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The Church as Civic Steward

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV).

Several years ago we were asked to consider running for a local office. A friend said, “A group of us would like one of you to run for (a particular office). We don’t care which of you runs. We just want one of you to run.” Holding a political office is, perhaps, an ultimate form of civic stewardship. After much prayer we decided it was not how

Our Lord would have us serve. However this request made us keenly aware that we were perceived by some as individuals who had some measure of influence in our local community. The issue then became how we use that perceived influence to the glory and honor of God.

Our individual and collective lenses on civic engagement and civic stewardship are as similar as they are varied. Henry immigrated to the United States as a young man. He is the son of a chief and a descendant of a royal line. He grew up in a home where his father’s counsel was sought out and accepted on critical social and political issues. His father, a local chief and leader of their extended family, also took the lead in a decade long fight to retain the family’s right to the royal crown.

Francine’s father migrated to California in the 1940s because he knew he could not reach his full potential in the rural areas of Arkansas. As the pastor of an African American Baptist church in Southern California he led sit-ins and protest at the local Woolworths in solidarity with the sit-ins in the south. He attended the funeral of Rev/Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He even printed in the weekly church newsletter his choices for political offices. He had relationships and influence with the local mayor and city council members as well as state and national political figures who served our districts.

Today, neither one of us would post their choices for political office on the equivalent of the ministry’s newsletter, i.e. Facebook. Nor spend the family’s resources on a lengthy fight to retain a royal title. Nonetheless, our upbringing taught us that civic stewardship was more than a responsibility—it was a way of life.


The concept of stewardship in the body of Christ is often limited to being effective caretakers of financial resources. However, stewardship is broader than that. According to Rick Sullivan, “Biblical stewardship is the use of God-given gifts and resources (time, talent, treasure, truth, relationships) for the accomplishment of God-given goals.” Civic, of course, is defined as: “of or relating to a city or town or the people who live there, or: relating to citizenship or being a citizen” (, 2014). While civic engagement is a well used term related to involvement in volunteerism, service, and giving to one’s community the difference between it and civic stewardship should be understood.

Civic stewardship is engaging in work and forming relationships. The work and relationships are directly related to our governments and municipalities and social and political issues that impact our local and broader communities. Civic stewardship might be serving on a local commission that is looking to address the problem of homelessness or organizing a candidates’ forum to hear their views on hunger and food insecurity in our community.
Given the above definition, civic stewardship may seem like risky business for church leadership. In considering civic stewardship a key question is, what does God’s word tell us about it?

Biblical Context

In his dissertation Decker details fifteen biblical references for what he labels “civic engagement.” Those detailed actions also fit our description of civic stewardship as they involve men and women of God forming relationships with civic and political leaders and using their influence to the glory and honor of God. He includes the “civic activities” of Joseph, Esther and Mordecai, Jeremiah, Daniel, Paul, and those of Jesus Himself, as well as others (Decker, 2011).

In the Old Testament Jeremiah told the exiled Israelites “to work for the peace and prosperity of Babylon. Pray for her, for if Babylon has peace, so will you.” (Jeremiah 29: 7 TLB) Considering Babylon’s “depravity” God’s call for the Israelites to engage the Babylonians is a clear indication that they were being “invited to be initiators for God’s love and redemption” (Decker, 2011).

Jesus’ relationships with tax collectors, soldiers, rich rulers and the like are demonstrations of Christian’s call to civic stewardship. Jesus invited Levi, a tax collector “with the usual reputation for cheating” (Luke 5: 27b TLB) to follow Him. Levi’s affirmative response was swift and joyful. Following the invitation Levi threw a banquet in honor of the Lord and asked other tax collectors and notorious sinners to be his guests (Luke 5:27-29). This relationship aroused frustration and anger in the religious leaders. They accused Jesus of eating with the undesirables of society. Jesus informed them that His mission on earth was to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance (Luke 5:30-32). Jesus’ demonstration of unconditional love changed Levi’s life for good and enabled him to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow Him. It opened the door for the transformation of others and is a reminder of the civic responsibilities of Christians.

Historical Context

According to Decker “effectual civic engagement activity (emphasis ours) is ultimately rooted in a theology of mission and a recognition that the presence of the kingdom of God is real and consequential for all areas of life, not just for when the church is gathered” (Gora, 2012). A balance that church leaders must strive for is serving and growing those within the walls of the local church, contributing to evangelism outside of this country, and having an impact on the lives and environs down the block, and on the other side of town. For some congregations this is second nature. For others, this may be a new experience and challenging.

Civic engagement is not new to the Christian church. In fact, “some of the most effective political movements in the U.S…included the active involvement of churches and religious communities” (Grant, 2014). We saw this in the movement to abolish slavery in the United States. The role of Quakers in the anti-slavery movement is well documented. Although one must be cautious of what Christopher Densmore of Swarthworth College terms “feel good history” and not overemphasize the role of whites and underemphasize the role of the freedom seekers themselves and northern and southern African Americans and their communities. That said, unarguably the successes of the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements as well as the civil rights movement are all connected to the Christian church.

We saw civic stewardship again in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Christian men and women in the U.S. joined Bishop Desmond Tutu in the struggle for change in that country. As with the civil rights movement U.S. religious leaders and congregants protested and put themselves at risk of arrest by standing for the rights of Blacks in South Africa.

Stewardship in relations to justice for the disenfranchised is currently alive in our local community. This year it was heartening to see local Christians join with the Central Valley Justice Coalition (CVJC) in response to Freedom Sunday. CVJC’s mission is “to partner with the church and community to prevent human trafficking” (CVJC, website, 2014). On Freedom Sunday churches took time to pray and inform and encourage members to get involved in ending human trafficking. There are many local pastors, leaders, and congregations that are boldly stepping into their civic stewardship role.

Local Examples

One Sunday Henry came to church in a sweatshirt instead of his usual shirt and tie. After our praise and worship period when he stood for prayer he put his hood on his head—an indication that he stood in solidarity with the Trayvon Martins of our society. This simple act of social consciousness spoke volumes to the young brown bodies in the congregation. It sent the message that their middle class, college educated, soft spoken pastor saw them. They were not invisible and the struggles that they face day to day were not unnoticed.

These types of messages are critical in serving today’s diverse worshipping communities. Ministering to those who walk into our sanctuary for Sunday worship and mid-week Bible study is essential to the calling of a pastor. Equally essential is the need for church leaders and parishioners to have a presence in the everyday life of our communities. To show that we are not “holier than thou” but we are just like the proverbial “thou” with “hurts and hang-ups” like those discussed weekly at Celebrate Recovery gatherings, the Christian voice needs to be heard and the Christian face needs to be seen as actively caring for individuals and municipalities within our spheres of influence. The good news is that this is happening. Pastors and their congregations are stepping out and taking risks to lead programs, events, and activities outside of the four walls of the church and, they are touching lives in our city.

“Be Safe”

The Westside of Fresno, California is an area of the city that has a reputation for high poverty and high crime rates. Early in 2012 Henry was approached by Faith in Community to help develop a Night Walks program in West Fresno. According to the Fresno Bee “The faith-based Night Walks program got its start in Boston 20 years ago after a brutal gang-related attack inside a church at a funeral service. Violent crime rates plummeted there after the faith community went into the streets between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Thursday and Friday nights.”

In partnership with Andy Levine of Faith in Community Henry approached the West Fresno Ministerial Alliance and urged them to not only get involved with Night Walks, but to take the lead in sustaining the effort. This was not, however, an easy sale. “In the beginning, it took some convincing to get church members to volunteer to go into southwest Fresno at night — on foot,” stated Rev. B.T. Lewis, Pastor of Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church. It was Lewis’ urging pastors to support Henry’s proposal that led to the alliance’s participation in and leadership of Fresno Night Walks. As a result at least ten Fresno pastors and their congregations are currently involved in the walks (Fresno Night Walks, 2014).

Pastors and members are trained to participate in this program. Walkers are a positive and hopeful presence in the neighborhoods, greeting residents with “How y’all doin’?” “Be Safe.”, and “Can we pray for you?” conveying a sense of normalcy with their presence amidst law-abiding citizens and gang members alike. (Fresno Bee, 2012)

Night Walks has caused local law enforcement leaders to verbalize a feeling of optimism about the neighborhoods. They also declare that the walks have had an impact with crime rates dropping almost 35.9% in that region in comparison to the 20.4% drop in the rest of the city over the same time period in 2012 (Fresno Bee, 2012).

Although the City of Fresno lists Fresno Night Walks under the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Initiative (City of Fresno, 2014), the Night Walk’s leadership is clear that the project is separate from those initiatives. To be seen as a part of law enforcements initiatives would, in the eyes of the Night Walk leadership, negatively impact the projects credibility with the very folks they desire to reach and serve (Fresno Bee, 2012). Serve, of course, with the gospel of love and peace of the Savior, but more immediately with a care and concern for their very lives.

Church and City—“Win-Win”

The Way Ministries…John 14:6 has been working for the past 25 years with some of Fresno’s most vulnerable residents. Since its inception the ministry has been serving in two of the areas often cited for having some of the highest levels of concentrated poverty in the U. S. i.e. Jefferson area and southwest Fresno (Brookings Institute Report, 2006).

Recently, the ministry and other Fresno faith-based organizations, have partnered with the City of Fresno with what many see as a win-win situation. With the recent financial crisis in the country, the City had to cut back programs and services and even close the doors of some of its parks and community centers. As a result, the city has established relationships with faith based and other community benefit organizations to provide non-religious programs and services during normal service hours. The city then allows them to use the parks and community centers for religious programs and activities when the community centers are closed.

Our partnership came about because we developed relationships through the years with our district’s councilmembers. The councilmember for our district, the police chief as well as the mayor and other officials are often invited to our special events. Annually, we hold block parties with Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life – a collaborative with police, faith based, and community organizations. At the block party we have publicly and sincerely acknowledged specific school officials, city officials and law enforcement officers for the good work they have done in our neighborhood. We pray for them and give them an opportunity to address the neighborhood and for neighbors to address them.

Last year we met with local officials and shared our need for a facility to provide services to the children and families we shepherd. As a result our local councilmember arranged for us to visit several of the closed or underused community centers. In the end we collaborated with the city to serve at the Lafayette Park and Community Center. At this location, we partner with Every Neighborhood Partnership to host the Saturday Sports Program. We also partner with Fresno State’s Partners in Art program that is working with the children and youth in the neighborhood to design and place a mural on the park’s brick wall. In our first six months there, we have held a Resurrection Egg Hunt, our Grand Opening, Vacation Bible School, a neighborhood picnic and soon will hold our annual Block Party. We also hosted a community meeting with residents and the developers of a retail establishment proposing to locate in the neighborhood.

The Big Red Church

When leaders of local community groups, that are marginalized or disenfranchised, are looking for a large centrally located place willing to embrace their diverse constituencies, inevitably The Big Red Church comes up. Often, those in the discussion do not even know the official name of the church—First Congregational Church. But they know it is a place where they can feel safe to do their work. An example is the annual “Breaking the Silence” (BTS) event put on by the organization of the same name. BTS was founded by Dakota Draconi, an advocate for victims of abuse and member of the Lesbian, Gay and Bi-Sexual community. BTS is held each year at The Big Red Church to bring awareness to the issue of child abuse and neglect. Survivors from diverse backgrounds share their stories. Community organizations staff tables with information on services and resources. Peer counselors from Fresno State are on hand to provide support to those who share their stories.

Allowing organizations like BTS to use their facility is in line with The Big Red Church’s culture. This can be seen in the church’s Ministry of Community Outreach’s that holds “Learning Circles in which issues of justice, peace, and the environment are key components of (the) church’s needful awareness and action” (First Congregational Church, 2014). What a way to share the love of Jesus Christ with individuals who are disillusioned with the church and some who have even expressed fear at the prospect of interacting with Christians. For them to come to an event in a Christian establishment opens doors and hopefully hearts to the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

“Don’t Shoot”

Last year, a group of pastors were asked, “What was your personal and/or your congregation’s response to the Trayvon Martin incident?” One white pastor responded that he did not address it at all. Two pastors, men of color, were vehement in their responses that addressing the issue to their congregation was imperative for the safety and well-being of their members, particularly young men of color. One pastor said he talked to the young men in his congregation about how to respond to law enforcement in an effort to keep them alive. As a result of these varied responses pastors were asked to consider, if by choosing to not address the issue from the pulpit was an opportunity missed to minister to hurting people in their pews. That concern was echoed when in light of more recent shootings of unarmed black men an African American male parishioner of a majority white congregation in New York wrote: “Ignoring the deaths of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Jordan Davis and others in service of placating white congregants is just as dangerous and problematic as overtly racist responses. Silence inadvertently communicates to the white members that these aren’t important matters or that they are not relevant to the faith” (Clay, 2014).

In contrast to silence, less than 10 days after the police shooting of the unarmed teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, pastors and congregations rallied with Faith in Community at the local community college to speak out and bring attention to the fact that Fresno is not immune to the events happening in Ferguson. A diverse group of pastors and community members spoke to the issue. In the end, the crowd of over 100 individuals stood together with arms held high and shouted “Don’t Shoot!” to symbolize their concern with the number of unarmed black and brown bodies shot by law enforcement officers. To publicly take a stand on these issues is not always easy for pastors or lay persons. Indeed there is much that keeps individuals from actively engaging in civic stewardship.

Barriers and Objections to Civic Stewardship

In the provocative book unchristian, Kinnaman and Lyons tell readers that research indicates that “outsiders”—those outside of the Christian faith—find Christians to live lives that are sheltered. According to “outsiders” Christians are perceived as “boring, unintelligent, and out of touch with reality.” This perception is in line with the aforementioned reality that the local focus of many pastors’ is on ministering to the spiritual growth of their congregation members to the exclusion of people outside the walls of their church. This is a barrier to civic stewardship because focusing inside the walls of the church “leaves us unable or unwilling to help people outside the church walls who need Jesus. Yet the Bible instructs mature believers to influence people and places around them—while maintaining their personal integrity and purity” (Kinnaman and Lyons, 2008). This statement is a helpful response to the civic stewardship objection that “such activity will lead to compromise in the area of theology” (Decker, 2011).

Although church leaders may object to civic engagement in order to “protect themselves from the lure of political power and influence that might be gained through civic engagement” (Decker, 2011) it is important to remember that civic stewardship and engagement is an opportunity for Christians to let their light shine (Matthew 5:16).

Stepping Into the Role of Civic Steward

To be honest, we had not identified ourselves as civic stewards until we were asked to write this article. We have just been doing what God has called us to do. Following God’s Call is the first of ten strategies that Decker outlines in encouraging pastors and congregations to be civic stewards (Decker, 2011). Prayer is equally important. Pray for the city, its people, its leaders and institutions, its issues, problems, and gifts. Pray that God will reveal how, where and with whom your congregation should be engaged. It will be different for each church. Discern the particular role you and your ministry are to play in the life of the city.

Take your time. Serving as civic steward is about Building Relationships. We have been steadily developing relationships with law enforcement officials, local concerned citizens, other churches and ministries. Over time, some of those individuals we have been in relationship with have become elected officials and leaders in other areas of government, education, and business. We prayed for them and with them before they were in positions of influence. We pray for them and with them now. All of this fits into another strategy i.e. Commit to Longevity (Decker, 2011).

Another of Decker’s key strategy is to Study the City. Attend town hall meetings, forums, conferences, press conferences. Read reports and talk to officials and residents about what is going on in the city. Know the strengths, needs and challenges of the city
(Decker, 2011).

Finally, love your city. Love your neighbors. Open your arms to the diversity in cultures, religions, lifestyles, ages, life circumstances and economic and social classes that make up your city. Wherever you live, your city is rich. Sometimes we have to dig deep to find the treasure but they are there for us to be faithful stewards over—until the Lord returns.


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