Outreach without a foundation of relationships invariably leads to misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this is too often the norm for churches attempting to impact the neighborhoods in which their campuses are located. Good intentions are derailed by a failure to become a contributing part of a neighborhood. From the perspective of residents, we can seem like interlopers who zip in to hand out a track or give a show, and then zip out, leaving them to do damage control because of the distant nature of the outreach approach. No relationships have been nurtured. But hey, we got our photographs and our stories to share with applauding admirers in the church building, right?
But no relationships with the lost outside the walls our campus. One urban missionary says, “If you are not going to stay, please don’t come.” Sounds harsh, I know. But he has a point. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.
I offer below five simple ways to begin learning the culture of our neighborhoods. It is foundational to creating understanding. Rather than assuming we fully know the perspectives and needs of others, we should seek to learn them from the people we intend to reach. How might we do this? We should:
- Visit community events: Parades, fairs, carnivals, open air markets, flea markets, neighborhood discussions, movies in the park, sports events (especially for kids and teens), etc. Be present. Contribute. Ask questions and listen. Share in the local life and economy with no agenda other than to represent Christ with his love and kindness.
- Visit local restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, speciality shops, parks, and so on. Do life with people. Always listening. Always gracious.
- Identify local conversation partners. Ask permission for an interview. Assure them you are not wanting to preach at them, but that you do want to learn from them. To the level of their comfort, ask about their lives in the community. What is the ebb and flow of local life. How do they perceive the church? Is it considered a part of community life as a positive influence or do they feel it is separate, closed off? What are their immediate concerns, worries, hopes, joys?
- If it is available for your neighborhood, do an online demographic study. For churches in the USA, the website www.census.gov provides a large quantity of data relevant to the needs of local neighborhoods. Compare the data with that of your church attendance roster. How is it different? How is it similar? You might be startled at some of the findings. But don’t worry, God isn’t surprised.
- If you live in the neighborhood, try to do life with others outside the walls of your home. Go on long walks, particularly in the warmer months. Take time to visit with the woman watering her lawn or the man scratching his head over how to put on the wiper blade. Ask the young couple about the baby in their stroller. Admire the new haircut for the toy poodle who simply will not stop yapping for someone to throw his ball…. You know, life. Do it with them. And listen.
In this process, and undoubtedly through other means you might create, you will begin to recognize themes emerging. Phrases. Words. Cries from the heart. Previous to this, for example, you could not have known that about 50 percent of mothers within the neighborhood in which your church campus is located are single. The reasons vary, but how might your church respond in a loving, caring way? Just an imaginary example, based on real research from my doctoral dissertation.
So there you have it. Five simple things you can do to begin learning the culture of your neighborhood. Be sure to focus on listening rather than talking, and caring rather than thinking up ways to refute incorrect doctrine. If you do so, you will gain something of far greater value than a photo-op and a heroic story to tell. You will gain friends. Only then will you begin the process of learning how to offer a gospel witness into the local culture. Off you go. Your neighbors are waiting.
What do you think of this post? Do you agree? Disagree? Sound off here or find me on twitter.com/glenwoods.