Whose lives are different because of our church?

The June, 2013 Pastors Resource Call featured Sam Williams, co-director of Vision San Diego, on the subject of Externally Focused Churches / City Transformation.

I was a pastor for 35 years. I pastored three churches…one for seven years, one for twenty years and one for eight years. There are two things I can say about those pastorates. One is that at the end of each pastorate the church was significantly larger than when I went there. And the second thing is that the neighborhoods and communities around those churches were significantly worse when I left than when I went there. Our churches simply had no impact on those neighborhoods. My presence as a pastor grew a church in those neighborhoods but it had little or no impact on the quality of life in those neighborhoods.

If I were to have a do-over as a pastor, I would view myself not as the pastor of a church but as the pastor of the neighborhood or a small city. This is captured in the original concept of the Catholic parish. The original parish church was not only for people who came but for those who lived in the areas surrounding the church.


In that most famous parable, Jesus deflected the young lawyer’s question of “Who is my neighbor?” and told the story of the Good Samaritan. It seems to me to be very minimal definition from the standpoint of church is that our neighbors are those who live in our neighborhood around the church.

All of us as pastors struggle with how decisions are made in our church. In reality, the only people who have a vote in church governance are those who attend. Those who don’t attend don’t get a vote unless someone becomes an advocate for them. Churches become inward when the only people who vote are those who come and they vote for themselves. It is no small thing to move a church in the direction of being externally focused. The people who will benefit from that don’t vote on the church budget.

It becomes the role of leadership….the pastor and others…to lead a church to change its ministry from an internal to an external focus. And it is not an either or choice. In my mind, a balanced ministry includes both those who are there and those not there.

It is easier to sell “evangelism” in churches than to say we are going “to help third graders learn to read” or “improve the graduation rate at the neighborhood high school.” Who is my neighbor? It’s the third graders at my neighborhood elementary school and the kids at the neighborhood high school.

The single greatest predictor of social problems is third grade literacy. In grades 1-3, children learn to read. In grades 4-12, the read to learn. 92% of the prisoners in California prisons are functionally illiterate. In the state of Georgia, they forecast prison construction projects based on third grade literacy rates. If a child can’t read, they won’t make it through high school.

Students drop out and they go on welfare or turn to crime to get money. Here in California, a dropout over a lifetime will cost tax payers $5M dollars in welfare, prison, and social services costs.

We pastors are famous for talking about what’s happening in our culture but we have not engaged in preventive involvement to actually change the culture. Helping third graders learn to read sounds like social gospel to a lot of people. But the real question is “Does a third grader have to become a Christian in order to learn how to read?” For me, the answer is no. Evangelism is our ultimate desire but it is not our ulterior motive.

Two of the major engagements in Vision San Diego involve our schools. We have a partnership with San Diego Unified School District which is the 7th largest district in the nation and second largest in California. We bring together coalitions of business, nonprofits, faith based communities and schools to accomplish two things: improve thirds grade reading standards and and high school graduation rates.

We created an open door into the schools. We have mentoring programs, etc. We do it because Jesus told us to love our neighbor and we are being obedient to Jesus in doing that. We have learned that when anyone goes in to help, it raises curiosity, especially about the church. In our culture, the church is viewed as largely irrelevant, except for small pockets, and is not viewed as a valuable partner in society. We don’t matter unless we meddle in people’s business. We make a few forays into the culture to criticize it but rarely to be a servant to it which is what Jesus told us to do. We want to tell our culture what it is doing wrong – that’s a control position -that’s what the Gentiles did.

We need to re-examine the conversation Jesus had with the disciples about who would be the greatest servant of all. To paraphrase. it, the church that becomes the greatest is the one who becomes a servant. One of the tough questions a church must ask is “In my city, who are the greatest servants? The civic clubs? Volunteers?” The church rarely gets mentioned.

The reason service is so powerful is that servants can go anywhere. A second reason service is so powerful is that service always creates a curiosity. We have worked around the world in 14 cities and two questions always get asked. One is “Who are you?” Don’t print your name on the tee-shirt. If you tell them ahead of time who you are , they don’t ask the question. The second question is “Why are you doing this?” Nobody is serving them and when some one shows up, they have to ask. Peter said “Always be ready when you are asked to give a reason for the hope within you.” The key is when you are asked. If you try to give an answer to a question before it is asked, you risk being obnoxious.

That approach might have worked when Christians were in a cultural majority but not today. We don’t live there anymore. When you are in the cultural minority, you have to go back to Scripture – the New Testament was written to Christians who were a cultural minority.

The issue is how do you get asked and service certainly raises the question. If you use service as an ulterior motive, people can sniff that out in 30 seconds. You have to genuinely have a heart for hurting people because they hurt and because God loves them.

God probably cares for them more than us. God loves everybody the same. God has no favorites. He loves all equally but who does God care about more is another question.

I have two adult children. I love both of them the same. If while on this call, I get another call and find out that one of my children was in an accident and rushed to a hospital, who do you think I would care most about at that point? It would be the child who is in need. My other child does not need me.

Who does God care the most about? He cares more for the person in the greatest peril and need. Scripture identifies seven categories of people in need – the poor, the homeless, the alien, the hungry, the sick, the widow and the orphan. These seven categories are mentioned 3,000 times in Scripture. I have had to confess the sin of omission. As a pastor, I just glossed over those people when I was reading scripture.

The call them moved to a time of Q&A with Sam Williams.

Q from Caller: As a church leader, once you start get your head around this, how do you get started? Also, we were intrigued by Eric Swanson’s article about small churches having an impact.

Sam Williams: The old question for pastors was always, “What are you running?” It was a slightly less crass way of asking “How many people come to your church?”. It was the wrong question and made me uncomfortable. The new question is “What impact are you having in your community?” The great thing about being externally focused is that it has nothing to do with the size of the church.

Using third grade literacy as an illustration, a church could be running 35 people but maybe just one person that cares about kids. You just identify that person. Cast the vision and share the need. “What do you have to do help a third grader?” Three hours training, show up one hour a week.

Identify one person or two or three people. Don’t begin with an announcement – “Our new program for next year is to be externally focused.” You probably have someone in your congregation already working in the community. Just join them – join the people already engaged.

If you start with a program that needs approval, you’ll get all kinds of debates. Just start doing it. In the diffusion of innovation model, the 68% in the middle segments have to see a working model before changing anything. At the front end where the innovators and early adopters are (16%), they just start doing it.

In a church of 100, you just start doing it. You resource them…help them find the training they need. Start with their passion, not your passion. The next step is to find a small group that wants to get out and do something.

Q from Caller: Tell us something about Vision San Diego. Give us the 30,000 ft view.

Sam Williams: If you want to transform the city, you have to transform the whole. Not parts but the whole. You have to see it through different lenses.

We see the city as both sectors and domains that are universal to any city in the world. There are three social sectors – public, private, nonprofit- and then we subdivide them into nine domains that are simply the way a city works.

The public sector includes government, military and schools. The private sector includes business, arts and the media. The nonprofit sector includes faith based communities, nonprofits and families.

We want to transform the way a city works by bringing together all the sectors around big issues. That’s why education works well. We have a coalition of 18 partners…businesses, the U.S. Navy, the schools. Everyone has a strength to bring to bear on the problem.

We also use what we call centered sets. A centered set perspective is “Do you care about what I care about?” A bounded set perspective is “Do you believe what I believe?” Bounded sets are divisive while centered sets allow you to bring people of dissimilar beliefs together around a common problem.

We don’t run programs. We create coalitions. Smart people know what to do. We bring them together, show them how to work together and they take off.

Q from Caller: How do you know when a city is transformed? And what’s not transformation?

Sam Williams: There are multiple strains of city transformation, but it is not Christian dominionism. It is not having a Christian mayor, police chief and Christians taking over everything.

In one sense, cities will never be fully transformed. Jesus promised we would always have the poor. We will never eliminate all the social ills or problems, but we don’t believe it will be the same poor. This year’s poor should be in the process of gaining employment, supporting themselves. This year’s homeless will have a place to live but in our culture there will always new people coming in.

Part of what city transformation does is to create a process by which the people for whom God has a special concern are being cared for. The current system is not working and we work together to create systems where they are being transformed.

We think about city transformation in the same way as personal or individual transformation. The Bible speaks of salvation or our spiritual transformation in three tenses – past, present and future – justification. sanctification and glorification. The Bible talks about I have been saved, I am being saved and one day will fully and completely be saved like Jesus. It is a process that will one day be completed.

We see city the same way – there is a present tense and one day it will happen. Previously, it was not happening and now it is happening. One day, cities will be fully transformed – the old Jerusalem will pass away and a new one created.

A simple definition is when the Church views the city the way God does, transformation has begun. When the city views the city as the Church does, then transformation is fully in process.

A quick illustration would be who started the major universities? Hospitals? Orphanages? Churches did that and who runs those now? They are private. Our influence was so great that we helped create a culture in which it was unthinkable that children would not have a home, the sick would not be healed, and people would not have an education.

In the beginning, the Church viewed the culture the way God did and they were so effective in it that the culture came to view itself the way the Church did.

So transformation is a process of the church engaging in the culture. We are the initiators with God’s view. We will know we have become effective not when we take control, but when non-Christians view the culture in the way we do.

Q from Caller: In times of a natural disaster, natural disaster things happen differently. We have to work together right away. How do we keep that functioning over the long haul?

Sam Williams: The place to start is for the Church to have humility. We think we are the only ones who care and that we are the only people who can do anything about the problem. We have found that it works if you go to the people whose job it is is to care and ask “How can we serve you?” “How can we help you?”

I went to see the head of a San Diego County department and here’s what he told me. “I have been in public service all my life and when people come in to see me, it is either to gripe or ask for a favor. You are the first person in 38 years to ask how you can help?”

Sometimes, you have to establish trust but when you do, then it becomes easy. At first, it might be a simple way, then a meaningful way and then an ongoing relationship and partnership.

Q from Call: Where does prayer play a part for transformation to emerge?

Sam Williams: Churches are really good at praying for the sick and other needs. If I were a pastor again and became aware, for example, that kids “age out” of the foster care system at 18 and within 18 months, 75% of them are dead or homeless. Of the ones who are still alive, 50% are taken by sex traffickers. If I knew that as a pastor, I would share that with my congregation – “This is breaking my heart and I know it is breaking God’s heart.”

I would share that with my church and say “Let’s do nothing but pray about this for the next three months…ask God to protect them and tell us what we can do.” Pray about the problem and see what emerges in three months. Don’t start a program and ask people to pray for the program. Pray for the problem and see whats emerges.

Dr. Sam Williams is the co-director of Vision San Diego, a coalition of business, government, non-profits and faith based organizations whose aim is to unify the San Diego region to serve the common good. Sam has been a pastor, church planter, seminary professor, non-profit leader and global urban consultant. He is the co-author of To Transform A City (Zondervan, 2010).

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