There’s a lot more that could be said about John Perkins, this book, and Christian community development in general. As I said at the beginning of the series, this is only scratching the surface. But I’m going to wrap things up for now with Perkins’ thoughts on what it takes to become an urban servant. He emphasizes that Christian change agents are constantly being changed while they seek to change the cycles that keep people poor. If we are to have anything to offer, we need to continually be in a posture to receive what we lack both from God and from others, even (or especially) those we intend to serve. Becoming an urban servant, he says, is a form of conversion. It can be painful, but it’s necessary. Here are five lessons we will need to learn:
1. Learn the importance of trusting relationships with people from the community. As long as we think in terms of insiders and outsiders, any sort of partnership for community development will be very difficult. Trust can only be established over time, and it will require patience, humility, and flexibility especially on the part of the outsiders or transplants, but when relationships are strengthened on the basis of mutual trust and respect, much will be possible.
2. Learn the need to support godly local leadership and to contribute to its further development. If you’re willing to take the time to build trusting relationships, you’ll be well positioned to get out of the way once you’ve done your part with local leaders empowered to carry on the work. If an outsider insists on a long-term hands-on approach, it cripples the potential for local men and women to improve their community for themselves.
3. Learn to use our gifts in a servant role. One of the troubling side effects of the church’s obsession with books and conferences and church classes about leadership, is the idea that real ministry is done by CEO-types, rather than shepherds and servants. Poor inner city neighborhoods don’t need people who have memorized the latest 21 secrets of a highly effective corporate executive. Servants, on the other hand, can always be put to use and are the sorts of leaders urban communities most need.
4. Learn to see the ways the gospel is alive among the poor, taking on forms that seem foreign because of our own limited exposure. Just as prevailing evangelical ministry tools don’t always do much to equip people for the harsh realities of inner cities, the songs we sing and the Scriptures we read tend to take on a whole new meaning when the stakes are raised, as they are for many of the urban poor. We don’t need to throw out our commentaries and podcasts, but we don’t necessarily need to share them with those in inner cities either. They have a lot to teach us about who God is and what Scripture means in the face of deep need.
5. Come as learners of urban society. A final thing we’ll need to learn is to see underdeveloped urban neighborhoods with new eyes, and this is best done by people who genuinely want to get to know a place, its people, its history, its music, its food, its ethos, its joys, and its sorrows.
Fixing inner cities is not our job. Rather, our role is that of a servant. Perkins concludes: “Serving is not a means to an end; service itself is the high, dignified calling to which the gospel aspires and to which men and women captured by the gospel aspire.”
To close out the series, and in the spirit of this final post, I can’t think of a better way to wrap things up than with this (slightly modified) Franciscan benediction, which has come to mean a lot to me and to many over the years:
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out, join hands, and together turn pain into joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that by God’s grace and for his glory we can do what others claim cannot be done.