High-Rise Gospel Presence: A Case for Neighborhood Chaplains
By Steve Daman
In recent blogs, we’ve been talking about Boston’s soon coming population increase and asking how the Church might prepare for that growth. Will some of Boston’s 575 existing churches rise to the challenge and create relational pathways to serve the many new neighborhoods being planned and built in Boston?
We hope they will, and that church planters will pioneer new congregations among Boston’s newest residents. But can we do more? Might there be other ways to bring the love of Jesus into brand new communities?
Asking the Right Questions
Dr. Mark Yoon, Chaplain at Boston University and former EGC Board Chairman, starts with a question, not an answer. “The first question that comes to my mind is: who are the people moving into these planned communities? Why are they moving there? What are the driving factors?”
According to Dr. Yoon, thoughtful community assessment would be the obvious starting point. To launch any new outreach into these neighborhoods will require “serious time and effort to get this right,” he says. “Getting this right” will likely require innovative solutions.
Let’s assume, for example, that a community analysis shows that many of Boston’s newest residents are young, urban professionals. Dr. Paul Grogen, President & CEO of the Boston Foundation, noted recently, “Boston is a haven for young, highly educated people. Boston has the highest concentration of 20-to-34-year-olds of any large city in America, and 65 percent of Boston’s young adults have a bachelor’s degree or higher”, compared with 36 percent nationally.
If the people moving into these new communities are affluent, educated young people, it is likely that many may be what statisticians are calling nones or dones.
Nones are people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” Pew Research finds nones now make up 23% of U.S. adults, up from 16% in 2007.
Sociologist Josh Packard defines dones as “people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend,” he says. “Whether because they’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they’ve decided they are better off without organized religion.”
Adopting New Church-Planting Models
It would seem likely that the dones and nones won’t be looking for a church in Boston—at least not the kind of church they have rejected.
“To make inroads into these communities,” Dr. Yoon continues, “one’s gospel/missional perspective will be paramount. Most of our church leaders have old church-planting models that focus on certain attractions they roll out.”
What will be required instead, he says, is a church-planting model “built on vulnerability and surrender, and skill on how to engage, and prayer.” This combination, he feels, although essential for the task, will be “a rare find!”
What, then, might be some non-traditional ideas for establishing a compelling Gospel presence in a brand new, affluent, high-rise neighborhood?
What if Christians embed “neighborhood chaplaincies” into emerging communities? Rather than starting with a church, could we start with a brick-and-mortar service center, positioned to help and serve and love in the name of Jesus Christ?
Imagine a church, or a collaborative of churches, sending certified chaplains into new communities to extend grace and life in nontraditional ways to new, young and/or affluent Bostonians. Could this be a way to implant a compelling Gospel presence among this population?
Picture a storefront in sparkling, new retail space—a bright, colorful, inviting and safe space where residents in the same building complex might make first-contact. I envision a go-to place for any question about life or spirit, healing or wholeness, a place where there is no wrong question, where Spirit-filled Christians are ready to listen and offer effective help.
The neighborhood chaplaincy office may serve as a non-denominational pastoral counseling center, offer exploratory Bible classes, and sponsor community-building events. As with workplace chaplains, neighborhood chaplains may serve as spiritually aware social workers, advising residents about such issues as divorce, illness, employment concerns, and such. They may be asked to conduct weddings or funerals for residents. As passionate networkers, they would serve residents by pointing them to local churches, agencies, medical services, and the like.
Community Chaplain Services (CCS) in Ohio provides one intriguing ministry model. According to their website, CCS “is designed to offer assistance to those in need, serving the spiritual, emotional, physical, social needs of individuals, families, businesses, corporations, schools, and groups in the community.” This ministry grew from a community-based café ministry into a full-service educational resource and pastoral service provider.
Other than this one example, a quick web survey uncovers little else. Given the ongoing worldwide trend toward increased urbanization, coupled with the biblical mandate to make disciples of all nations, including the urbanized communities, the lack of neighborhood chaplaincy models is surprising. One would think the idea of embedded chaplaincy among the affluent would have taken root by now.
CURRENT Chaplaincy Models
Certainly, the core idea of chaplaincy has been around a long time and has seen various expressions around the world. One can find chaplaincy venues such as workplace and corporate, hospitals and institutions, prison, military, public safety (serving first responders), recovery ministry chaplains, and more.
Community chaplaincy in high-crime or low-income neighborhoods is also widespread. Here in Boston, the go-to person for this kind of urban community chaplaincy is Rev. Dr. LeSette Wright, the founder of Peaceseekers, a Boston-based ministry working to cultivate partnerships for preventing violence and promoting God’s peace, and a Senior Chaplain with the International Fellowship of Chaplains.
Through Peaceseekers and other partners, Rev. Dr. Wright initiated the Greater Boston Community Chaplaincy Collaborative, which has trained over 100 people to serve as community chaplains. Rev. Dr. Wright says their main work is to be a prevention and response team, “quietly serving in diverse places" to provide spiritual and emotional care among New England communities.
Trained chaplains minister "everywhere from street corners to firehouses to homeless shelters, barber shops, nursing homes, boys’ and girls’ clubs; meeting for spiritual direction with crime victims, lawyers, nurses, police officers, doctors, construction workers, students, children, clergy, etc.”
“We do not have a focus on the affluent or the new high rises,” Rev. Dr. Wright admits. “We do not exclude them, but they have not been a primary focus.”
Who Will Pay For It?
Rev. Dr. Wright says that the biggest challenge she has faced establishing a network of community chaplains in Boston is funding. Some churches and denominations have provided missionary funding for chaplains. She says the interest and openness from the community for this initiative is high, and “with additional funding and administrative support in managing this effort we will continue to grow as a chaplaincy collaborative.”
If Boston were to plant neighborhood chaplaincy programs in new, emerging, affluent districts, funding would still be an issue.
Rev. Renee Roederer, a community chaplain with the Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has been writing about this kind of outreach, asking the same questions. “What if we could call people to serve as chaplains for particular towns and neighborhoods, organizing spiritual life and community connections in uncharted ways?” she writes. “Who will pay for it?”
Rev. Roederer further considers, “What would be needed, and what obstacles would have to be cleared, in order to create such roles? What if some of our seminarians could serve in this way upon graduation?”
“I’m a realist, knowing it would take a lot of financial support and creativity to form these kinds of roles,” she says, “but the shifts we're seeing in spiritual demographics are already necessitating them.”
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