I originally started an article on contempt but was unable to finish it the way I like. It’s still a work in progress, but I was spending too much time on it without results, so I decided to move to another topic in the “Christian Life in Politics” series. This particular post is on community and the church’s and government’s role in it. I will define what I mean by community, the church’s role in it, and how the church can be a better provider of community services. Part two will focus more on the political side of things and will further delve into why libertarians believe the community outside government should take a greater role in providing community services.
When I say community, I define it as being involved with your local people. This can be your apartment block, your city, or your zip code; everyone in this geographic area no matter who they are. Historically, the Christian church has been the mainstay of most communities, if not the absolute authority. With the advent of the republican-form of democracy in America, churches became a key part of the local community, along with social clubs, trade unions, and fraternal organizations. This was identified early on by Alexis de Toqueville in his book Democracy in America where he cites a strong separation of church and state provided a clear line of where the church interacts in the community versus the government. As time went on, many of the services traditionally served by the church become a part of the government’s purview.
As such, the role of the American church in American communities is severely lacking in my opinion. Growing up in the church I attended with my family for over a decade, I saw no real community outreach that was substantive. This church built no real connections nor could claim any results in building-up the surrounding community. Instead, it was a service to its congregation and no one else. While I believe a church should provide services to its congregation, it is not designed to only serve its congregation nor is it its original mandate. This is our mandate:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,…
— Matthew 28:19 NKJV
We are called to reach new people all over the world and be fishers of men, not fishers of those already in our basket. I picture many churches in America as fishing from the pier with their pole and bobber in the water, waiting for a bite. The church I want is one that sets sail from the pier and casts its nets wide, reeling in it’s prize with fish straining the net.
This analogy plays into my old church in my home town. The problem with this church was that its own four walls were as much of a barrier to them reaching out as it was to the outside community reaching in. They were relying on that bobber without putting much on the hook to attract the fish. Why is that?
I honestly cannot answer this question perfectly as each church may have its own reasons, but what I can determine is what makes a good church in my eyes.
The Catholic Church is the classic example of being a part of the community, both historically and into the modern day. I don’t agree with some of the theological concepts presented by the church, but their community work is by far the best in the christian world, bar-none. Orphanages, hospitals, crisis centers, marriage services, philanthropic social clubs, the regular brick-and-mortar churches; all funded by the Catholic church.
The church I currently attend also exemplifies this concept, but I think goes a step further. National Community Church here in DC maintains several physical locations but not in the sense of a typical brick-and-mortar church. Rather, they engage in the community by providing recreational and social services atypical of a traditional church. They own a functioning movie theatre that has matinees and concerts throughout the week while hosting a church service on Saturday nights (before COVID struck). They own a coffee shop called Ebeneezer’s where all proceeds go to their foreign and domestic missions. They were a founding member of the DC Dream Center which creates community and kids programs targeting the impoverished in DC by providing resume development, summer camps, after-school programs, and free food distribution. Their manifesto says everything in explaining why they provide these services:
We are more afraid of missing opportunities than making mistakes. We are a lab where everything is an experiment. If the Kingdom of God had departments, we’d be R&D. There are ways of doing church that no one has thought of yet. We are orthodox in belief, but unorthodox in practice. We believe that if you want to reach people no one is reaching, you have to do things no one is doing. A church that stays within its four walls isn’t a church at all. We don’t go to church because we ARE the church. The church is not a noun, it’s a verb. An action verb.
National Community Church Manifesto — https://theaterchurch.com/about/ncc-manifesto
What I think the church I currently attends does different is that it doesn’t rely on the community to come to them or for a community to morph around them, but they go out to the already-established communities; aggressively. They become that partner everyone can rely on no matter if they attend services or not.
So how does this relate to government? The reason I mention community services in relation to the church is because a lot of these services are currently provided by the government on the local, state, and federal level. When I say that the American church should be more involved in community, I also say that the government should take less of a role, with the church taking up the slack. I do believe that one of the reasons the government provides so many social services is because the American church failed to fulfill its mission to serve the community as our country developed. Diving into the reason why is a whole other post (and quite possibly a book), so I won’t go in depth, but suffice it to say that our churches should be taking a much greater role in our communities.
So who will do it better, the church or the government? While I believe both are quite capable of providing community services, I believe the church, along with having the Biblical mandate to do so, can provide these services with greater compassion and understanding of local needs than the government can. As a Libertarian, I believe private cooperation and impetus is preferable over government intervention, and that decentralized local groups can create social benefits. This belief in relation to the church and government is well summarized by Stephanie Slade in her article “A Libertarian Case for the Common Good”. One particular concern she addresses is that if government provides less services, the services will be self-centered to benefit the provider, or won’t be done at all. Rather, it may be the opposite in current circumstances:
To be free is not necessarily to be consumed with oneself. On the contrary, libertarians understand that freedom can be morally, not just materially, empowering. A robust state makes complacency easy: Some far-away institution with billions of dollars at its disposal is responsible for solving that problem, not me. If instead we have a shared expectation that civil society is on the frontlines and that our choices have meaningful consequences, each of us is challenged to step up.
“A Libertarian Case for the Common Good,” Stephanie Slade — America Magazine — https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/08/06/libertarian-case-common-good
This act of the community stepping-up is the key takeaway here. While also requiring the community to take responsibility, they have a greater vested interest in better providing those services. This requires greater compassion through the community provider toward those receiving the service. It also stays more accountable to the local community than a government institution can because the community provider is located and hires people within the locality. If you have a problem with how a church is giving out food to the homeless, it’s much easier to meet with the pastor in his office than formally filing a complaint with the local Health and Human Services office.
Removing such established institutions as government within the community sphere will take a strong will in the local community to adequately fill the void with something else. This void can best be served by the church. A church that is willing and able to engage with the community and provide services to everyone outside of its four-walls and steeple.
One last item here: as I finished this post I realized I talked a lot about the church, but not much about organizations outside the church or from a different religion. While I designed this post with the church in mind, when I say that the church should take a greater role within the community, I also apply this to non-religious organizations or other non-Christian religious groups. Providing drug rehabilitation programs can be done just as well by a church as a mosque or the local Moose Lodge. My overall take from this is that all community organization should be taking a greater role. Within my local community, I believe the biggest actor is the church.