By Brian Jennings
When I jog through the neighborhoods surrounding our church building, I’m reminded of a demographics study we researched a few years ago. We’re a melting pot—ethnically, generationally, and economically. The study was helpful, but also maddening. We learned that all types of people live in our neighborhood. One house is crammed with parents and kids trying to eek out a living. The next is being flipped by trendy newlyweds. The next has been cared for by the same woman for 40 years. A few blocks later, I pass by low-income apartments. I see it all, and trust me, I don’t go very far.
Years ago Willow Creek Community Church identified the average people in their neighborhood, referring to them as Unchurched Harry and Mary. Our community is not so easily identified. We’re more like Unchurched Bob, Abdul, María, Wilma, DeShaun, Meredith, and Soowan (real names of people I know who live nearby). Some churches can package their ministries to one demographic, but not those of us in the city. Practically, this means we’ll usually grow more slowly, face more challenges, require more resources, and constantly spend energy trying to reach wildly different groups of people. Not that this is bad.
The word exegesis dumbfounded me when I began attending Ozark Christian College. What were the professors talking about? What or who is an X-of-Jesus?
I soon learned the definition: exegesis—the careful, thorough study of a text. I survived Principles of Exegesis, a demanding class, and I wrote a 40-page exegetical paper on 1 Corinthians 5. Several years after graduation, I learned another principle of exegesis.
“You have to exegete the city,” I first heard Steve Chapman say about a dozen years ago. Steve ministers with a church reaching, changing, and blessing their South Chicago community. Steve has taught me that every church needs to study their city. Churches need to learn their neighborhood’s needs, traditions, values, and quirks. When Christians learn and listen well, they minister well.
A Stroll Through Athens
In Acts 17, Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him as they continued in their disciple-making work. The chapter contains one of Paul’s most stirring sermons; eternities would be changed. His sermon intro was dynamite:
“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:22, 23).
Application erupts from this passage, but let’s just notice one thing: Paul went for a very important walk. He exegeted the city. While walking around his eyes were open and his mind was churning. He didn’t waste any steps. By the time Paul was given the opportunity to preach, he’d studied the city enough to know how to frame his sermon to a bunch of philosophical heavyweights. His sermon packed a mighty punch because he understood the people of Athens.
If Paul strolled through your city, what idols would he find? Would he see the god of sports, noting how the little league fields look nicer than Yankee Stadium? Would he see the god of money, noting the overpriced, underpaid cars? Would he see the god of knowledge, noting people who turned God-given curiosity into self-centered cynicism? Would he see the god of family, noting how parents placed their kids on the throne and then wondered why they were so spoiled? Would he see hopelessness, laziness, greed?
If Paul strolled through your city, what sermon would he write? What introduction would grab interest and warrant attention?
If Paul strolled through your city, what needs would he see? What ministry opportunities would he initiate?
These are the questions we must be asking if we are to reach our cities.
Listening and Learning
My good friend Dane specializes in counseling people who have family strife. When an angry couple sits down in his office, Dane doesn’t immediately give them a to-do list and then tell them to come back in a week. He listens. Once he’s listened really well, he may give some homework. Without effort and careful study, churches treat their city like a counselor who is too busy to hear a client.
Let me share a bad ministry model: Joe is inspired by hearing how another church feeds the hungry. Joe organizes a food drive at his church, including promoting the event to the poorer areas of their city. Because church people are generous, Joe receives a truckload of food, which is then handed out to a line of people on Christmas Eve. Joe and the church feel great about the amount of food given away and promise to do it again.
Joe has a great heart. I’d never question that, but notice what is missing: Studying the need (which includes loads of questions), praying for guidance, and planning an event that most effectively helps people. Perhaps if Joe did these three things, his event would look similar, but it would probably take a radically different path.
Joe might’ve learned that he threatened to undercut the long-term, holistic work being done by another church in the neighborhood. He might’ve learned that his timing was terrible. He might’ve learned that some people left unsatisfied because they were more lonely than hungry. He might’ve learned that his model wasn’t sustainable for volunteers. He might’ve learned lots, but he didn’t. He didn’t take the time to learn.
Are you learning?
Churches, especially churches in the city, must spend enormous energy to discover the needs of their neighborhood. Meeting needs goes deeper than granting preferences. Love demands plenty of listening and learning. Love takes work.
Here are some things you can do:
• Walk and pray. Nothing stirs my heart for my neighborhood better than slowly taking it in.
• Intentionally look for needs. Ask established volunteers and residents in your neighborhood what needs they see. Once a year we organize a neighborhood work day (offering to help with tasks like raking or cleaning gutters). In the process, we’ve learned about the number of widows who are lonely, so we’ve shaped some other ministry activities to reach out to them. Serving people is a great way to learn of deeper needs, and it provides more insight than any demographic reports, even though they are helpful.
• Host events with the only purpose of loving your neighborhood. The more you love with no strings attached, the more your neighbors will begin to trust you and come to you for spiritual needs.
• Consider if your programs contain barriers to diverse people. I’m sure you’d never purposefully make it difficult for someone to hear the gospel and connect with you, but your church might unintentionally be doing this. Without exploration and input, it’s impossible to spot these things.
• Remember that service is for the Lord and for others. Personal fulfillment is a beautiful byproduct, but it should never be the driving force.
Ministering in an urban, diverse, economically-challenged environment provides obstacles, but your finish line will be spectacular. People’s deepest need will be met, and they may live next to you in the eternal city. People matter to God, so cities matter to God. Keep studying your city. Keep loving the people. Keep preaching the Word.
Brian Jennings preaches at Highland Park Christian Church, in Tulsa, Oklahoma (brianjenningsblog.com).