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Jonathan Brooks on Ministering with the Community

The pastor of a church where love makes the difference explains why they no longer do outreach ministry.

Jonathan “Pastah J” Brooks is the senior pastor at Canaan Community Church in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He also teaches music at Daystar School and speaks at Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) events. In this edited conversation, he explains how charitable ministries changed after his congregation adopted CCDA principles.

How do CCDA principles shape outreach at Canaan Community Church?

The mission of CCDA is “to inspire, train and connect Christians who seek to bear witness to the kingdom of God by reclaiming and restoring under-resourced communities.” We often quote John Perkins in Beyond Charity: the Call to Christian Community Development: “It’s time for the whole church, yes, the whole church, to take a whole gospel on a whole mission to the whole world.”

We are utterly convinced that the church—meaning us as people, as a systemic structure—is essential to Christian community development. In the New Testament we see that the apostles disagreed on circumcision, who to preach to and where to plant churches. The one essential they all agreed on was “to remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). “The poor” are people with dreams and hopes who, because of structural injustice or their own bad decisions, have been pushed down and marginalized. Being poor doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a relationship with Christ, just as being affluent doesn’t necessarily equate with having a strong relationship with Christ. 

What is an outreach ministry have you changed because of CCDA principles?

We used to do a Thanksgiving outreach dinner and clothes giveaway. We’d get people to donate clothes and food. We’d sort the clothes, cook the food, welcome people to the dinner, and give them clothes and shoes. One year we also got a donation of frozen turkeys. Afterwards, church members walked outside and saw guests on the corners selling their turkey. Our members complained, “They’re so ungrateful!” It was like pulling teeth to get people to volunteer again.

In 2011, after we adopted CCDA principles, we renamed our event the Thanksgiving Community Dinner and Discount Clothing Store. We all ate together, and the vibe was so different. We learned people’s stories. People paid a dollar to fill a bag, so they didn’t simply grab anything and waste their bag. Someone would say, “Hey, you said at dinner you were looking for a black coat. Did you see this one?” We do this every year now, and our church members are in on the shopping, because we live here too.

How else did you redefine your outreach ministries?

One of our core beliefs is that God’s people must become one with their neighbors, so that the community can prosper. We’ve taken outreach out of our vocabulary, because that’s us-and-them thinking. It means doing things for others. We’d rather do things with our community, things that have value for our whole community.  

Food is a value for the whole community, right? So, does your church still do a food pantry?

No. One of the most impactful things we’ve learned is the difference between doing ministry in or to or for the community—and doing ministry with the community. Many churches are like fortresses. Their building is in a community but the congregation has little to do with community life or neighbors. We used to do a food pantry as a way to “minister in the community.”

Now we do a weekly 5 Loaves Co-op. Trader Joe’s wouldn’t open in Englewood, so our co-op asked for better prices. We use the money we collect to buy fresh produce, bread, milk, eggs, meat and fresh flowers after the store closes for the day. To receive groceries, every co-op member must put in at least a dollar and participate in the entire process of loading, unloading, sorting and packaging.

It’s been an interesting shift. We went from having a building with white walls and clean pews to having holes in our stained glass windows. But now all our programs and services are made with our neighbors in the community, and the work is shared.

Are you saying it’s wrong for churches to give away food or clothes or Christmas presents to people who have less money?

It’s good to develop God’s heart and eyes for the community. In God’s eyes, everyone has value and everyone has something to contribute. A relationship is only a relationship when it’s reciprocal. If the giving is all one way, it gives the message that the donors have all the power and the recipients are just plain needy. Think of the difference between bringing Christmas presents to a family home—which can embarrass parents who’d rather provide those presents—and setting up a Christmas store where people can choose what they want for a little money or for working there.

A richer church that provides material things can ask leaders from the poorer church to provide spiritual leadership. They can come hear the rich church’s laments, pray with them, lead a Bible study or preach the sermon. Maybe, instead of simply paying someone’s utility bill, a benevolence committee can ask recipients, “What are you good at? Where are you using those gifts?”

Do you get requests from churches that want to “give back” by doing short-term mission projects?

We say in CCDA that if you want to work in a community where you’re not present, then you should partner with people who have presence in that community. But you’d be surprised how many calls we get from churches that tell us, “We’re bringing this many people on these dates to do such-and-such for you.” I respond, “Let me tell you what works with our calendar. And please don’t come here to do anything that you’re not already doing in your own neighborhood, like pick up trash. We invite you to come here and learn what it means to be present in our neighborhood. It’s like the challenge of being a hospice chaplain. Your job is to be present, not do something.”

Sometimes I illustrate this with a little video clip where a woman asks her neighbor to loan her $120 to get the electricity turned back on. He tells her, “I don’t have $120. But I’ll come and sit with you in the dark.” I don’t believe in a Jesus who will give you money to keep the lights on. I believe in a Jesus Christ who will sit in the dark with me or will let others sit in the dark with us.

Jonathan Brooks will speak and lead worship at the November 2015 CCDA annual conference in Memphis, Tennessee. Book him as a speaker at your event.