Most people who get involved in neighborhood church planting end up becoming failed missionaries. And I think you should become one too!
You see, once you “swallow the pill” of seeking to be the church in a particular place, you end up discovering that much of what you thought of previously as “missional” doesn't actually line up with the kinds of things Jesus calls his followers to be about. So, you fail at the conventional understanding of mission.
Instead, when you re-place church in your neighborhood, you begin to discover missional practices that free you from postures of anxiety, control and dehumanization; practices that grow your love for the people in your place. As you engage in these practices, you not only witness Christ-energized transformation in others, but you yourself experience transformation!
Over the past decade as I've been around these called and courageous “failed missionaries” who are being and becoming church in their neighborhoods, I've noticed four practices consistently. Check out these four practices below.
I’m including a guided exercise with questions that will help you take your first steps in this direction. I encourage you to invite your friends or neighbors to join you. Here’s the first question: What is your parish? On a blank sheet of paper, draw a map of your place, whether it is an urban neighborhood, suburban community or rural area.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
At the core of the good news is the story of God With Us, God Among Us, God moving into the neighborhood (as The Message translates the above verse). It is through this incarnational presence of God in Jesus that we get to see what God is like!
Our mission of bearing witness to the One who is full of grace and truth, therefore, must also have presence at its core. We move into the neighborhood. We walk and live among the people.
Church planters know that forming a core team is challenging, so committing to neighborhood presence – that is, actually living in the neighborhood where the church is – sounds like an unnecessary limitation. Indeed, prioritizing presence alters assumptions about church finances and facilities, but it leads to incredible possibilities.
When we are present in our places, we develop trust with our neighbors because we’re invested in the same place and we’re impacted by the same struggles. Additionally, neighborhood presence replaces adding more programmed church activities to our bloated schedules with the gift of spontaneous community. We get to bump into neighbors at the store or on the sidewalk where we talk or end up inviting them over for dinner that night. Presence multiplies the opportunities for connection that we are so desperately longing for in this age of isolation. Finally, neighborhood presence allows a local church to truly, tangibly demonstrate itself as the living temple of God, a communal reality. Rather than encountering a solo Christian here or there, neighbors get to see what Jesus is all about by witnessing a community that embodies and expresses the loving reign of God.
Question: Think about your neighborhood. What are 3 places where you are regularly present, such as parks, restaurants, schools or dog walking paths? Write 3 P’s on the map identifying these places of presence.
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them… “When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.
“When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’”
-Luke 10.1, 6-9
When we think of Jesus sending out disciples, our minds usually go to Matthew 28, often called “The Great Commission,” in which Jesus says, “Go and make disciples of all nations…” This is indeed an inspiring and energizing text, but in order to get a fuller picture of Jesus’ approach to mission, we need to pay attention to Luke 10, which includes the most detailed description of a discipleship process found in the Gospels. Here Jesus reveals that before any baptizing or teaching, there is another critical missional practice: listening.
Admittedly, that’s not exactly what Jesus says, but when he talks about entering homes and eating and drinking, he is talking about receiving hospitality. To receive hospitality in Jesus’ culture was to open yourself up to the lives and the stories of the other. In other words, Jesus is talking about listening.
Church planting is too often about charging into a community as if God isn’t already there. With this colonial approach, the church not only can (and has!) caused tremendous harm, but we also miss out on stepping into what the Spirit is already stirring in a place. When we listen to the stories of our neighbors and neighborhood, when we hear their hopes and struggles, our discernment becomes both focused and heightened. Then, rather than vaguely stating, “we are called to love our city,” or simply reproducing what some other church did in some other context, our faith community actually gets to respond to the Spirit’s movement.
Question: Who is one person in your neighborhood to whom you need to listen? Or what is one event or activity that takes place in your community in which you can participate in order to listen to your neighborhood in new ways? Write 1-2 L’s on your neighborhood map indicating who or where they are.
Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
Most churches would claim to value hospitality. They put on community events and then invite people to their building for Christmas, Easter or a relevant new sermon series. They coordinate volunteers to welcome guests and even give people prayer cards to fill out (and don’t forget to include your email address!).
These things aren’t bad in and of themselves. But this isn’t hospitality. It’s a marketing funnel! It’s about drawing people in, getting them going on a streamlined process that leads them to ultimately purchase the end product, namely, becoming a tithing church member. The funnel has a predetermined process and end point. Lives, however, are much more complicated than this. And each person deserves to be treated as the unique bearer of the image of God that they are!
Notice, too, that this understanding of hospitality focuses almost exclusively on what the church as an organization does. But in order to become a truly hospitable community in a place, we must practice hospitality in our homes, on our front porches and around our tables.
The world needs hospitality too badly right now for the church to get this wrong! In the United States, particularly, so many are held captive by Xenophobia – fear of the stranger. We see it in the political rhetoric, how people talk about Muslims and refugees, an obsession with guns and the talk about building a multi-billion dollar wall.
In this moment – and always – the Hebrews 13.2 call to show hospitality to the stranger is one we must heed. After all, the Greek word for this is Philoxenia, or love of the stranger. And Philoxenia is the exact opposite of Xenophobia!
Question: Is there a person or people group in your neighborhood that you are afraid of? Who is on the “edge” of your neighborhood? Who is the stranger- young people, the elderly, the physically impaired, ethnic minorities, refugees, single parents, divorcees, gay and trans persons? To whom could you extend hospitality by inviting over for dinner or taking out for coffee or beer? Write at least 1 H on the map that identifies the person/s to whom you desire to show hospitality.
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
-1 Corinthians 3.7-9
Early on in my journey of planting a neighborhood church I heard that another group of people was moving to the area to plant a church. My first impulse was fear, jealousy and confusion, but soon the Spirit pointed out to me that the fact that another church was being planted in the area did not mean competition, but confirmation. It was if God was saying, “You’ve heard my call to this place correctly. I’m doing something here. That’s precisely why I’m growing two churches in one place!” This was an invitation to collaboration.
Collaboration is what Paul is getting at when he uses the term “co-workers.” When we pursue the renewal of all things, we both join in God’s work and join together with others. We aren’t just starters; we are joiners. The Greek word is “sunergoi,” like synergy, which is “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” Over the years, our synergy with other churches, nonprofits and community groups has enabled “us” to do far more than our small neighborhood church could have done on our own. God works miracles when individuals and communities collaborate!
Question: What is one group or organization with whom you or your church could explore collaboration? As an individual, what is one activity or initiative in your neighborhood that you could join? Place a C on your map to identify this opportunity to build towards collaboration.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
One of the most dangerous aspects of the distorted missional practices that have so often been the focus for the church is that we end up thinking we bring God into a place. When we do this, we fail to see the ways that God’s grace and truth, God's faithfulness and glory, have already been on full display. In other words, we fail to realize that the ground we’re standing on – the place we live, work and play – is holy! The practices of presence, listening, hospitality and collaboration, however, leave us gentle and responsive to the fullness of the presence of God in the holy ground of our neighborhoods, towns and suburbs.
Also published on Medium.