[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0802874835″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/51BeItdJWTL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]A Genuine Love of our Neighbors
A Feature Review of
Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2018
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Reviewed by Paul D. Gregory
Governmental agencies and churches have historically focused on the problems/needs of areas when attempting to provide assistance. I worked for two years as the program coordinator for a drug treatment court in the State of Michigan. During those two years, I authored at least ten state and federal grants. Arguably the most important section of these grants was the statement or proof of need. Specifically, grantors required a description of the problems (crime rates, drug use, poverty level, unemployment, etc.) and needs (business, employment, education, etc.) of the specific location. One’s failure to adequately address this section always resulted in no funding. Moreover, grants were most often awarded to those localities that could show the most dire needs. Although the needs orproblems of an area are an important consideration, Michael Mather writes in his book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, that one’s primary focus should be placed on the identification and support of the abundance of talents contained in these areas.
Having Nothing, Possessing Everything is the story of the author’s experience with his neighbors. Yes, it is the story of Mather’s experience as a pastor at a church located in a low income, high crime and high unemployment neighborhood. It’s also the story of a church that learned to actively listen to their neighbors. And in the end, it brings a breath of fresh air to ministry to our neighbors and neighborhoods in need.
Two themes run in and out of this book: (1) seeing the other as our sister or brother and (2) human agency. Effective ministry stems from a genuine understanding that the people we strive to help are just like us. Yes, we easily are convinced that God loves them, but often we design and implement ministry with the idea that somehow He loves us just a bit more than these other people. Mather proposes that we all have more good qualities than bad and that God’s love for each of us is equal. Effective ministry must begin here.
Mather is also a true believer in human agency. The stories contained in his book demonstrate a different method by which the church can serve people and places in need: listening. Chapter after chapter document ways in which the church redefined ministry not as fixing people; rather the church was merely a conduit, allowing people to utilize their own talents and creativity to improve their lives and others lives in the neighborhood. For Mather, listening, recognizing and assisting individuals in cultivating their own talents is the way to most effectively change lives and neighborhoods. What follows are six important things to remember when doing ministry.
Our neighbors are God’s people. Act like it – Throughout the book, the author reminds the reader that we must acknowledge the humanness of the people in areas of ministry. And while, we’ve all heard such claims from the pulpit, how many of us (me included) truly practice it in our everyday lives? We bring cans of food, donate our money (and maybe a little time) to those people, but at what level do we genuinely embrace these individuals?
Everything begins with and builds on the gifts of our neighbors – This tenet is arguably the most important in Mather’s book. To me, it is woven into the fabric of each and every chapter. At the same time, it’s arguably the hardest as well. Numerous times, Mather writes how once again he failed to recognize the level of talent in their churches neighborhood. We must rewire our brains to identify the abundant gifts found in these individuals instead of always focusing on their problems, lack, or need.
Parents and guardians are the first and best teachers. Respect this – Mather’s stories again demonstrate the ways in which governmental agencies and churches miss the point. We bring in the latest and greatest evidence-based juvenile programming to an area in need, but fail to properly utilize our best assets: parents. Churches that want to see kids thrive in their neighborhood should begin by listening to parents.
We invest first and foremost in the good the people of the neighborhood seek. Traditional community ministry tends to focus on changing others into people similar to us. The concept is that our program will be successful if we can persuade our neighbors into thinking and acting like we do. Mather’s experiences turn this idea on its head. I don’t believe there was one word in this book about getting individuals in their neighborhood to believe like them or join the church. Mather emphasizes that the church must ask how they can be involved with the people, not “involve the people.” The difference is significant.
Money must flow to the neighborhood – Coupled with building on the gifts of its community members, this tenet is vital. Traditional programs tend to cypher monies away from the very community it is attempting to help. Checks are written to pay salaries for services at agencies miles away from the community. Mather again uses story to demonstrate the benefit of keeping those dollars in the community by directly investing in the moms, dads, and kids in that community. Again, he reminds the reader that the talent is there. We merely have to listen and look for it.
Practice neighbor love – We can’t change neighborhoods with strategies of how to “fix” people. This concept results in our tendency to view these individuals as somehow inferior to us and creates a divide. Mather proposes that we must radically change our view of how God views all his children: we are all equally loved. The church and other outside agencies should love their communities. And don’t we spend time with the people we love? We eat dinner and/or share a cup of coffee on the porch with those we love.
Some readers will be offended by Mather’s assessment. Others will characterize his ideas as overly-simplistic or “pie in the sky.” Mather himself characterized this way of doing things as nuanced and said it would be difficult to bring full scale. Still, as my mother always says, the “proof is in the pudding.” Viewing individuals and communities as people and places “to be fixed” very rarely works. Investing money and resources into programs instead of people rarely changes things. Programs don’t change people. Identifying the talents of individuals within a community and directing resources (especially money) into those individuals sparks a flame that can catch and spread like wildfire throughout a community enacting positive change.
Mather states at the beginning that his book is not meant as a six step process in how to do ministry. And several times he reminds the reader that following these steps is not a recipe for success. Find your own way. He does, in the end, and probably against his better judgement, offer these aforementioned six tenets to effecting change in communities. I’ve never met Mr. Mather, but fear he’ll probably not be happy that I spent a good part of the review addressing the six tenets. So I’ll end with this: One of the most beautiful parts of this book is his brilliant use of story to demonstrate these six tenets. To me, however, the most important facet running through the book is the emphasis on genuine love of our neighbors, especially those who may seem different from me and my story. True change, it seems, will only come from the acknowledgement that each person is created with an abundance of talents (often different from mine) and that with the right conditions will flourish in life.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com