Community organising teaches us to see development as a process – one that may not yield the quick results of some other approaches, but one which gradually builds to a point where all God’s people have a seat at the tables of power and the Table of God. This is typically expressed in five stages, which can be called Organising, Listening, Planning, Action and Negotiating, with at each stage a rhythm of Research-Action-Evaluation. What we are calling ‘the Process of Community Organising’ is sometimes referred to as ‘the theory of change’, because the claim being made is that:
- the best way to change the world is to get people a seat at the tables of power and the Table of God
- the best way to get people a seat at the table is through action by public storytelling
- action through public story-telling needs to be planned, with careful attention to issues of power
- planning should follow careful and curious listening,
- and listening can only work where a relational culture has been built.
So, it really matters that things are done in this order. Try to plan before you form a relational culture, and you’ll achieve nothing but resentment. (As community organisers often put it, you get everyone on the bus and then work out where the bus is going, rather than setting the destination and then recruiting people to get on board). Try to take action for the community before you’ve listened to the community, and you’ll find yourself in power over rather than power with.
|Stage in the Process||Internal Categories for Christian Leaders||External Categories for Christian Leaders|
|Gathering through liturgy and relationships (Organising)||121s Liturgy Fun||121s Building alliances for the common good|
|Listening||Consultation House meetings Contemplation Theological Reflection||Consultation House meetings|
|Planning||Power analysis Vision setting Strategy||Power analysis Vision setting Strategy|
|Action through Public Storytelling||Testimony Preaching Pastoral Care Character Formation||Testimony Evangelism-as-story-telling Campaigning Social Action|
|Enabling Everyone to have a Seat at the Table||Inclusion Eucharist Flat teams Distributed Authority||Evangelism-as-|
The first step: Gathering
through Liturgy and Relationships
The state has a bureaucratic culture. It can’t help it; it’s just the way it is. And it exercises power-over you. (If you doubt the reality of the state’s power-over you, try resisting it, and you will find the police involved first and then, if you find a way to refuse to back down when the police move in, the army).
Business has a market-oriented culture. Again, it can’t help it. It has power-over its employees (and if the employees do not comply, it will find a way to fire them).
But alongside the state and business, there is another culture, which we call ‘civil society’. Residents’ associations, mosques, student unions, charities and churches are part of civil society, and, at least in theory, these institutions do not have power-over but power-with. The first stage in Christian community organising is making sure that churches are indeed operating this way. It’s not that churches are not teams and need to become them; churches are already teams by virtue of being made up from the faithful baptized, but they need to live in accord with that reality.
Internally, this entails lots of ‘121s’ (conversations in which each party both listens well and discloses well), but also team building (For five practical steps towards building a Church of Teams see Griffiths, Refusing to be Indispensable, p13) and liturgy. Liturgy, because community formation is more difficult if you don’t have a liturgy that members can grasp and rely on; when the rest of the world changes they can count on the liturgy not because the words will be unchanged but because the ordo, the shape of the liturgy will still be there (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Things (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1998)). Externally, yes, lots of 121s, but also ceasing to think that our prayers will be answered by God making England Christian again (whatever that means) and instead committing ourselves to be a creative minority and be really good at forming alliances and partnerships for justice and the common good with the other creative minorities that make up civil society. And liturgy is as necessary externally in these alliances as it is internally in churches; there is a way, an ordo, of holding core group meetings and civic assemblies and Citizens chapters, and we need to become proficient at living in tune with these liturgies.
If you want biblical examples of God as an organizer, you will find them in Genesis 12, where God starts again with a creative, blessed and blessing minority after the great disorganizing work he did at Babel; in Jeremiah 29, a call to exiles to organize for the common good after the great disorganizing of the exile; and in Luke 1:39-45 where, after disorganising the lives of Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, God engineers the mother of all 121s as the first step to a new community.
The second step: listening
Our culture encourages us to listen to our hearts, listen to our guts, listen to our inner voices, but rarely do we listen carefully and with intent to other people. Online and in person, we’re defining ourselves and shaping the narrative and staying on message, while checking FaceBook during Zoom meetings and drafting responses to the latest government announcement as the podium is being set up outside 10 Downing Street. Some Christian leaders are an exception, in that they are adept at therapeutic listening – listening to those who are bereaved or unwell or in trauma. But even those leaders seldom take time, outside this special case, to listen; and especially not to listen curiously.
So, learning community organising means learning to listen. Alinsky encouraged ‘double listening’ – listening to our institution (in this case our congregation) and listening to the community. Organizers listen to their community – not by conducting surveys but by having 121 after 121 after 121, and house meetings, and conversations of various kinds. They do it to listen to stories, and the feelings behind stories, and the gifts that people bring to the table, and hopes and dreams. They don’t assume, with glass-half-empty pessimism, that they will find nothing but trouble and lack; they assume, with a theology that believes in abundance and the goodness of creation, that they will find gifts and assets and leaders. ‘Organizers enter a community not to catalogue a litany of the community’s deficits, but to see gifts and identify and train leaders. A fundamental assumption of organizing is that every community has within it leaders capable of acting on their own behalf in relationship with others. A goal of organizing is to find and cultivate these leaders.’
For Christians, of course, along with this double listening is a third: listening to God. The term ‘triple listening’ was coined by John Stott. So listening needs to include an aspect of contemplation and of bible-open theological reflection, the primary ways in which we ‘listen to God’ today. The truth is that these three kinds of listening are intimately connected. Christians have an advantage as community-listeners, if they have learned contemplative prayer – me being me in the presence of God being God. Contemplative prayer isn’t easy; our attention frequently wanders, and we have to draw it back (gently, as if we were training a kitten) to our breathing and the reality of the presence of God. In fact, contemplation is important for two reasons – first because listening to God is a good in itself, and fundamental to our calling as Christians, and second because the process of learning to listen to others is honed by learning to listen to God. Remember, God is a listener too (think of Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21).
Jesus refuses even the most obvious assumptions in order to create real communication: we co-speak with God the words of our salvation.
To the blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?”
To the woman in the crowd, “Who touched me?”
To the paralysed man by the pool, “Do you want to get well?”
The Syro-Phoenician woman wins her miracle by wrestling,
much as Jacob does.
Each is called to an articulation of faith and hope.
At the beginning of John’s Gospel, the reader is very aware of the parallel with Genesis – ‘In the beginning was the Word’ echoes ‘In the beginning, God.’ So we’re asking the question – what is Jesus going to say? After all, he is God walking the earth – God’s first recorded words were ‘let there be light’, what will Jesus say? And Jesus’ first words in John are: ‘what are you looking for?’ At one level, of course, a polite question – ‘can I help you?’ But so much more than that, Jesus genuinely wants them to articulate their deepest longings. We must do no less.
The third step: planning
Ernesto Cortes Jr points to a paradox – how is that community organising is negative about Planning, yet includes planning in its five steps? The answer, for Cortes, is to distinguish Planning (with a capital P – the kind of Planning that community organising doesn’t like, which is done from above, championed by one single leader and ‘comprehensive’) from planning (the kind of planning that community organising does like). planning is simply the middle stage between listening to the community and action. Stories are turned into bite-sized, ‘winnable’ issues (‘problems lead to conferences, issues lead to action’); when the gifts local people bring, and a power analysis (see below) are brought to bear, a plan for action comes together. Cortes uses the Greek word metis to mean ‘local knowledge … gained through incremental learning and constant feedback and evaluation,’ and claims that it is metis that makes the difference between Plans and plans. Bretherton uses the adjectives ‘prudential’ and ‘non-ideological.’ To which we want to add ‘local’ or even ‘parochial’.
For the Christian, the temptation to be the heroic, central, top-of-the-triangle or top-of-the-tower-of Babel leader is a familiar one. It is the original temptation of Genesis 3, the heart of the temptations in the wilderness of Jesus. But we are following Jesus, and that means we are not heroes but servants, not Planners but planners. ‘The Saviour rules, he gives life and breath, he heals us, he keeps us, he conquers sin & carries out decrees -yes, he does all this – but my sisters and brothers, he does all this after the pattern of the cross, and we must never present him as a despot with a way of power, but as a Lamb: patient, lamblike, gentle if things do not go his way’.
So, in community organising, planning is simply the thing that happens after listening and before action. It includes articulating a vision and strategy. You will do it carefully, aware of the pitfalls of power-over rather than power-with; but you will not fall for the opposite trap of rejecting power altogether. As Christians, we can give power a bad press. We focus on God bringing down the mighty from their seat and forget its counterpoint: lifting up the lowly. Where to? To a place of power, perhaps even the seat that has just been vacated! In one of Paul’s few references to the Kingdom of God, he tells us that ‘it is a matter not of talk but of power’; and when community organising aims for power it is always power-with, not power-over. Power itself is neutral. If we don’t look to hold power, others will not hesitate to take it.
Unsettled leaders know power is not bad. An approach to training that is shaped by community organising will move power from the category of ‘temptation’ to the category of ‘gift of God’ and, when we see that, we can dismantle something else poisonous. Power is not a zero-sum game. There is not a limited amount of it, like a possession or resource, so that in order for me to have more of it, you must have less. Like all the gifts of God, such as peace, love and justice, power builds when it is shared.
The fourth step: action through public storytelling
So, the next thing that needs to happen, after planning, is action. However, we aren’t just saying ‘go and do something’. The action a Community-Organising-influenced training scheme envisages, has a very particular texture and character.
- Because we believe that Christian leadership should keep the diaconal/external roughly in balance with the presbyteral/internal, the location of the action is important. Christian leaders need to be spending about half their energy internally in hybrid church, and about half externally.
- Because we are following the five phases of community organising, the process of the action is important. Building community, listening and planning come before action. Get them in the wrong order and you risk unintended and destructive consequences.
- Because we believe in ‘action through public story-telling’, the definition of action is distinctive. Community organisers believe storytelling and testimony are the keys to enabling pastoral care, preaching, social action and holding business and the State to account, and Christian leaders who see their role as analogous to community organisers will be spending a lot of their time telling stories, hearing stories and helping others tell their stories.
- And finally, because we live by the Iron Rule, our action has a particular restraint. We don’t act for people; we act with them. Just as the God who can do anything with nothing chooses not to act towards us without us, we do not act on behalf of our communities without them.
But also, we’re saying ‘go and do something’. Do it gladly. Do it boldly.
One of the ways Christian leaders can see their roles is as public storytellers and leaders who see their role as community organising will find stories everywhere, because people are everywhere, and, to quote Barack Obama, ‘Whatever else people are, people are stories’. We can’t push this too far – people are not only stories – but Obama had a point. All the skills of interpretation we learn in order to look at books, and especially the Bible, we can deploy to look at people, the living human documents, because they are just as endlessly fascinating.
Many of the things we do collectively in church life are storytelling. Our liturgy tells a story; preaching is storytelling – or it should be – and I don’t just mean we should tell stories in sermons. I mean that a sermon is a way of showing that God’s story and our stories meet or can meet. God’s big story is about creation and Israel and Jesus’s life death and resurrection and the mission of the church and the way God’s going to put the world right. Our stories are about pain and sadness and joy and climate change and COVID-19 and a need to be loved and a search for meaning and justice. Put the two of them together and preaching catches light.
So Christian leaders who see their job as community organising will preach better, because they’ll have listened to the stories of their congregations and their communities and will be able to make those connections better with the story of God. They’ll also be putting lots of energy into helping other people tell their stories. Church services are likely to feature people’s stories almost every week – whether of how they came to faith, or of how their faith is making a difference in their working lives, or of the struggles they face. Community organising has borrowed the term ‘testimony’ to speak of public storytelling and has helped churches rediscover a part of their heritage – among eighteenth century Moravians, for example, every member was assisted to create a long, medium and short version of their life story (they called it a Lebenslauf). It wouldn’t hurt if our church members started seeing testimony as a normal part of church life. This won’t happen automatically; it will take sensitivity and training. But it really is possible. Community organising gives us a chance to reclaim that word, testimony – Brueggemann speaks of the whole Bible as testimony. If you think about it, most of the things we believe we believe on the basis of testimony – of a witness we trust telling us their experience. And before you know it church members who’ve learned to tell their stories inside the gathered church, online or onsite, will have a newfound confidence in telling their stories and God’s outside the gathered community. This is one half of the task of evangelism. No argument can change a person’s mind, but the right story can change their whole being.
It’s not just preaching and evangelism. Pastoral care is largely a question of stories, too – hearing stories, holding stories, giving people space to make sense of and tell their own stories, helping people align their story with God’s story. Maya Angelou said, ‘there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you.’ Barack Obama would say that the key decision in all our lives is whether we interpret our own stories with a hermeneutic of fear or a hermeneutic of hope. But we can’t make that decision without someone to be there as we’re doing it, and it takes years and years, and that to a large degree is what we call pastoral care.
We are not saying pastoral care helps people retell their stories with happy endings. In community organising, the listening component comes before the storytelling and stories are allowed to breathe and to be, in the voices of those to whom they belong, rather than being forced into some predetermined pattern with all the authenticity rubbed away. There are testimonies of conversion and testimonies of faith, but there are also testimonies of injustice and testimonies of lament, and it’s important they are expressed and heard without people tidying them up. The glorious thing about the Bible stories, especially the Gospels, is the mix of dark and light, shining example and terrible warning, voice of praise and harrowing cry, and how faithfully those followers of Jesus allowed their mistakes and bumblings to be recorded for all time. Our holiest books are stitched together with human frailty and divine mercy.
The heart of community organising action is not meeting needs through service projects, not ‘protest’ as such, but public storytelling, with a view to helping people get a place at the table. Externally, community organising ensures that decision-makers hear the stories of the people effected by their policies – accompanied by a large number of people having ‘turned out’ as evidence of the power of the alliance – at formal assemblies, or tea-parties, or rallies, or carol concerts, or flash-mobs, or Zoom, or wherever people gather for public story-telling.
The fifth step: ensuring everyone has a seat at the table
For me this fifth step is all about spotting triangles all over the place and trying to turn them into tables. I can’t see a triangle without wanting to destroy it. Don’t ever invite me to an orchestral concert. I can’t see a triangle without thinking of the tower of Babel and wanting to turn it into a table.
I’ll explain. When I look at the church, and look at society, I see people having power over others. Sometimes the majority have power over the minority. And sometimes it’s more like a pyramid, with one person or an elite having power over everyone else. You even find this in Zoom meetings, where one person is using their position or their charisma or the force of their personality, or even a mute button, to hold other people down. You sometimes find it in churches, where the idea is that the person at the top or at the centre is the Vicar, and everyone else is just their helpers. And then you find the pyramids replicated so that the children’s worker is at the top in children’s work, and everyone else in that ministry is just their helper, and the music director is at the top of the music pyramid and all the other musicians or choir members, or band members just have to help the music director achieve their vision.
Community organising is not about creating a new community-organising triangle where the community organiser can be at the top and the centre. It’s all about enabling other people to shine. It’s about power-with, not power-over. And it’s about tables not triangles. Here’s some poetic writing from Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool.
The table is simple, but it’s well-made
because the man who made it was a carpenter.
It has many uses.
A table for meeting, talking around, thumping,
signing treaties, debating, arguing, voting.
But mostly a table for eating.
You can’t sit alone at this table,
you can’t buy a meal here, or a ticket here,
everything is freely given.
You can sit here with people you don’t know
and be bound together.
A poor man feeds you in a way
that means you never go hungry again.
Which brings us back to the fifth stage of community organising. We call this ‘ensuring everyone gets a place at the table’. It’s about the poor getting a place at the negotiating table with the State or Big Business. God wants to throw down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the humble and meek, and if God does that, we’ll all end up on a level, eye to eye, face to face, Zoom to Zoom. It’s also about building flat teams in our institutions – breaking down the hierarchies and finding new ways to work that are more fully about power-with instead of power-over.
Because we’re Christians, we can’t hear the word “table” without also thinking about the Table of God, the Holy Table or Altar or whatever you want to call it. It’s part of the task of Christian leadership to extend an invitation to the Banquet of God which is prefigured in the Eucharist. So evangelism is absolutely a part of community organising, but so also is an approach to inclusion that makes sure we don’t put obstacles in people’s way.
It might sound like the three things in this final stage – negotiating, flat teams and inviting people to Jesus and the Eucharist – are just three random things that are only connected by the use of the metaphor “table”. But while the metaphor does happen to be convenient, there is more to the connection than tables. The point is – the final stage of community organising is not about gaining anything for the organiser, it’s not about power-over. Community organisers try to get other people to the places they need to be. That might mean getting them into the room where it happens when decisions are made, or getting them appropriate power-with within their institutions, or getting them into the best place they possibly can be, which we believe is adoption as children of a loving God through Jesus. It isn’t standing above and handing down power like a favour but raising people up to where they were always meant to be. So, instead of calling the fifth stage ‘ensuring everyone gets a place at the table’, we could have called it ‘ensuring everyone is in the best possible position in relation to the State, business, the Church and God, without the Christian leader exercising power over anyone’ – but that’s just not catchy.
We can’t emphasise enough, though, that not liking triangles – hierarchies that exercise power-over, if you like – and liking flat or democratic or participative structures is in the essence of community organising. It stops it being just a set of tools to do expected or needed things more effectively and enables it to breathe as a set of tools to do different things differently.
The work of community organizing is continuous: not a project to be completed but a relationship to be lived, grown and shared. Externally, the local alliance translates problems into issues, tells stories publicly and develops enough power-with to mean that the negotiations are ongoing, on an increasing number of issues. We become a society with the poor in the centre. Internally, more and more people are included at the heart of the church and find their place at the tables of church decision-making, and the Table of God.
 Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp99-102
 Jeffrey K Krehbiel, Reflecting with Scripture on Community Organizing (Chicago: ACTA, 2017), p16
 We are grateful to Charlie Tatham for this insight
 Ernesto Cortes Jr, Rebuilding our Institutions, (Chicago: ACTA, 2010), pp14-19
 Matthew Bolton, How to Resist (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), p68
 Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, p74
 1 Corinthians 4:20
 Alexander Hamilton (yes, that one) defined power as ‘the ability or faculty of doing a thing’ – Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, p52
 We are not against service projects, but we are aware of the potential for service projects to be ways for churches to take ‘power-over’ the poor. The work of mercy is likely to be necessary in the short-term, but in the long-term it needs to be accompanied by the whole process of community organising if it is to result in justice.
 ‘Protest sounds like you’re reacting to someone else’s agenda, action means the people have a plan. They are initiating the change and someone else is going to have to react.’ Bolton, How to Resist, p77.
 Paul Bayes, The Table (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2019), p2. Punctuation mine.