do not listen to [them]. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them” (Jer. 29:8,9). Those voices are still with us despite the clear word of Jeremiah, the example set by Jesus in His ministry on Earth, a strong Adventist heritage of building community and the official position of the Adventist faith as stated in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual chapter entitled, “Standards of Christian Living.”
"While our highest responsibility is to the Church and the gospel commission, we should support by our service and our means, as far as possible and consistent with our beliefs, efforts for social order and betterment. "
As believers looking forward to the return of Jesus, “. . . we are yet in the world as an integral part of human society and must share with our fellow citizens certain responsibilities in the common problems of life. Wherever we live, as children of God we should be recognized as outstanding citizens in our Christian integrity and in working for the common good. While our highest responsibility is to the Church and the gospel commission, we should support by our service and our means, as far as possible and consistent with our beliefs, efforts for social order and betterment.
“Even though we must stand apart from political and social strife, we should always, quietly and firmly, maintain an uncompromising stand for justice and right in civic affairs along with full adherence to our religious convictions” (Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 18th Edition, pp. 137-138).
As good stewards of the community relationships that God has led us to, and responsible managers of our relations with neighbors and community institutions, we are asked by God to accurately convey the truth about His character and purposes. Ellen White affirms that, “Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching people. He mingled with men as one who desired their good, showed sympathy for them and ministered to their needs. He won their confidence. Then, He bade them, ‘Follow me’” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 143).
“What contribution does the Adventist Church make to this community?” I have over the past four decades asked this question in hundreds of interviews with mayors, city managers, high school principals, police chiefs and other civic leaders. My graduate students and research assistants have increased the total interviews into the thousands as we have done community assessments for Adventist churches and institutions. Almost all of the leaders we’ve interviewed have said something like, “Well, I am sure they do something for the community, but I don’t know what it is.” It appears this question hasn’t had as much priority as it should have.
The bottom line is that all too often we do not make any measurable contribution to the local community beyond its religious activities. Can God bless a witness in which there is no evidence of His generosity or unconditional love? When we do not take the time or spend the money to “mingle with men as one who desired their good,” can we realistically expect a different outcome? It is not by accident that in some of the countries where the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) has its largest programs, the denomination has its highest growth rates.
It is a fundamental stewardship principle, “freely you received, freely give.” And Jesus connects this to practical acts of compassion; "Heal [the] sick, raise [the] dead, cleanse [the] lepers, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:8). Does the giving of your congregation—in what it gives freely in practical compassion to the community where it is located—demonstrate that it believes that it has received great gifts from God? Or is your church aloof, exemplifying a picture of God that is not generous or good. It might be helpful to ask, “How is my congregation perceived by nonbelievers among the general public?”
"Do we take the time to read the body language of our church? How is my church perceived by nonbelievers, or among the general public?
For the sake of illustration, our involvement in the community as a church might be described in terms of institutional body language. We all know enough about “body language” to be able to recognize a person who says, “I am OK” when they clearly are suffering, in despair, or burdened with some cares. We may also read the “body language” of the organizations we encounter in life. We know when government agencies require unnecessary bureaucratic procedures and when a big business puts profit ahead of customer service. Do we take the time to read the body language of our church? How is my church perceived by nonbelievers, or among the general public?
Does my church behave like a caring church? Does it get involved in meeting needs in the community outside of its usual religious activities? Are there visible expressions of practical compassion for the hurting and the poor? If the only thing your congregation does in terms of community service is to distribute used clothing and give out food once a year around the holiday season, how does that appear to the community? I have been told thousands of times by social work professionals, “Providing food once a year may be an interesting activity for your church at Christmas, but people are hungry 365 days a year.” And, almost as often, I have had municipal staff tell me, “Feeding the homeless once a month may be something your church likes to do, but where are you the rest of the time? Many other churches do it once a week and they participate in a coordinating committee that assigns the days of the week so each day is covered.”
Effective community involvement that clearly conveys the spirit of Jesus is rooted in a good community assessment. The programs and services offered to the community are directly related to clearly identified needs among the population outside of the church membership. This is simply good stewardship of the relationship the church has with the community. If we really care about the community, we will look for information about the needs of the community. This is much the same as when a relative or friend comes to your home. You asked them if they wish to hang up their coat. Do they need something to drink? Have they eaten at the most recent mealtime or are they hungry? Is the temperature comfortable? Asking questions of this sort is simply good manners. It shows that we are kind and considerate people who care about our acquaintances. When we conduct a community needs assessment we are simply demonstrating that we care about our neighbors and that our congregation is made up of compassionate and caring people. (See the resources page and back cover for helpful resources for doing such an assessment, as well as www.sabbathschoolpersonalministries.org.)
And a church that thinks this kind of activity has nothing to do with Jesus at this time in history is mistaken, perhaps profoundly and tragically mistaken."
The question could be asked if an emphasis on community service and works of compassion are really representative of a prophetic church. Does it take away from the resources that should be concentrated on communicating an important message at this time in Earth’s history? Jesus dealt with this very theme in Matthew 24 and 25. He was asked a question dear to the hearts of Adventists; “when will this happen and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3). In the next verse He begins to answer these questions and continues without break until the end of the following chapter. He describes things that his disciples must experience, difficult things, and declares that “no one knows that day or hour” (24:36) and then tells a series of parables around the theme of what to focus on while waiting for our Lord’s second coming. These parables describe precisely the kind of outreach we need to do as a church that cares for the community, a church that is living out the message and hope of the soon return of Jesus. And a church that thinks this kind of activity has nothing to do with Jesus at this time in history is mistaken, perhaps profoundly and tragically mistaken.
A congregation that really displays the values of Jesus is one that has taken the time and trouble to listen to the community, that demonstrates a deep understanding of the community and invests in providing significant ministries that meet the needs of the community. This is a congregation that clearly shows that it is a good steward of the spiritual gifts and human resources, as well as the money and things that God has provided for it. The witness of this congregation is meaningful to the thoughtful, educated and powerful citizens of the community.