June 10, 2020

Reflect. Learn. Listen. Plan.

As quarantine restrictions begin to be lifted across the country, a lot of congregations are beginning to think about gathering in-person again. Of course, this is a little scary considering the increase in cases but it appears that we, as a country, are going to try and figure out how to live with this. Some are convinced that this past season of closures will make things even more difficult for congregations. That will be true in many cases. Yet, is some–maybe many–a neighborhood starved for connection and institutions that they can trust in, that have the goodwill of the broader community at heart, we will see new, eager faces.

With this in mind, there's no better time then now to begin to think about how your congregation can be more missional in this next season. So, here are a few brief thoughts on what you might do to measurably work towards participating in what God is up to in the neighborhood:

How well do you know the community around the place your congregation worships? One way to assess this is to conduct a survey within your faith community on their confidence in their knowledge of the neighborhood. In my experience, most established Christian congregations will rate themselves quite high on their perception of a surrounding neighborhood. Yet, in reality their conception of the neighborhood is 5-20 years out of date. In other words, it has been a half decade to two decades since they have had a generative relationship with the surrounding community through evangelism, community building, civic engagement, etc. Often, these same congregations are actively engaged in service to those in need but have practices in place that ensure there is not a relationship of reciprocity that might better inform congregational leadership of neighborhood realities.

If you are intent on changing this, start with data. What are the demographics of the community your congregation worships within? Finding this information is not difficult. You can search the U.S. Census database to get a snapshot of what your community demographics are. Most Christian denominations have access to demographic data using a variety of software tools. Realtors in your congregation know how to find this information too. Once you've done this research, have honest conversations with your leadership around this question: Does our congregation reflect the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood?

If your congregation does not reflect the surrounding demographics, there are reasons internal to your congregation. As the saying goes, "Your system is perfectly designed to get current results." Your next step is to look inward.

What habits, assumptions and practices have ensured that your congregation is disconnected from the neighborhood you serve? Conduct congregational studies on implicit bias, intercultural competency, resilience, adaptability and tolerance to change, and hospitality. Do some Internet research and you will quickly find resources you can use for this work. Have honest conversations about the internal habits that breakdown your ability to see and hear and befriend those that live, work and play around you. This inward work needs to come before the outward-facing practices begin.

Outward-facing spiritual practices lead us to discover what God is doing in our communities. Most central to this is listening. Listening to God and neighbor. This can be done through prayer walks, practicing a presence through neighborhood events from high school football games to civic meetings, one-on-one meetings with neighbors–residents, business owners, civic leaders (both official and unofficial), etc. This can be done through sharing meals (don't just feed your neighbors, eat with your neighbors) and inviting community stakeholders to come speak at your church.  Listen to and document what you hear from your community. Develop a practice of listening to your community and teaching your congregation to meditate on what this displays about misconceptions, assumptions and where God's redeeming and reconciling work might be out ahead of your faith community. You will know that this is working if the congregation's confidence in their understanding of the surrounding community goes down. That's right. Survey, once again, your congregation's confidence in how well they know the neighborhood. If it goes down it's a strong indication that they are deploying humility, empathy and recognizing that there is room for growth.

If you are thoughtful about this, chances are that you can already see how much work is entailed in this before you can get to tangible outcomes. There is never a quick fix to the habits which have separated a congregation from it's community. Your intent here is not to assuage guilt. Avoid activities that will allow your congregation wash their hands of this work too quickly. Look at your average worship attendance. What percentage of this number is regularly engaged in connecting with the surrounding community? Whether this be through acts of service, outreach, evangelism, civic engagement, Bible studies in homes, etc. What would it take to increase this percentage year to year? Make a plan based on that desired outcome on an annual basis.

These postures will not only prepare us to meet our neighbors in new ways. These same practices can help us better address the racial inequities in our communities. Think about it and let me know what I missed.

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