I’m freshly home after spending a couple days in the Adirondacks with Albany Presbytery, which was a joy. And I share this photograph taken by my friend, Shannan Vance-Ocampo with some anxiety . . .
. . . because 1) my talking face is ridiculous and 2) anyone who has heard me do my 21st Century Church presentation is rolling his/her eyes. After doing varieties of this presentation for almost ten years, I am surprised that we haven’t all moved on. But people continue to want/need the reminder that what made a 1950s church thrive is not what makes a 21st Century Church thrive. And with Harvard’s recent report by Chetty and Hendren on the importance of neighborhoods, it’s clear that we in the Church really need to make these changes from a focus on Administration, Building, and Cash to Neighbors, Organizational Structure, and Paradigm Shifting. Today I want to ponder ministry in our neighborhoods.
[If you’ve heard me talk about this to the point that you could give this talk yourself, I’m not offended if you stop reading here.]
If you are interested in how our congregations can grow by engaging with our neighbors, read this. Some of the congregations I serve happen to be in one of the best counties in the United States in which to raise kids. I also serve congregations in some of the most violent neighborhoods in the state if not the nation. Imagine if all church leaders – especially upon our ordination – realized that our calling is to serve the poor in our neighborhoods and in adjacent neighborhoods. Some of us are “rich in things, but poor in soul.” Some of us are financially impoverished. But everybody – including the financial disadvantaged – deserve a safe and nurturing place to live.
Imagine being the church that knows what breaks God’s heart in the neighborhood and then We Engage In Ministry That Addresses The Brokenness. Imagine being a church with the #1 goal of making a positive impact in the neighborhood. It would alter everything.
Some of our churches try to copy the successful programs of other congregations. If the parish down the street offers a popular preschool, we want to do the same thing so that we, too, can attract new families. Maybe there’s a person in the congregation who really wants to offer tutoring for children as a church program . . . but there’s not really a need for tutoring. There is a need – let’s say – for adult job training. So maybe that’s what the church should be doing.
How can we find out what’s truly needed in our neighborhood? Talk to those who would know: police officers, school guidance counselors, county social workers, free clinic nurses. Ask what they do all day. Ask what they wish was different. Ask what they need. Consider them experts because they are.
One of the phenomena in many of our congregations is the fact that many church members do not live in the neighborhood where their church building is. They might travel five miles or twenty-five miles for church gatherings. It doesn’t matter. If we are serious about living out our faith, we live it out both where we sleep at night and where we gather as the church.
It’s not possible to thrive as a church in the 21st Century if we do not address the needs of our neighbors. It’s. Not. Possible.
We can’t address the needs if we don’t know what they are. So let’s get out there! It’s almost summer. The weather is beautiful. Oh- and God requires it. We have no excuses.