Church, Community Organizing

Never Do For Someone What They Can Do For Themselves. Never Do For Someone What They’re Not Willing To Do For Themselves.


I heard both of these sentences uttered at this week’s NEXT Church national gathering in Atlanta. The first version one came from Bob Lupton, author of Toxic Charity, a book that has been referenced in at least fifteen of my conversations over the past month. The second was pronounced by Andrew Foster Connors, pastor at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore and an IAF community organizer with BUILD.

“Not willing.” That changes everything, doesn’t it?

When you refuse to do something for me that I can do myself,  you must assess my ability and decide that it is sufficient to the task that you would otherwise perform on my behalf and that helping me actually hurts me and diminishes my dignity.

But when you refuse to do something for me that I’m not willing to do for myself, you’re assessing not my ability but my intentions. It’s clear I could do it. I just don’t want to. That also hurts me. But it hurts you too, because you resent me and we can never be friends.




My favorite community organizer talks about the need to build up our own “personal experience and testimony” for the sake of connecting meaningfully with people around their personal experience and testimony. It should work like this:

talk to lots of people in one-on-one encounters. Listen really carefully. Take notes afterward if you need to. As you talk to more and more people, their stories–their testimonies–become part of yours, so that you will start to say in these conversations, “I keep hearing from people that they are experiencing X. Is that true for you?”

As it relates to the community where you live and work and seek to make a difference, what is your personal experience and testimony? How will you deepen it today? Next week?

Community Organizing

The Last Six Words

My colleague and I sat down yesterday with a community organizer. She is the new leader of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organization that we have been involved in building for the past five years, and she is helping us to intentionally embrace the principles of IAF organizing for congregational life.

Listening is the foundation of this organizing philosophy. Listening for the sake of listening. Not listening for the sake of learning or listening for the sake of acting, but listening, first and foremost, for its own sake, because people deserve to be heard and both learning and acting are agendas that make it hard to hear.

The great gift that listening gives is the earnest gesture of interest in a person’s experience, perspective, and desires–their story. Most people amble through their days without this gift, to the great detriment of themselves, but also the world that is missing their story.

Our organizer talks about the “credential” that we look for in someone if they try to listen to us. The credential: what are you selling? What is your project? What use am I to you? Because we find it almost impossible to believe that a person is genuinely interested in us and our story simply because we are us and this is our story. There must be more.

We suggested talking with people in our congregation about their experience of work. We would explain, “We’re trying to better understand the issues people in our community are facing, and we’d like to hear your story.” Our organizer smiled and took a long pause before editing our pitch down to the last six words.

We’d like to hear your story.

In all of our wailing over church decline we are missing the great gift the church still has to offer to our culture today, a gift people badly, badly need. We can cultivate a sincere interest in peoples’ lives and provide spaces and invitations for them to share their stories. Nobody else is doing that. Nobody.

Imagine if people in your neighborhood recognized your church as the place that, more than anything, was eager to hear their story.