What It Is, How It Works, and Why Our Churches Desperately Need It

Many today bemoan the politicization of everything. It seems nothing cannot be pulled, twisted, or turned into a cheap political ploy for power. That it is an unpardonable sin in normal society to make it political speaks to just how impoverished our practice of politics has become.

But US—and international—politics have not always been the realm of such blatant nihilism. By nihilism I mean the willingness to leverage anything for the purpose of power, and that nihilistic diminishment of politics, regardless of whether we realize it or not, has come at a steep cost. For politics, as Aristotle, Ella Baker, or those active in synagogue or an immigrant parish would have understood, is the way people make a life together. Without politics, we’re bereft of a way to sort out how to answer the biggest questions life poses, questions like: How do we live well? How do we become virtuous? How do we best sustain the planet and care for one another? How do we know how to rightly distribute resources or worship the right God? That’s right—the church (ecclesia or assembly) is a political body in this sense; it is a social body that acts, makes decisions, orders itself, forms its kids and members, and seeks to pursue common purposes rather than merely a congress of isolated individuals occupying a shared space.  

Real political engagement, however, has become quite foreign to most of us, even those of us who regularly attend church, keep up with the news, and routinely vote. Much of the reason for this diminishment and depreciation of politics, and a major cause for why it’s become so dominated by nihilism, is widespread fragmentation. Social scientists over the last several decades have reported declining levels of trust and social participation among the public along with rising rates of isolation, disparity, and anxiety in what appears to be a vicious chicken-egg circle of atomization and cynicism. In this context, our societal problems and injustices may be quite evident, but what plagues us is an overwhelming sense that there’s nothing we can really do about it.

Organizing, then, is a constellation of artful practices to help rehabilitate our political muscles, to counter the fragmentation, isolation, disparity, and injustice that we see all around us. This is what makes it so powerful and necessary as well as so controversial and despised. In the brief account I provide below, I set out to describe organizing, to identify its goals and purposes, and to argue why I think it is so critical for the church. While I’ve learned a great deal over the past decade and a half from mentors in the field and authors writing on the topic, I’ve intentionally limited myself to a single footnote and avoided sharing quotations so that I can make the piece as accessible and readable as possible.[1] I also attempt to avoid jargon or at least to explain key terms where I’ve felt such terms are necessary. Throughout the essay, however, I will continue to come back to this very simple idea—that organizing is a set of practices aimed at rebuilding and revivifying politics, a politics not neat, free of conflict, or always smooth but one that is radically democratic by nature and that pursues the collective good.

An Artful Set of Practices

Organizing is not a science or a mathematical equation. That is not to say that it doesn’t require research, refinement of practices, learning, or calculation. But fundamentally, it is more art or craft than a strict reproducible method. In fact, organizing is actually a constellation of artful practices aimed at building a community’s capacity to act by knitting together a strong social fabric, engaging in collective analysis and discernment, and challenging the way things are with a new sense of the common good. Some of its basic practices are one-to-one relational meetings and house meetings, congregational assemblies, delegate assemblies, organizational caucuses, power analyses, community research, accountability sessions, and corporate action. Together, these constitute a more dynamic, participatory, and collaborative form of politics; these practices can also lead to results that are more closely connected to the community’s concerns and its hopes.

Organizations tend to engage in these practices in a general sequence through the course of a campaign. For example, they begin with relational meetings and house meetings to identify issues and build solidarity on those issues. Then they conduct research, refine the issues, and analyze the structures of power that govern them. And finally, they conduct an action designed to address the issue. But in truth, a healthy organization is always involved in several (if not all) of these practices at the same time. The overarching intent is to cultivate within the organization a thick mode of political praxis that begins with an understanding of humans as social animals—and not primarily individuals—who are capable of discerning their life together through constant research, action, and evaluation.

The Goals or Purposes of Organizing

As an artful and dynamic practice of politics, organizing has at least four primary goals, all of which interweave and overlap with one another. The first objective of organizing is to build the community’s power to act. Frequently communicated in the iron rule of not doing for others what they can do for themselves, this is usually the most misunderstood aspect of community organizing. And for white, middle-upper class persons, it tends to be the most off-putting. Power in organizing, however, is not the kind of crass power we normally associate with the term or with politics more broadly. In contrast to power that is understood as a zero-sum game and exerted over others, organizing seeks to cultivate a different kind of potency. In organizing communities, the power being built is the power to act, a kind of power cultivated in and with others that is not individualized or top-down. Here, power is the capacity for collective or corporate agency, the ability to act together in a political way to shape as far as possible our life together. Thus, the iron rule is not a reiteration of a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps or teach-a-person-to-fish mentality but the substantial solidarity and countervailing agency to challenge the might of organized money and the intrinsic authority of established orders and their officials. Indeed, in a time where the sway of corporations and markets has reached near unrivaled ascendency, this objective of building an alternative power in organizing may be the most vital need of our congregations and communities.

The second objective of organizing, and one integral to the building of power, is the aim of reweaving and strengthening the social fabric. Such an effort seeks to counter the broad distrust, division, and competition that we learn from our increasingly market-oriented culture, particularly the way in which the pressures of that culture stoke racial, anti-immigrant, and religious animosity. Although we are social animals, our social makeup comes in different forms and is not automatically salubrious. This means that it takes work—good work—to build strong, durable, and robust collaborative relationships.

A key way to articulate this is through the lens of democracy. Democracy is not the natural law of political order, and this is even more the case when we understand democracy as more than simply the right of the franchise: it cannot live by voting alone. Democratic rule requires participation; it necessitates involvement with others and the active cultivation of common interests and common goods, of mutual investment in one another, and of deep reciprocal receptivity, accountability, and collective agency. It is hard, not easy. It is inefficient at times, not industrious. But it aspires to something more than a depleted life of rugged individualism and freedom in solitude.

This alternative begins with reweaving sociality through curious and courageous attempts to get to know one another. The aim here is to connect interests, passions, concerns, and hopes through intentional conversations that are structured to identify these. The most basic practice is the one-to-one meeting, which is initiated by one person (i.e., the organizer) to probe the possibility for collaborative action based on mutual, shared interests and concerns. Critical to these relational meetings is curiosity about the other’s life and circumstances, passions and hopes, and challenges and frustrations, as well as some courage to agitate in the conversation in order to get past vague or superficial talk and elicit specific real desires and anger. A good organizer, and a good community organization, lives by these relational meetings because they help them maintain contact with the lifeblood of the work—the lives of the people. In this way, the organizer can begin to weave durable relational fabric and identify persons keen to actively participate in the public work of making change.

Indeed, the deep relational culture of community organizing is in large part what distinguishes it from mobilization efforts, which are more oriented to mass protest and/or single-issue activism. For organizing, the community’s power is based in these relationships and built in and from these relationships, so it is meant to last and to sustain itself beyond any single issue, event, or action. It is in this way more a fundamental work of politics. Furthermore, this relational foundation of organizing allows it to work from the ground up—it begins with the people.

The third goal of community organizing is one many people will not guess if they’ve not participated in such groups. This third objective is the education of its member-participants. In fact, within good organizations, many of the members describe the organization itself as their university. This may seem trivial, but in an age given increasingly to bureaucratic bloat and a proliferation of experts, many communities bristle with frustration at constantly being told by others what they should do, how they should do it, and why it is important. What they resent is losing the power to learn and research for themselves how to address the problems they experience. To some extent, we’ve seen this kind of frustration vividly displayed during the pandemic, as people have felt impotent and alienated from the process of making decisions, especially when cajoled by media personalities. Nevertheless, this community-led education does not mean the rejection of science or expertise; it means developing initiatives that involve the active participation of the community in the research and construction of proposals intended to resolve the issues they face. This is the most basic meaning of the iron law of organizing stated above; it’s dehumanizing to exclude people from the process of learning how to understand, address, and resolve the issues they face—a practice humans have been engaged in since the beginning of our existence.

As all political philosophers since at least Plato have perceived, education is the heart of politics and, thus, to build a true political culture we must be deeply invested in our education on the world around us, the problems we face, and what is possible to address these issues. Such an education is very different from the vocational training, discipline-based fragmentation, or degree-elitism that dominates most educational institutions in our society. This education is meant to build the people’s power rather than simply the expertise or authority of an individual who must compete on an open job market.

Finally, the fourth objective of community organizing is to identify, recruit, and develop leaders. Most organizers will say that this is their primary job and the primary goal of the organization. Leadership has been a fetish of corporate America and business schools as well as government, civic, and religious institutions for some time now. But most of what passes for leadership studies or leadership training has been complete bunk. It’s also been a complete and entire failure. Much of this, organizers would say, is because it has been done in the vein of the university-situated expert education described above. But leadership development in community organizing circles is not about making experts or shaping individuals to stand over and above others. Leaders within organizing are described simply as persons whom others follow. They do not have to be charismatic, loud, domineering, or even prominent—and in my experience some of the most influential and powerful leaders in organizing would not be described in these ways. Instead, good leaders can get others to show up, can get things done, and are willing to take initiative by asking others to do something with them. They, thus, are those who have already proven themselves trustworthy and reliable, those who are willing to act and not simply complain or look to others to do something.

Recruiting and developing leaders is, then, not about creating an elite avant-garde who will do the work for the people. It is about connecting with and training persons who are already deeply involved with their communities. Training here simply means offering people opportunities to learn practices (like one-to-one relational meetings) to more intentionally and publicly work within their communities and develop the collective research, local analysis, civic understanding, and specific techniques (like public speaking) that will enliven their work. Leadership in organizing is, as a result, multiplicative and not exclusive, and a strong organization will abound with leaders, rendering it more radically democratic rather than being a machine of one or two dominant personalities. Hence, one of the key determinants of whether an organization is healthy and strong is the number of leaders it has. This is also what makes organizing such a threat to established structures governed by corporate and civic officials used to a rather compliant, uninformed, manipulatable, and feckless constituency.

Why Organizing Matters for the Church

Despite all of the understandable handwringing about the decline of churches and denominations, as well as a rise in those who affiliate with no faith institution, I have seen few tool kits to help those who seek to rehabilitate such institutions and congregations. Moreover, the congregations and religious institutions that do seem to be thriving and growing are increasingly associating with violent forms of nationalism and racism, looking poised to replay some of the worst episodes of church history. To put it in theological language, we are, it would appear, in a crisis of discipleship and assembly. Acknowledging this helps us to see one of the critical ways the practices of community organizing could offer a way forward for churches.

For starters, turning to the dynamic practices of organizing could help us completely revise theological education and formation. Most pastors and church leaders, as well as many faculty members and administrators, admit that theological education needs to change, and even that change is coming regardless. Few, however, have any idea what that change could look like other than mirroring it on the market adaptations occurring across higher education more generally. But as I noted above, if organizing really does function as a “university” for its participant-members, then I think it has the potential to provide us with a new vision of theological education—one grounded in grassroots participation, active research on pressing issues, and co-learning and collaboration. Not only would that effort place theological knowledge within a thick practice of community life and active discernment, but it would also invite knowledges outside the typical academic discipline into rigorous communal debates about what it means to be faithful and how we as a church are to embrace, live, and enact the gospel. The upshot of this would be to remake our congregations as learning institutions, something we desperately need at a time when it remains unclear how to move forward.

This is exactly the kind of gamble we’ve taking in founding the Black Mountain School of Theology & Community. As a new nonprofit dedicated to the base education of congregations, communities, pastors, church leaders, community activists, and organizers, we are seeking to regenerate these vital institutions by teaching community organizing tools. We seek to remake churches and community organizations into social learning sites, and in doing so, we believe they will discover how their own internal vigor involves the active pursuit of holy justice, service, and equity in the wider communities around them. Our work is just beginning, but we have seen how the power of community organizing practices can help build powerful congregations, and we have great hope that we can play a role in educating and forming the kinds of disciples and congregations desperately needed today.

Already apparent in what I’ve just said but worth pointing out more specifically is another key reason for organizing to matter for the church. At a time of great suspicion of institutions, especially organized religion, we are rudely discovering that we need institutions to survive. Indeed, one of the great failures that recent attacks on our nation’s civic institutions have brought to light is the fragility of most of our institutions, in large part due to the disinvestment and neglect of those institutions by those who claim to care deeply about freedom and social justice. Most of us have become unconcerned with institutions; indeed, we overtly avoid them. And in our deep acceptance of individualism, we’ve also forgotten how to even think institutionally. This means that we may put forward only individualized and rather weak countermeasures to injustice and violence—one can think of how email petitions have exploded as a means of responding. But to be faithful people who embody a justice that is to have any kind of stability requires the kinds of human institutions (and we need not understand human here as excluding divine involvement) capable of sustaining and rooting (routinizing) that social way of being. Institutions matter because they offer an essential skeletal system to social life that makes it durable, powerful, and reliable even as they will continually need to be reorganized and revised.

Finally, community organizing should matter to churches because it provides a way of thinning the line between the community and the congregation in a way that invests the church in the locale where it is. Too many of us have been a part of congregations that, despite all the programs and even charitable outreach they do, play little to no part in shaping their cities, towns, or villages. Is there more affordable housing in our town because our church is here? Is there better access to education and is there better education for all? Are there living wages and is there corporate accountability? Is there cleaner water, less pollution, and better health care because our congregation is here? Moreover, is there less wealth and income disparity, more reparations for past wrongs, more restoration for those currently suffering? All of these are questions that community organizing not only brings into the church but also prompts the church for an outward answer, encouraging churches committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ to partner and collaborate with others in seeking ways to implement and achieve these ends. The best part is that through community organizing these are not left as vague pronunciations or abstract ideals; they become tangible, real initiatives and campaigns that root us more deeply in the places and people around us. Hence, community organizing can provide a way of moving from simple talk of the kingdom of God to its actual practice and the good work of seeking to enact a tangible foretaste of it.  

Organizing Is Reorganizing

Organizing itself needs to adapt and move; if it becomes too stagnate or sclerotic, then it too can become an impediment to the purposes for which it was developed. A major part of this is in recognizing how the context for organizing has changed, not just because we are seeing new kinds of on-the-ground movements from Black Lives Matter to the Poor People’s Campaign, but also because the state has changed, as have civil society, governmentality, corporations, and economic forces. Yet the simplicity of organizing as an activity continues to offer a very specific, tangible place to start working to challenge the sway of such large and, at times, overwhelming forces. It can teach us how to recover a politics, one that I think will enliven our worshipping life even as it creates a platform for transforming our communities. In the end, I think this is exactly what the church is supposed to be—an assembly of worship whose community and action transform the world around it. That, I think, many people could get on board with.

[1] For readers interested in learning more about organizing, here are some suggested readings: Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1989); James B. Ball, “A Second Look at the Industrial Areas Foundation: Lessons for Catholic Social Thought and Ministry,” Horizons 35, no. 2 (2008): 271–97; Edward T. Chambers with Michael A. Cowan, Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2013); Tim Conder and Dan Rhodes, Organizing Church: Grassroots Practices for Embodying Change in Your Congregation, Your Community, and Our World (Saint Louis, MO: Chalice, 2017); Dennis A. Jacobsen, Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001); Angus Ritchie, Inclusive Populism: Creating Citizens in a Global Age (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019); and Jeffrey Stout, Blessed Are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).