What Is Community Development? What Is Community Organizing?

In this new series on urban communities we want to look more closely at sustainable community development and the work churches are doing around the world. I invite the reader to consult www.direction.ca/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=114&Itemid=243 for a more substantial introductory article on the subject and a parallel piece on community development in Cambodia.

Introduction to the Subject
This article and the ensuing research are the result of dialogue with people/organizations in three cities on the subject of urban holistic sustainable community development. Although I did my initial training on the subject while pursuing my doctorate in Chicago, I learned firsthand about the subject in Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haïtien, Haïti.

During a sabbatical in 1999, we launched five initiatives in the Cap; three are continuing today. While writing this paper I spent three days with church leaders in the community of Balan, near Cap-Haïtien. We were participating in a consultation using an adapted form of the appreciative inquiry methodology to explore ecclesial engagement with the community around the issues of voodoo and public education.

Community development fundamentally aims to
improve living conditions and revitalize

As I sat with these leaders I was struck with how community development has become counter intuitive in our day and age. These pastors and priests engaged the process with clarity, commenting, “Why has no one ever done this with us before?” Their findings from three days of discussion were the first steps in helping them to contribute to an ongoing community development project in the zone.

But I live in a third “place”—one which is as contextually specific as the other two, namely, the city of Montréal. Place is space with historical meanings, different identities, and varied societal preoccupations.1 For example, I live in the city where “philosophical postmodernism” was first coined and studied as a social and philosophical expression. Montréal is a different place than the one most people are talking about when discussing this theme. The unending story we find ourselves in always needs to be woven into the fabric of place a little differently. 

Community development fundamentally aims to improve living conditions and revitalize neighbourhoods. Community organisation is the various networking strategies employed to accomplish the specific mission of the agencies committed to the vision for the neighbourhood as it is conceived.2 A sampling of mission statements illustrates this:

  • “…to find ways to develop and link community-based identities and struggles in a way that challenges capital.”

  • “…on the assumption that poverty should not be viewed just as an individual affair, but as a systematic disease that affects the whole community.”

  • “The individuals who build these communities believed they could not only give barrio residents control over their economic future, but that their communities would eventually equalize power relationships between the barrio and the outside world.”

  • “We define [community development] as a comprehensive, multi-faced strategy for the revitalisation of marginalised or distressed communities. Through the development of resources and alliances, organisations and institutions that are democratically controlled by the community are put in place. At stake is the possibility of the democratisation of the local economy. [These] organisations mobilise local resources (people, finances, technical expertise, and real property) in partnerships with resources from beyond the community. This is undertaken for the purpose of empowering community members to create and manage new and expanded socio-economic tools (businesses, specialised institutions and organisations, skill, and practices), or new types of local governance.”3

In the United States, Ronald Ferguson and Williams Dickens point out that issues around public housing are at the core of community development corporations in that country.4 But as Richard Morin and Jill Hanley point out in their comparison of community development in four North American cities, the national context really does matters in how community development is articulated.5

Community Development and the Local Community
Community development is part of an organisation field6 that has a preferential option for the local community.

Therefore, it is a multi-faceted initiative that mobilises a vast number of partners (acting out of an increasing awareness of their deepest values and assumptions) to confront the forces that destroy their individual lives, families, and communities. This is done so as to build social capital to improve the quality of life and contribute to the holistic transformation of the community. 

As poverty in all its facets is challenged (and persons are freed to develop their identities and vocations in life), then social capital is released in fresh ways. The organisational field as a system encompasses the principal levels of involvement—grassroots participants who are generally volunteers; local agencies that deliver services; organisations and structures on the municipal or national level that directly support these agencies; and provincial and federal entities that intervene on a punctual basis, depending upon the province and the area of competency.

However, community development can only take root as issues of power, capacity, and trust among the partners are brought to bear on the major assets that improve the quality of life and contribute to the transformation of the community.

Social capital is a new concept in community development. It refers to features of community organisation—such as networks, norms, and social trust—that facilitate coordination and cooperation for the common good. Robert Putman shares that life is easier with communities that are blessed with “substantial stock of social capital.”7 By contributing to meaningful human contacts of all sorts that characterize true community, we are developing a strong and active civil society and the spiritual welfare of all.

Community development, then, is: journeying in community to express aspirations, discover assets, confront limitations, and generate solutions for peace and well-being in homes and the neighbourhood.

Why the Church Pursues Sustainable Community Development
But for what purpose does the urban ministry practitioner pursue community development? Why listen to both the present context and Christian tradition—including our study of the scriptures, church history, and theology? Increasingly, we hear the use of the word transformation as a term that encompasses all the Church does as followers of Jesus in God’s mission in the city.8 But what does this mean and what does it entail?

Inspired by John de Gruchy reflections,9 I would suggest that a transformed place is that kind of community that pursues fundamental changes, a stable future, and the sustaining and enhancing of all of life rooted in a vision bigger than mere urban politics. 

If we accept that scripture calls the people of God to take all dimensions of life seriously, then we can take the necessary steps to a more holistic notion of transformation. A framework that points to the best of a human future for our city/regions can then be rooted in the reign of God.

In Jewish writings and tradition is the principle of shalom. It represents harmony, complementarity, and establishment of relationships at the interpersonal, ethnic, and even global levels. Psalm 85:11 announces a surprising event: “Justice and peace will embrace.” However, a good number of our contemporaries see no problem with peace without justice. People looking for this type of peace muzzle the victims of injustice because they trouble the social order of the city. But the Bible shows that there cannot be peace without justice. We also have a tendency to describe peace as the absence of conflict.

But shalom is so much more. In its fullness, it evokes harmony, prosperity, and welfare. The term goes to the very heart of God’s picture of what he has created and desires for creation. The word occurs 236 times in the Old Testament.10 It refers to a state of fulfilment resulting from God’s presence and covenantal relationship with his people. It encompasses concepts of completeness, harmony, and well-being.

The Old Testament record indicates three other important aspects of shalom:

  1. We see from the semantic field of the word that it implies an absence of strife, but with the rich implications of a state of rest. Implicit in this first use of the term is the notion of unimpaired relationships with others and true enjoyment in all one does.11
  2. The term is a synonym for all we would imply by the general state of well-being of a person, a community, and nature. The ideas of completeness, wholeness, prosperity, harmony, and fulfilment summarize this best. Leviticus 26:1-12 illustrates this.

  3. Shalom includes an eschatological aspect (Isaiah 9:5-6). The Messiah, the Prince of Peace (sar shalom), will bring fulfilment and righteousness to the earth.

James Metzler summarizes this well:

Eden’s shalom was perfect because everything was just the way God made it— connecting the possibility of shalom directly to the creative powers of God. Out of primeval chaos, void, and darkness, the creator had planned and formed an orderly and purposeful world….The creator looked over the work with complete satisfaction: “Behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Shalom affirms that the truly good life is the natural state of creation and that all creation is truly good with place and purpose for every part…The shalom of all creation depended on the man and woman using their godlike powers of choice… The shalom of Eden… pointed to the need for community and companionship.12

In the New Testament the image persists, but the term changes. The reign of God is the royal redemptive plan of the creator, initially given as a task marked out for Israel, then re-inaugurated in the life and mission of Jesus. This reign is to destroy his enemies, to liberate humanity from the sin of Adam, and ultimately to establish his authority in all spheres of the cosmos: our individual lives, the Church, society, the spirit world, and the ecological order. Yet we live in the presence of the future. The Church is “between the times,” as it were: between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom. It is the only message worth incarnating for the whole city! 

The action-reflection-action mediation of the transformational model will take on many facets. Some will be rooted in geographical boundaries, others in the interpersonal social bonds that people create around issues and concerns. Projects will emerge through the partnerships so that people can solve problems on their own. Advocacy is inevitable in our cities by their very nature. These efforts will be to get various levels of the public and private sectors to assume their obligations (under the law) to improve the living conditions and revitalize neighbourhoods.

For example, in my city, more than fifty percent of this year’s teenagers will not complete high school five years from now. It is obvious that advocating for just educational systems to promote school success is a priority. A cycle of reflection on actions will establish itself. If you get people to think about issues that concern them, they will do more social analysis and seek a deeper understanding together as to the root causes of their problems. Acting together, developing better projects, and pursuing advocacy thrusts people into deeper reflection and actions.

Poverty is a broad concept touching economic, social, physical, and spiritual realities. It affects peoples’ identity (social exclusion, absence of harmony in life, and well-being) and their vocation (deprivation at every level of life, including one’s ability to participate in the welfare of the community). However, poverty can be traced to “inadequacies in the worldview.” These inadequacies are in actual fact a web of lies beyond a mere cognitive level of deception.

This intricate web leads people to believe that their poverty or social status is somehow divinely sanctioned or a factor of fate and that there is no way to change it. People sense that they have no choices. A worldview can be a powerful instrument in perpetuating chronic poverty.

Good community development will emerge as the participants take this very seriously and then pursue the improvement of life and the revitalization of the neighbourhood.


1. One of the few texts on urban geography that takes these two distinct categories seriously is by Anthony Orum and Xiangming Chen, The World of Cities: Places in Comparative and Historical Perspective (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). For these authors, “place” is the specific location in space that in turn provides an anchor and meaning. Our sense of place is rooted in individual identity, community, history, and a sense of comfort (pp. 11-19). “Space,” on the other hand, is a medium independent of our existence in which objects, ideas, and other human persons exist, behaving according to the basic laws of nature and thought (see pages 15, 140, and 160-170). Recently, two Canadian urbanologists, Trudi Bunting and Pierre Filion, complimented this notion by stating that the “term” place speaks of the subjective and sentimental feelings associated with various aspects of one’s environment. Space speaks to the objective attributes related to proximity and access. Yi Fu Tuan coined the term “topophilia” to denote the personal identity with and love of a place.

2. Robert Linthicum goes to great length to try to distinguish the two terms, giving priority to the second in urban work. See chapter three of Empowering the Poor (Monrovia, California, USA: MARC, 1991). The argument seems forced in my opinion.

3. Fontan, Jean-Marc, Pierre Hamel, Richard Morin, and Eric Shragge. 1999. “Community Economic Development and Metropolitan Governance: A Comparison of Montreal and Toronto.” Canadian Journal of Regional Science/Revue canadienne des sciences régionales, XXII:1,2 (Spring-Summer/printemps-été), 201-217.

4. 1999. Urban Problems and Community Development. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 202 and especially chapter 10.

5. 2004. “Community Economic Development in a Context of Globalization and Metropolization: A Comparison of Four North American Cities.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 28(2): 369-383.

6. According to W. Richard Scott, an organisational field includes critical exchange partners, sources of funding, regulatory groups, professional and trade associations, and other sources of normative and cognitive influence. But it is well recognized in organisational field theory that institutional rules and structures are far from the whole story. This is where our understanding of worldview takes root.

7. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6(1): 65-78.

8. Although the text is quite dense, I would highly recommend Graham Ward’s 2005 book, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Ward proposes a poiesis (which he carefully defines on pages 6-9) which does not over-distinguish aesthetic production (in the sense of poetry) from political and ethical activities—often associated with praxis. His poiesis is transformative social behaviour and the practices of everyday life. His proposal comes to a fitting conclusion from pages 165-174, where he seeks to answer the question about Christian discursive practice or poiesis and the production and transformation of public accounts of what is true.

9. 2001. Christianity, Art and Transformation: Theological Aesthetics in the Struggle for Social Justice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

10. In thirty-eight cases the word refers to an absence of conflict; twenty-five times it is used as a greeting; and in the other cases it describes the essence of fulfilment because of God’s presence. In the Greek Septuagint, the translators opted for the word eiréné in 192 of these references.

11. As Nicholas Wolterstorff states in his 1983 book, Until Justice and Peace Embrace, “But the peace which is shalom is not merely the absence of hostility, not merely being in right relationship. Shalom at its highest is enjoyment in one’s relationships” (Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Eerdmans, 69).

12. 1985. From Saigon to Shalom. Scottsdale, Pennsylvania, USA: Herald Press, 60-61.

Glenn Smith is senior associate for urban mission for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and is executive director of Christian Direction in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. He is a professor of urban theology and missiology at the Institut de theologie pour la Francophonie at the Université de Montréal and at the Université chrétienne du Nord d’Haïti. He is also professor of urban missiology at Bakke Graduate University in Seattle, Washington, USA. Smith is editor of the Urban Communitees section.