Feature

The Church Your Neighborhood Needs

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A few months ago I had the opportunity to speak at another church in our city. The leaders had asked me to share about the life of our church and the story of how it was planted and has grown. I was given three to five minutes to accomplish this task. Anyone who regularly does public speaking knows that it’s more difficult to distill a message into a short time slot than it is to draw something out to fill a large time allowance. I had to cram six years of urban church planting into five minutes.

When you have that assignment, you get down to the core of the matter. The primary idea that I attempted to communicate to the congregation was this: We saw growth when we stopped trying to plant the church we wanted and started planting the church the neighborhood needed.

After the service I was approached by one of the elders, who had grown up in the neighborhood where we planted our church and was even baptized in our building more than 50 years earlier. “What’s the difference between “the church you want” and the “church the neighborhood needs?” he asked me. Worried that I had offended him but also willing to defend my position, I explained that when we inherited the old, empty building, it came fully loaded with an extensive church library. The books were covered in dust, and the room looked like it had not been used in years. I told him that although church members may want a library, our neighborhood needed a food pantry. So we emptied the shelves of books and filled them with canned goods and pasta. Our converted library now gets more than 150 visitors a year.

He smiled at my answer, putting my mind at ease. Not only did he “get it,” but also, as a lifelong resident of the area, he affirmed that we had assessed the need correctly. He knew that the neighborhood had changed and that churches needed to minister effectively in the new context.

What I could have added to my answer was that when I planted the church, I had aspirations to read theology books and have deep, meaningful conversations while sitting in Starbucks all day. I later found out that many of our neighbors needed to get a GED and increase their reading levels before they ever cracked open a theology book. And you can forget about Starbucks, because our neighborhood isn’t wealthy enough to support one. Instead of a coffee bar, our church has hosted alcohol recovery meetings for nearly four years, because that’s what the people around us needed. Being cool is not the same as being relevant. Sometimes the most relevant thing that you can do is very, very uncool.

If you are a pastor, or even more specifically, a church planter, I would caution you with this: Don’t develop your ministry plan or vision fully until you have lived in the area for a while. Develop your values early, but let your vision evolve out of the context. It took me nearly 18 months to scrap my plan and get a new one. Let the neighborhood speak to you about the needs of its residents. Be willing to adjust.

Don’t force your new vision for church on your neighbors. And for God’s sake, cast off any ambition to be cool.

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