Changing Neighborhoods One Life at a Time

Imagine your church building. Walk past the sanctuary, along a corridor, and through a hallway–there’s a room that doesn’t get much use any more. There’s nothing wrong with the room itself; but, as Sunday School attendance declined, fewer and fewer people ever venture in. It is vacant most of the week.

Now, imagine a volunteer from your congregation sitting with a neighborhood child, helping her to read. Imagine this room filled with workbooks, computers, pencils, and markers to help children and adults improve their literacy skills. Imagine the room transformed from an underutilized storage space to a place filled with buzz and excitement as job interviews are prepped, college applications are filled out, and children and adults make life-long connections. Imagine the excitement! What would it take for your congregation to turn that vision into reality? Imagine what kind of impact Christians could make in local neighborhoods if congregations nationwide caught and implemented this vision!

In the recent book Our Kids:The American Dream in Crisis by Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam, the author demonstrates just how vital churches could be in improving literacy and implementing mentoring relationships. Putnam declares that the opportunity gap in the United States is one of the critical issues of our time. He defines the opportunity gap as a lack of concrete resources for children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. In other words, “Kids from more privileged backgrounds start and probably finish further and further ahead of their less privileged peers” (p. 229). Putnam’s challenge to readers is to provide resources (i.e. the “opportunities” in the opportunity gap) for children to increase their skill sets and to prepare them for employment and higher education. I see this as a call to ministry for our congregations.

readingAs we have experienced huge upheavals in the American economy and culture over the past 40 years, Putnam notes that churches have reflected these changes as well. Teenagers’ church attendance has fallen twice as fast in the lower third socioeconomic levels compared to the same age group in the upper third (p. 225). In that loss of lower-income kids, these children also lose the potential positive influence of congregations in their own lives; and, consequently, congregations lose the gifts and talents of those younger individuals. Decreased parental involvement, increased parental stress, and declining participation in social networks are other findings in Putnam’s studies that influence and impact neighborhoods and congregations.

However, Putnam’s report is not all bad news. For one thing, congregations are uniquely positioned to be resources for closing the opportunity gap. From hosting career fairs and job trainings to finding social services and supporting public schools, congregations have resources to improve neighborhoods one life at a time. One of Putnam’s solutions to help close the opportunity gap is the development of mentoring relationships with youth and young adults. Mentors provide an increase in social capital. A mentor works with a child/youth on topics of mutual interest–sports, history, home economics, and so on can be valid long-term areas of interest for mentoring relationships.

Our own United Church of Christ has noticed the powerful potential of mentoring in its recent initiative Reading Changes Lives. Reading Changes Lives attempts to close the opportunity gap by improving literacy of underserved populations in three ways: 1) A school supply drive for local schools; 2) tutoring; and 3) donating school supplies to the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. I’d like to focus on the second of the three.

How would the neighborhood in which your church is located be changed if you could get a handful of volunteers to tutor/mentor young people in reading? Can you imagine what kind of witness we would make for Jesus Christ if the United Church of Christ became known as the church with a passion for helping people learn to read? Who could devote time to mentoring in your congregation? Maybe you know someone who loves swimming, professional baseball, or orienteering. Could you ask them to share their hobbies with like-minded young people by reading about that topic?

Congregations and folks with a desire to improve their reading skills (and employment skills and so on) need each other. Our churches have many resources to help mentor teenagers. Teens in our neighborhoods offer enthusiasm and potential. Imagine how teenagers’ talents, creativity and imaginations could transform our churches for the better in the next decade! How will our relationships interweave in the future? It is the job of church-minded folks to listen to our neighbors, identify needs, and offer long-term, sincere mentoring relationships.

I encourage congregations to reclaim that empty room only steps away from the sanctuary. See if you can help revive those spaces by investing in friends and neighbors! See if you can help transform that room from a room which recalls yesterday to a room where prayers are said, jobs are sought, stories are read, lives are changed, people are loved, and God is glorified.

Rev. Joseph Hedden is pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.