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Knowing Your Neighborhood

Part 1 of 3

One Sunday morning, years ago, a refugee family showed up at church and they kept coming back. I walked out of the office one afternoon, made my way up the street, and knocked on the front door of where the refugees were living. The door opened and the gift of hospitality was extended. Over coffee, I learned of their story. I also learned this family was deeply committed to the life of Christ.

Over the next several months I would continue to unexpectedly drop in. One day the matriarch of the family said something similar to the following:

Seeing you at our front door reminds me of our church back home. Back home the preacher was the priest who made daily visits to the neighbors. The neighborhood knew the priest and the priest knew the neighborhood. But it seems, in North America, the neighborhood doesn’t know the priest and the priest doesn’t know the neighborhood.

Ethnography of the Neighborhood

A common refrain by those engaged in the missional church conversation is that the church does not have a mission, but the mission of God has a church. Those leading the conversation then help churches discover the avenues in which churches can join God already in His mission. However, often what is lacking in these conversations is knowledge of the neighborhood we are sent too (Luke 10:1-12). If we are going to be communities of faith announcing the nearness of God’s kingdom while we heal, cast out demons, and receive hospitality by the strangers, I wonder if one of the first steps we must take is to know the neighborhood to which we are being sent.

One afternoon, the leaders of a local church plant called me asking if we could meet for a coffee and I agreed. I had heard of this church plant from those living in the neighborhood as the church plant was door knocking, offering free movie nights, and promoting their talented musicians who were the lead worship ministers in a successful church plant years prior.

We meet for a coffee and they tell the story of the church plant and their desire to be missional. The leaders continue the conversation by describing their upbeat, highly polished worship service. They admit their struggles: people within the neighborhood are not responding to the gospel. I sit sipping my steaming black coffee when the question is posed, “Could you tell us about your worship service?”

I answer them:

Well, it’s really traditional. We mostly sing hymns from the 17th and 18th centuries, and some Sundays the singing can be really good while other Sundays it can be really bad. Sometimes, we have people read Scripture but because of their disabilities we can never understand a word they say. Some Sundays the kids are running around and I feel there is hardly any praise to God, just a bunch of screaming kids.

The leaders of the church plant sat with a look of shock.

“But you’re growing numerically?”

“Yes.”

“But your worship seems lacking!”

“Yes. But it’s not always about what we offer in worship. Those who are concerned about the worship service are mostly attractional model churches. What matters is if you love the neighborhood and if you do, the neighborhood will put up with less than stellar worship services because they know you are willing to give your life for them.”

The leaders of the church plant left the coffee shop promising to keep in touch. I left our conversation frustrated because of the unasked questions: Who lives in this neighborhood? What is the DNA of this neighborhood? What are the strengths of this neighborhood? What are the areas of concern residents of this neighborhood might have?

These questions, and other ethnographic questions, are becoming necessary for churches that are seeking to live out the Christian story. They also help churches become ones that follow the promptings of the Spirit that is at work to break down barriers and to create communities of reconciliation. These questions are needed because the gospel is not something we simply give intellectual consent to; the gospel is a way of life. The gospel is connected to the kingdom of God and the kingdom of God is God’s rule and reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” We are communities of faith living as witnesses to what God’s rule and reign might look like and this witness might look different depending on what neighborhood we are living in. Thus, we must know our neighborhoods.

Reflecting on my coffee with the leaders of the church plant, I again am reminded of the need to make the switch from being churches living at the center of power (Constantine churches) to churches living on the margins (exilic churches). Exilic churches will become practitioners of the neighborhood with intentions not on attracting people to our churches but being churches that know how to give up our lives for the neighborhood. Exilic churches will understand how each neighborhood will require the Christian community “to carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus is revealed” (2 Cor. 4:10) in ways that reflect the life of the neighborhood. The inner city church in downtown Chicago will embody the gospel in ways that look very different from the church situated at the one major intersection of a small rural town whose population is predominantly seniors. Knowing the neighborhood determines how we live as witnesses to the nearness of God’s kingdom.

Honestly, maybe it’s time for us to stop polishing our worship services and maybe it’s time we stop worrying about how to attract people to our worship services. Instead, let’s require the ministry staff and others to spend time walking the neighborhood where our churches are situated. Maybe it’s time we require the staff of the church to become the priests of the neighborhood rather than caretakers of the religious establishment.

Check out part two here!

About the author: Nathan Pickard lives in Newmarket, Ontario with his wife Katie and two boys, Caleb and Eli. He loves to spend his time playing hockey with the kids and has a passion for the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing. Nathan has been serving as the minister for Newmarket Church of Christ for the past 13 years. He holds a Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degree from Abilene Christian University. Most recently, Nathan wrote a small book called Praying for the Neighborhood and also contributed a chapter to the book called Along the Way (edited by Ron Bruner and Dana Pemberton).