This month Inspi(re)altiy is dedicated for churches/ministers who are wanting to develop vision. I’ve asked my good preaching friend Steve Cloer to give some practical advice for what it means for a local church to develop a vision.
Steve is an incredible leader and preacher who works with the Southside Church of Christ in Fort Worth. A couple of years ago, Steve and I were having lunch together and I asked him how ministry was going, and his eyes lit up talking about the new local medical clinic they were starting in their property. He’s passionate about serving the neighborhood, and just being a good local church. If you are interested in being a part of a church that serves the community than here’s some great practical advice on how to do it.
Meet my friend Steve:
A minister’s job is to be active and discerning in three spheres: God’s word, God’s people, and God’s world. Alan Roxburgh suggests the image of a poet as a metaphor for a preacher. A minister is called to discern all three spheres and weave together a vision based on what God has said, what the congregation is gifted to do, and what the world’s brokenness demands. While this all sounds good, the practical problem is that ministers often get held up in the first two spheres, they never get to the third. With sermons to write, lessons to prepare, the sick members to visit, and the hurting members to counsel, often there is not enough week left to actually get outside of the walls of the church building to spend time in God’s world. Yet this is crucial.
If the church is going to be the instrument of God’s redemptive presence in a location, someone must be exploring that location, venturing out to see what is God is doing within the neighborhood. I believe the preacher has that responsibility.
I have seen many examples of churches that were disconnected from its surrounding community. My family was on a trip a couple of years ago and we decided to stop for worship services in a small, rural town off the Interstate. I knew there was a congregation in this town, but I was unsure where it was. To save time (and an argument), we stopped in a gas station to see where the location of the building was. I asked one attendant if they knew where the Church of Christ was located. She did not. She asked a few others in the store: they did not either. So they picked up the phone book to look for the address. When she found it, she remarked, “Oh, that is right down the street!” She was right. Less than a half-mile away was the building, but no one in that store knew anything about it. The adage of “If our church closed our doors, would anyone in the community care?” comes to mind.
Lesslie Newbigin suggests that the Spirit’s work in the world is the prevenient work of the kingdom of God. There are occasions in Scripture where the Spirit is pointing the church out into the world in directions they were never thinking. Acts 10 and 16 are great examples. Peter never suspected to be in Cornelius’s house (a Gentile). Paul never thought he would be taking a ship ride to Macedonia. But the Spirit was pointing the way. The Spirit is not just located within the church building. It is in the house of the Gentile. It is in Macedonia. It is in the neighborhood. The question is will we take the time to step out of our “church realm” to see what God is doing and seek to join Him?
But how does one do this? Let me offer some practical suggestions on how a preacher can venture into this third realm, discerning the Spirit’s work in the world and the opportunities to be a blessing to the community.
First, take the position of a learner. Focus in on the immediate neighborhood surrounding your church building. Then decide you will learn as much as you can about that area. A preacher told me one time about a visit with Ray Bakke in Chicago. Bakke took him and his colleagues around to see the city. He “exegeted” Chicago for them and afterwards, the preacher remarked that after learning what he did about the city, he was ready to minister there. It is hard to be a blessing in a location, if one does not know the location. Take some time every week to do just that: get a tour of nearby hospitals, meet up with business leaders, see if the city has a guided tour, visit colleges and talk to administrators, meet with school principals. You will be surprised how impressed these leaders will be that a preacher cares to learn about what they do and their city.
Second, find some kind of neighborhood organization that you can be a part of. Typically, in every city there are different organizations that seek to bless, build, or revitalize the city. It could be a civic club, a neighborhood association, a business group, or something else. A good rule of thumb I use is if I am only the minister present in this organization, then I am probably in the right place (obviously this principle does not always apply!). But I am a part of two neighborhood revitalization groups. Routinely, I am the only minister present along with bankers, real estate investors, business owners, residents, and other leaders. Immediately respect for our church went up because they could see we were interested in the neighborhood. But also, through these avenues, partnerships have been created to bless our community. Regularly, businesses contribute to various compassionate ministries of our church. Neighbors have volunteered in some of our ministries. I was asked to sit on a board of a development fund to help low-income areas. The list goes on and on. At one meeting, I was telling one person about an upcoming ministry outreach to the area our church was doing, and he committed on the spot to give me a significant amount of money to help the cause. When the neighborhood finds out the church cares, they will join with the church in accomplishing God’s vision for the city.
Finally, beware of demographics. Often when someone thinks about getting to know their neighborhood, they immediately think of doing a demographic survey of the area. There are different groups that will help do this for a fee. I have done this. The results are sitting in my office collecting dust. Numbers can help provide an overview of the area, but they are not as powerful as narratives. It is far more motivating to mention in your sermon about the middle school nearby that you visited where 90% of the children are low-income and many come from unchurched homes. Or to tell about the conversation that you had with a community leader who desperately desires justice in the neighborhood but is unsure how to make it happen. Or to describe the apartment complex that you visited in the neighborhood where a single mother has no bed, no food, and no hope. These stories help the congregation not only get a picture of the neighborhood, but it stirs their heart to join God in His mission within the neighborhood.
A minister cannot be all things to all people. He cannot know everything about the Bible, counsel every member, or help everyone in the neighborhood. Boundaries are critical, especially in this third sphere. But if a minister can bridge the three areas, God’s word, God’s people, and God’s world, and be able to articulate the intersections to the congregations, then, as Roxburgh suggests, the poet comes forth and the preacher is able to lead the congregation to discern how they might be the instrument of God’s redemption in that neighborhood.