By Rev. Linda Settles
The story of Nehemiah is one of my favorites. It is a story of compassion, strife, and triumph, all occurring in the context of community. Pastor Joseph Daniels uses the story of Nehemiah as a rubric for community engagement and transformation. He makes the claim that “...if we return to our biblical roots of community engagement and covenantal relationship, we will reclaim the church’s rightful place as the center for life and community transformation” (p.xiv).
We get to walk with Nehemiah, a humble cupbearer who was himself in captivity, as his heart is turned first to God (covenantal relationship), and then to the plight of the people that he loved (community engagement). Referring to John Wesley’s statement that “The world is my parish,” Daniels exhorts us to see our communities as our congregations. This calls us to engage the folks and businesses that surround us, many of whom may never have set foot in our church.
The first step on the journey is self-assessment. What is it in your community or the world that causes your heart to break? Daniels makes the claim that once you discover what makes your heart break, you will find your passion. One cannot truly find their purpose or meaning in life, according to Daniels, until they find their passion - that suffering that causes your heart to break.
Sometimes what is enslaving us is our comfortable lives. When you discover what breaks your heart, you’ll no longer be trapped by your own comfort level, but you will be emboldened to engage with the hurting and broken in your own communities.
Daniels doesn’t just trace Nehemiah’s journey, but he brings us, the church, into the journey. We get to wrestle with issues such as what would it look like for our church to give it our all, to take real risks, to not just drive through the mission field and go home but to stop, get out of the car, and walk through our mission fields, getting to know our neighbors’ hopes and dreams for the community.
But Daniels doesn’t just pose the “what ifs,” he provides practical steps for assessing needs, gaining the commitment of others, identifying leaders in the congregation and community, and for addressing opposition that will surely come. Each chapter ends with reflection questions for personal study, small group study, and for training leadership teams or entire congregations. Daniels also includes an example of a 1:1 relational training that is useful for creating space for people in the church and in the community to have conversations about their passions and how they may intersect with the needs of the community.
By walking with Nehemiah, congregations can discover their passion for their community, feel their own hearts break, and begin to engage in ministries that will transform their own communities.
Walking With Nehemiah is engaging as well as instructional. It is full of strategies and stories that helped Nehemiah to transform his community, that helped Pastor Daniels and “The Emory Fellowship” to transform their community, and that will help other congregations to participate in the work of kingdom building through community transformation.