Everything Old is New Again

Everything Old is New Again

O Thou that asketh much of him to whom thou givest much, have mercy. Remember me not for the ill I’ve done but for the good I’ve dreamed. Help me to be not just the old and foolish one thou seest now but once again a fool for thee. Help me to pray. Help me whatever way thou canst, dear Christ and Lord. Amen. – Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life

Instead of giving up something for Lent this year, I decided to take on something. Not anything new, but revisiting an old friend just like we do each year at this time. We know how this Lenten journey ends yet each year we walk it with great anticipation of what is yet to come. And so, too, I picked up a book that has been with me for many years. Its cover worn; an abandoned bookmark nestled tightly in its binding; notes stuck to its pages. This daily devotional reader of excerpts from Frederick Buechner’s works is surprisingly new after all these years of neglect as is the practice of structured reflection.

Religious congregations were once the primary place where individuals in need received supportive services. Congregations lived out the biblical mandate to care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan not only through worship and education, but through programs that ensured people did not go without nourishment, shelter, and education. As time marched on these services became more professionalized and despite increasing need that outpaced congregations’ resources, they have remained important places where resources are shared.

I mentioned in my last post that my one of my research interests is in congregations as resource brokers. This is not a new idea; in fact, it is a very old idea. Resource brokerage simply means that an organization provides an opportunity to acquire necessary resources (information about job opportunities; childcare; knowing someone who can lend money) through the people who make up that organization. Congregations have been doing this likely since their inception – sharing with the least of these.

For many congregations resource brokerage is part and parcel to who they are. They cannot imagine themselves apart from such formal ministries and informal interactions. Yet some scholars have argued that congregations are now primarily about worship and education. It is not that they are indifferent to the poor, widowed, and orphaned, but the thrust of their work is centered on worship and education. These trends have developed for a myriad of reasons – partly in response to the ever shrinking numbers in the Sunday morning pews and partly because we are a society of professionalized services.

As with most things, however, what was once old is now new again. You might be familiar with Robert Putnam’s seminal work Bowling Alone. In this book Putnam argued that the United States has become a society of individualists who once played well together (e.g., bowling leagues) but now prefer to go it alone. Perhaps this derives from our “bootstrap” mentality – I’m not sure. But I am certain that Putnam inspired a resurgence in our curiosity about social capital.

Social capital is a much disputed term in the social sciences. You will find many different definitions by the best thinkers who cannot always agree amongst themselves. I use it to refer simply to the resources that exist within the network of one’s social relationships. Let me give a concrete example – I know Krista who knows Mike. Mike is a manager at a local technology support firm that is hiring. Krista knows that I was just laid off from my job as an IT manager and offers to give my resume to Mike who then calls me for an interview. That is social capital, in one of its many forms.

Now suppose I know Krista because we attend the same church. This is what I mean by congregations acting a resource brokers. Because Krista is part of my circle of friends at church, the act of being engaged in this friendship network provided me access to a job that I might not have otherwise been able to access.

Congregations have been doing this for ages. There is absolutely nothing new about this, except that we are again asking what this means for the 21st century church. We know very little about the types of resources that people in congregations may have; we know even less about why and how congregants share their precious resources with others. (Let me apologize in advance, I am not going to give you some grand insight into these questions.)

A couple of years back I completed my dissertation with two inner-city congregations. I explored this question of social capital resources. My findings are now making their way into the academic literature (Social Work & Christianity; The British Journal of Social Work) but I want to provide an insight I gained as a way to spark some conversation.

I wonder if our efforts at the local church level to help the disadvantaged are driven by the assumption that the poor have little – or because they are resource depraved. What my research has begun to show is that the poor, those whose incomes fall below the federal poverty level of $19,790 for a 3-person household, have access to a diverse set of resources. Granted, some of these may not be as “valuable” as similar resources among affluent groups; however, I content that it is important that we shift the conversation. Helping someone mobilize the resources they have within their personal and professional networks is much different from working to provide resources because we believe they don’t have what they need to succeed. It is a programmatic shift and a shift in how we place value and worth on the individual. We ought to value the myriad of gifts this child of God brings to her situation. The gift we bring to the table is to help devise ways of capitalizing on those resources while bringing new resources to bear.

This is an old conversation, but I encourage you to see it anew this Lenten season. To whom much is given, much is expected. How does your congregation act as a resource broker? How do we honor what is while dreaming of what could be?

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