Since the early 1990s, Servant Partners has been committed to transforming urban poor communities through church planting, community organizing, and leadership development. Throughout the years, several markers of community transformation have surfaced as indicators of positive, sustainable, holistic change. These are the Nine Signs of Transformation. The first of these nine is “Jesus Communities.”
Jesus Communities are reproducing, transformational communities of Jesus followers. We spoke with Co-General Director Lisa Engdahl to learn more about Jesus Communities and their importance in the journey of community transformation.
*This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What are “Jesus Communities” and why are they important?
At Servant Partners, we believe that transformation, at its heart, is spiritual—in the hearts and lives of individuals, local churches, gatherings of believers; but also that this transformation extends out holistically to our neighbors and cities. Early in our time in Servant Partners, we had a clear sense from the Lord that we were called to be a spiritual movement—not just to do development projects, but to have a spiritual life at the center of our work.
We call these ‘Jesus Communities.’ Sometimes when people imagine church, they have a specific picture of what that looks like—space, structure, and culture. Jesus Communities are a gathering of God’s people in an urban community—from home groups; to small, organic churches; to large, fully developed congregations that are sending people out to plant other churches in mission. The full range of this is what we mean by Jesus Communities.
In each of our settings, Jesus Communities are appropriate to the context that we’re in. In situations where there’s a need to plant a fellowship—like a church—we do that. Other times, we’re working with an existing church or movement, helping it become holistic in its outreach. We see the church as the central vehicle whereby God is transforming the world. It’s a sign of the Kingdom of God which relates very directly to every other sign of transformation.
What happens when this sign is neglected?
I’ve seen a few different issues. One is the difficulty for people to endure in the process of working for change in urban poor communities. You face great setbacks, suffering, contend with evil that’s impacting your own life, family, and neighbors. And if there’s no centeredness in God, there’s greater burnout and discouragement. People dealing with injustice may engage evil more on its own terms—meeting anger with anger, violence with violence, and becoming bitter and unforgiving.
Jesus enables us to engage injustice with prayer, forgiveness, and speaking the truth without fear, so that the way we engage the work of transformation reflects the ends we are wanting to achieve. The pressures of urban poor communities obviously affect people even if they are believers, but with Jesus as their center, I’ve seen people move forward in working for transformation, year after year. Faith and spiritual community are sources of joy and strength.
The other is inner freedom. Poverty first seeks to attack the mind and spirit to make people feel that they are valueless, bound, stuck, or without a voice. A relationship with God first restores our true identity. You’re made in the image of God, you have value, Jesus laid down his life for you, he has forgiven you, he has a great purpose for you in the world, and he is greater than these powers that are holding you down in poverty. If people are able to grasp this, that is the first breakthrough into a freedom from the grip of poverty. Even if someone’s financial situation or community has not yet changed, they are free from the lies surrounding poverty that are present in every culture.
I remember a young woman in Bangkok who started following Jesus. Before trusting in Jesus, she felt that she’d never be able to “make merit” with offerings to the idols, because she did not have very much money. When she met Jesus, she told people that her heart was now at ease, because she knew she was God’s daughter, and Jesus had made merit for her. An overflowing joy filled her life.
How have you seen Jesus Communities established and thrive through Servant Partners?
There are many wonderful Jesus Communities at Servant Partners sites all over the world.
At New Life Community Church in Lincoln Heights, East Los Angeles, California, we’ve seen people delivered from drug addiction and hopelessness, people putting their trust in Jesus, growing into spiritual leaders, hearing from God, praying for healing, going out in mission and impacting people cross-culturally. They have gone on to create organizations which serve and support people out of their knowledge of their own community. For example, New Life’s ministry, In The City, works with student-athletes to succeed in school and brings parents together to strengthen their community.
Shalom Iglesia in San Jose, California is another thriving Jesus community. Many people have come to put their faith in Jesus. The church hosts Bridge Communities, a program bridging people in different socio-economic classes relationally. They help parents and teenagers work through issues of intergenerational trauma and recently reached their whole community with Dia de Paz (Day of Peace), an event promoting family and community peace. This is an example of holistic transformation moving out from the church’s spiritual center.
In Botocan, an informal settlement in Manila, the Philippines, many church members have deep, familial relationships with one another. This beautiful Jesus community shares the good news of Jesus, worships together, provides counseling and prayer for emotional healing, and strengthens youth academically so they can access higher education. In a recent fire which destroyed many houses in the community, the church helped facilitate the rebuilding of homes, lovingly caring for people in the midst of their losses. The church also blesses Servant Partners interns and staff from all over the world, who are being equipped for urban ministry, by hosting teams and providing training for them.
For more information on Servant Partners’ Nine Signs of Transformation and core values regarding community transformation, visit www.servantpartners.org/about.