Alan Platt talks to Emily Parker about the Doxa Deo church, their philosophy behind community engagement, and the ways they are transforming society.
Emily: Alan, first of all, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to plant a church in South Africa with your wife.
Alan: We were very young. At the age of 32 we took over responsibility for an existing church that had gone through a season of difficulty. In a very short space of time we really saw the church grow and expand to become a thriving community of faith. It was in that time, that we felt compelled to look at Church from a new vantage point; through a different lens in terms of how we could lead the church to be more engaged within its community.
Emily: With the work that you've been doing at Doxa Deo, how have you chosen to bless and work with the city around you?
Alan: In the early stages we were obviously asking questions. How can we serve? How can we bless? A lot of your engagement goes to the pain of the city, where people really need just to be served and helped and assisted, be it with food or some tangible engagement. It was later that we realised that we were actually called to even step in to the more systemic issues of our city in terms of culture engagement, asking the question not just what is the pain of the city, but what is the brokenness of the city. How could we play a role to see some of those areas of society that need to be addressed systemically? How could we get engaged on those levels?
Emily: How do you work out which issues to get involved with?
Alan: In 1996 in the city of Pretoria, as we launched the Doxa Deo church, there was not much that was communicated about how we could really get involved in the spheres of society. So we just started out on this journey and asked the question 'what does our city look like?' What is the design of our city if we think about spheres in terms of business, government, education, arts and media? We mapped it out with eight spheres of society and then fundamentally we just said 'how can we mobilise people that are already engaged in those different spaces? How can we better equip them to engage with the posture of being what we call the fruitful and the faithful presence within those communities? Secondly we asked 'how can we engage, and maybe not just us as a faith community, but with other churches or other leaders, community institutions, if we took hands together, what difference could we make in these different areas?' Thirdly was just modelling where we asked 'do we have to establish a work or an institutional reference that will serve these different spheres of society?'
Emily: Practically then, what projects have you and the other churches within your local area set up?
Alan: The low hanging fruit for us was in education. We realised there was a big need specifically in the South African context as far as education was concerned. We started off by asking who in our circle of influence is involved in education. Who are teachers? Who are people that are playing a significant role there? We brought them together and started asking the question 'how can we better empower you? What can we do to help you be more effective in terms of the pressures that you have to navigate as a teacher every day?'
As we started listing some of those things, we started realising there were actually areas in which we could just come along side. We could be an encourager; there could even be some skill investment in terms of helping teachers to better navigate relational and emotional engagement. So we started defining everything we do no longer just in terms of communicating our faith as something that has no reference pertaining to our everyday life. We were now connecting Sunday to Monday's work and asking the question 'What does that look like?'
We also asked if we could map how many educational institutions there are in our city and we found 480 something schools. Then we asked 'could we link every school with a church and give them just the reference in terms of how to serve and how to bless and how to come along side that particular school as an institution?' Some of the churches partnered with one another and beautiful projects have emerged from people investing in the IT lab, to painting, to just coming alongside as a prayer group for the school. In various ways, creativity has abounded.
Emily: In your book 'City Changers' you focus on three particular cities Babylon, Nineveh and Jerusalem. Can you give us a quick overview of why these cities are significant to look at today, when we're thinking about blessing and working with the city around us?
Alan: If I can give a short, historical reference: the people of Jerusalem, which was the people of Israel in that time, saw the city of Jerusalem as the construct of God. It was seen as Jeru-Shalom, Shalom meaning wholeness, completeness, so they recognised this as the way God wanted a city to be run. There was another city, Babylon, and right through the Bible you will see that Babylon is the anti-type of Jerusalem. As a matter of fact, right from Genesis all the way through to Revelation probably about 400 times, Babylon is the anti-type of Jerusalem.
The people of Jerusalem despised Babylon and then the unthinkable happened: the Babylonians come and conquer Jerusalem and they take the people of Jerusalem all the way to Babylon. There they are, sitting by the rivers of Babylon; they don't want to be there. Their only heart's desire is to get out of this city, this bad place. They didn't like Babylon. So they prayed, 'Lord, deliver us from Babylon!' and it's in that context that God sends a prophet to them, Jeremiah. And he prophesies 'seek the peace of the place to which I have brought you as exiles. For in its peace, you will have peace.' The word peace being 'shalom.' For in its wholeness, in its completeness, in its health you will have health. So we contrast these two cities in terms of where we are in our engagement as Christ's followers, as Christians. Many times we seem to want to withdraw from our reality. We see our world many times as Babylon and we don't want to engage with Babylon because we feel we want to represent something else. We want to represent another experience of engagement. It's within that context that I believe God is speaking to the Church and saying 'you cannot be a subculture or an enclave or something just to yourself. You are the agents of grace; you are the agents of life and salt and light. You have to engage in the reality of your so called Babylon as you navigate the streets of a broken, pain ridden, confused and sometimes very sinful world.' We are called to immerse ourselves in that reality and ask God to give us wisdom, understanding and strategy as to how we can be more effective within our context.
Emily: Transformation, a big word, you use it a number of times in the book, but before a city can be changed it comes down sometimes to having personal transformation first. For you, how have you tried to put your faith first and do those things before seeing the outworking in the context that you're in?
Alan: It starts with the individuals. An individual's journey, we really believe, is fundamentally framed in three dimensions.
The first dimension is a God dimension. This is where you have to come to a discovery of your inclusion in the completed work of Christ on the cross. You have to discover your identity in Christ and your privilege of intimacy with God.
You have to go to the next level (which we framed as 'loving people') in order, in essence, to discover that life is not all about you and it's not just about what happens in your life. It's about you being an instrument of grace and mercy and engagement and compassion to other people.
We want people to deeply understand a sense of calling; that there is purpose on your life; that through your life you could actually be an instrument of grace and blessing to others. You have to understand contribution and you have to understand that you have been empowered. There are certain things that you steward - time, talent and treasure. These have been entrusted to you and now you are a steward of what you have so that you can be the blessing to others. For some of us it will be our time, for some of us it will be our talents, for some of us it will be our treasure, our contribution. But we have to come to this understanding and then understand the motivation of compassion. We are motivated by love. Love is this incredible force that trumps every other negative thing within communities, society at large. We represent that so we can reach out and engage in that way.
Then there's a third level; it's not just knowing God or loving people, it takes you to a place where you start asking the question 'How can I truly impact my world? How can I be part of God's mission here on the planet? How can I align myself with God's mission to affect the very construct of my world, namely the media, the arts, education, business, health care and all these dimensions of society? Can I play a role and make a contribution because that's my area of expertise, that's the area where I spend most of my time every day? But the question is, what is the investment of your life, to impact your world and bring wholeness to our communities? Then it goes to the community of faith - the church or the gathering of people who come together. But it starts with the individual.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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