Where Christian Civic Engagement Begins

Tim Soerens believes that contributing to the ‘shalom’ of his city starts with showing up. Christy Tennant 11.21.11

On April 21, 2011, Tim Soerens stood before the 50 or so people who had shown up at the South Lake Union neighborhood community center, where Seattle mayor Mike McGinn was holding a town hall meeting. As the moderator, Soerens’s job was to create a hospitable environment for discussion of issues ranging from local dog parks to a $2 billion tunnel through downtown—and to hold both the citizens and the mayor to their allotted time.

Soerens, 32, is a church planter and one of the founders of the Parish Collective, which seeks to help local churches be both “rooted in neighborhoods and linked across cities.” For Soerens’s church in the South Lake Union neighborhood, that meant helping to start the neighborhood’s first farmers’ market, hosting a weekly BBQ, and working with their neighbors in a local community garden—getting involved with existing nonprofits and initiatives whenever possible rather than starting new efforts from scratch. Many community council meetings later, he’s now active in Wallingford, a neighborhood about a mile from South Lake Union, where he says he is “beginning the listening, organizing, and [finding] pathways of connection.”

How does a church planter—or any Christian, for that matter—become a civic leader? According to Soerens, “You just need to show up and be consistent for a while. About 100 people run Seattle. Certainly the mayor and City Council, but from there you begin to see about the same 75 people or so at everything. This might be a slight exaggeration, but not as much as you might think.” For Soerens, the link between civic engagement and the flourishing of the city is inextricable. “Democracy is a brilliant system if people show up. But if they don’t, that vacuum will quickly get filled, and not always for the best.”

Soerens’s approach to civic influence doesn’t require huge numbers or big budgets. “There is a general rule I’ve heard, at least in Seattle: If you can get 10 people to give 10 hours of their time for the same thing, you can pass legislation. And while that is actually a lot harder than it sounds, I think it’s realistic.” In fact, Soerens contends that “if you had three to five people of faith in each neighborhood of a city who were consistently involved in civic participation in their neighborhood, and they knew each other, they would have more influence to shape and bless the city than any mega church with tens of thousands. Showing up once is not so hard; showing up for months and years is what creates the social capital for real change. But it really is just showing up, listening deeply, and seeking common-good solutions.”

So, several years ago, Soerens decided to “show up,” and over time, he found himself in civic leadership. In fact, showing up was how Soerens got to know Mayor McGinn. Before McGinn was elected, the two men served together on local initiatives. Through his community organizing—the farmers’ market, community garden, and neighborhood BBQ—Soerens began to find himself in the offices of city council members and leaders of various departments with the city. His role as moderator that April evening reflected the trust Soerens has built with the mayor and his staff.

For Soerens, being a civic-minded follower of Christ connects him to the very first believers. “If Christians dare to accept the confession that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ as the early church did, that means we are called to live out an alternative story rooted in the holistic, reconciling, and restoring mission of God. If Jesus is Lord of our neighborhood, what then?” If more Christians asked this question, he says, the “embodied church of, with, and for the neighborhood could emerge. Then, of course, the task is to lean into the tension between how things are and how things are supposed to be.”

You could call that the crossroads of kingdom theology—the place where the already and the not yet meet. Soerens believes the church is most at home at that intersection. “Occupying that place—living in that intersection—is not so much a new strategy for the church, but rather a big, holy dare.” Twenty years from now, Soerens hopes to see Wallingford and other Seattle neighborhoods become places where neighbors know and care for one another, spiritually and tangibly. And he hopes that those local places will be connected widely with other neighborhoods and cities, so that the church becomes “a network of blessing” for the world.

“This dare to follow Jesus into the very particular places, stories, and realities of different neighborhoods will be unique to each place, but I believe the task of engaging in the restorative work God is already doing is universal.”

And sometimes, participating in that restorative work begins by just showing up!

About Bob Simpson

Bob is project manager of The Australian Media Engagement Project (AMEP). He believes that ethical and independent journalists are vital to the continuing freedom of Australian citizens. You could argue that In recent decades media organisations have subtly subverted journalism to their own private commercial interests, and away from an integrated sense of fairness, well being and shared prosperity in Australian society, especially for the disempowered. AMEP aims to change general media narratives towards greater fairness, well being and shared prosperity in Australia.

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4 Responses to Where Christian Civic Engagement Begins

  1. geraldine says:

    Love it! Some great examples of how we can actually impact the places we live. I believe this is what it means to be light in a community. And to think it takes so few to make such a difference. This is a message that has got to get out there…

    • Bob Simpson says:

      Hi Geraldine, get many of your Friends to comment. Let’s build the conversation. So let me start! What if authentically following Jesus is sociopolitical, rather than religious? Social transformation through loving service, rather than power? Bob

  2. Jim says:

    I enjoyed the article, thanks Christy.
    Bob: your emphasis on service not power is spot on, I would agree.

    Christians seem to fall into a number of “camps” when it comes to how we engage with the world around us and politics in particular. Some want so much to “have an influence” that they think they need to grasp for power and dominate over others. They think it is our job to exercise worldly power and make “Christain laws” for society (“Christian laws” seems to be an oxymoron to me).

    That position goes directly against the teaching of Jesus – ‘And calling them to himself, Jesus said to them, ‘You know that those who are recognised as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark: 10:42-45).

    So instead, we should seek to be an influence through servanthood. Through being “the least” in the world, but an example, and a servant.

    • Bob Simpson says:

      Hey Jim, It seems from studying the Holy Bible that loving service is the radical sociopolitical strategy of Jesus to draw the people and institutions of the world to himself. Am I right? If so, what are the stumbling blocks that seem to stop more Christians from being equipped to behave in this way? Regards, Bob

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