JOINING GOD IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
by Bruce Moyer
A question that is asked all too infrequently by a congregation is, "What is our responsibility to our community?" Many congregations do not even recognize that they are part of a community. This 'community' can be discovered by stepping out the door of the church, and asking people where that church is. When someone responds, "I don't know," you are at the boundary. Too often that is a matter of yards or feet from the church door. Who knows about your church? Who cares? Jeremiah's letter to the exiled Jews in Mesopotamia can be applied here: “Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jer. 29:7). Remember, these people didn't want to be there. They were unhappy because of their exile. God reminds them, through Jeremiah, that He sent them there. There was a purpose in all of this. Many of the saints in my local church in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, didn't like their location. The neighborhood was infested with gangs, drugs and prostitution. Drive-by shootings were common. The church had circled its wagons in a protective mode, picking up the debris from frequently broken windows. During one evening meeting, one of the "enemy" let the air out of all the tires in the parking lot. Arson was attempted, but it failed. During the next six months we determined that God did indeed have a redemptive reason for that congregation's existence and location. How could we discover and fulfill that purpose? What was our responsibility as stewards of God to the neighborhood?
"We realized that God was alive and well in the neighborhood, perhaps more than in the church. What was God already doing, and how could we join Him?"
First we stood back and attempted to look at the neighborhood from God's perspective. We realized that God was alive and well in the neighborhood, perhaps more than in the church. What was God already doing, and how could we join Him? We asked the neighborhood people about their perceived needs. Poor schools and unstructured summers topped the list. In response, we orchestrated a wonderful six-week urban day-camp. We added remedial-reading and math to the normal mix of Bible stories and crafts. We even arranged a free lunch program, courtesy of the school district. At summer's end we opened the church to a huge celebration with student displays and a light buffet. We reevaluated our pathfinder program and grew from six church kids to 26 children. We dispensed with uniform requirements in this disadvantaged neighborhood, and required only tee shirts and berets. We even joked about adding an honor in breakdancing.
We worked at changing the atmosphere of the church’s Community Services department. We wanted to be more loving and inclusive. We stopped being a church to the community and worked at being a church with the community.
"Before long we began to see amazing changes in our neighborhood."
Before long we began to see amazing changes in our neighborhood. Not that it had changed, the economic reality was still a challenge, the gangs were just as prevalent, but our perspective had changed. We were learning to see the 'hood' through the eyes of Jesus. But there were other changes as well. Instead of broken windows and arson, we now had 50 pint-sized guards protecting the property. Neighborhood folk began talking about 'our' church.
And then a small miracle happened. God, in his mercy broke down the old church sign. We decided it was a good time, to change the name of the church. Instead of "University Park Seventh-day Adventist Church" the new sign reads: "University Park COMMUNITY Seventh day Adventist Church." We were beginning to learn lessons in community stewardship!