Language is a tricky thing and one of the stumbling blocks over recent weeks, for me, has been the use of the terms “community engagement/outreach” and “community development”.
So I wanted to spend a moment demonstrating what I understand to be the unique work of community development by pushing the exegetical limits of the story we read in Luke 17:11-19 of Jesus and the 10 lepers.
I would like to start by suggest that if this is a story of community engagement through a service activity- then it is a failure.
Community engagement is about us making connections with people around us that grow our sense of cohesiveness and connectivity and promote future working together. A successful community engagement activity could be measured by continued or increased participation by engaged parties with a program or wider network of programs. Perhaps as a result of participating in one program, and feeling safe and welcome there, an engaged community member may chose to participate in another program or consider how they might become more connected with or involved with the “engaging” community. Eg. Someone might come to our Church Cafe and as a result of feeling welcome there they might chose not only to return but also to join our craft group… who knows they might even join us on a Sunday?
Despite an unarguably excellent level of service provided by Jesus, of the 10 individuals who experienced healing on this occasion- only one returns. In community engagement terms that is a pretty poor success rate.
However if the activity that Jesus is involved in is one of development rather than engagement/outreach then he has experienced great success.
Community Development can be measured by fullness-of-life measures. As a result of our ongoing interaction are people better off in terms of having lives that are richer, fuller and more connected with community? Are people moving from places of striving to places where they are able to thrive as full contributors in the continued betterment of their communities?
All of those 10 individuals who came to Jesus left experiencing lives that were richer and fuller because they had removed from their lives the most significant barrier to community connection and contribution. They were now able to be not only full participants in their communities but contributors towards further bettering those communities.
Of course this kind of life transforming community development usually takes longer than a single encounter but is a deliberate and significant work over many years. And, as with the story of the 10 lepers, it is rarely a task for which we receive thanks (mostly in our case because, unlike Jesus, this development process is a slow one of 2 steps forward and 1 step backwards). It is also a lot harder to measure success because it requires us to consider complex ways of determining outcomes rather than just counting numbers of people turning up.
The fruit of community engagement may be that a growing number of people attend a program or service (and potentially are better for that experience) but the fruit of community development is measured in lives transformed from situations of isolation and striving to places of mutual contribution.