Adapt to Thrive and Serve

October 23rd, 2013

Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer asked Jesus a good question, regardless of what motivated him to ask it. Jesus defined neighbor in the broadest terms, but we have narrowed the definition down to those who think and act like we do. That narrow definition distances us from our neighbors and eventually estranges us from them. When a church is estranged from its neighborhood, isolation and decline will soon follow. If we want to avoid or reverse decline, we must learn to adapt. One of the most important adaptations any local church can make is from a culture of ignoring its neighbors into a culture where the local church embraces the neighborhood.

Take Small Steps— They Lead to Culture Change

It is easy to identify churches that are stuck in a nonadaptive culture. Look for telltale signs, like:


In the new culture, churches with teenage neighbors might build a skateboard ramp for use in supervised activities. In the new culture, churches located in desperately poor neighborhoods might start a food pantry, clothes closet, or ESL classes and offer them on Sunday mornings when the working poor can come. As a bonus, churches might invite the recipients of the services to stay for worship. In the new adaptive culture, churches with gathering spaces might throw neighborhood birthday parties for kids.

Forget Homogeneity; Embrace Diversity

One local church stood at the crossroads of outrageous wealth and desperate poverty. One mile to the northeast, there were million-dollar homes, boutique shops, and high-end restaurants. One mile to the southwest, there were modest apartments and a junior high where 90 percent of the students were on subsidized meals. One mile to the northeast the population was 85 percent Anglo and retired. One mile to the southwest the population was Latino and working class.

This church had blinders on. The only population they could see lived to the east and north. One longtime member realized something had to be done. He went west to the junior high school and talked with the neighborhood school’s principal.

“Hi, my name is Alan. I am a member of a church not more than one mile from here. I’m afraid we have not been good neighbors to you. May I ask what are the most pressing needs of the students at your school?”

“Reading,” the principal responded, thinking, Here is one more do-gooder. When he hears my answer, he will run like a rabbit. “Most of our kids are behind at least one grade level in reading skills. If you want to be a good neighbor, then teach our children to read.”

The principal ended this conversation quickly, thanking the well-intentioned man for coming to visit. She felt secure in the notion that she would never see him again. To her surprise, she got a call from Alan one month later.

“I am sorry it has taken me a month, but maybe we can help with the reading skills problem,” Alan reported. “I have twenty retired adults who are ready to become one-on-one reading tutors with kids after school. I have a van ready to pick up the kids from school once a week and bring them to the church. Since kids are often hungry when school lets out, we will have a snack ready when they get to the church. We will also have a sack supper for them to take home and share with the rest of their families. We can tutor kids to read for 30 minutes at each session. But we don’t want to stop there. Many of our retired adults would love to learn how to speak Spanish. Can we trade teaching kids how to read in English for the students teaching us Spanish? What do you think?”

It took some time to work out the details, but imagine the intergenerational, interethnic, cross-socioeconomic friendships that developed when this local church and school began to work together. Inside each one-on-one relationship, each participant was a student for 30 minutes and a teacher for 30 minutes. “I have something I can teach you, and you have something to teach me.” They ate together and learned together, all because one church leader refused to ignore his neighborhood any longer.

Think Strategically

Your unique setting for ministry will be, in large part, defined by your geographic location. If your church is surrounded by families with children, get to know the families. Go door to door, hang out at the sports fields, and ask the parents what their challenges are. Work to build the best possible children’s program to make new, young disciples of Jesus to transform the world. If your congregation is located next to a college or university, then it is a sin to neglect a ministry to students, staff, and faculty. It’s great if you have an active Wesley Foundation or campus ministry. But if you’re a church next to a campus, they are your neighbors, and you cannot give over the whole responsibility to the Wesley Foundation. Instead you must partner with them to serve the whole area.

In a retirement area, van ministries are important, and daytime activities are vital. One friend has a church filled with retired people, so he established a ROMEO group (retired old men eating out). But remember the new retirees are a different generation. They are the babies born in the 1940s and 1950s and don’t share many characteristics with their parents. What reached the greatest generation won’t work for the first wave of boomers as they hit retirement. Learn who these new retirees really are, how they live, what they need. We must adapt to our neighborhood to thrive as a local church.

The Ignored Neighbor

In Not Just a One-Night Stand: Ministry With the Homeless, we wrote about a downtown congregation and the struggle that transformed the church’s life. Like their business neighbors, they spent tons of money on twenty-four-hour security and custodial labor to combat graffiti. A fortress mentality infected the members, along with other downtown residents. But when a young adult group began to see the homeless as neighbors, as much as the bank, the hotel, and the fine restaurants, a seismic shift began to take place.

The church moved from having a front door as secure and complicated as a bank vault, to seeing the homeless population as neither a threat nor an inconvenience. The church’s shift to embrace all its neighbors was not without pain and deep change. But the shift was the Spirit’s breath of life into a dying church. Eventually, what had been a mission to the homeless became a ministry of, by, and for the people of Travis Park, the homeless members as well as those with roofs over their heads. Amazing gifts of the Spirit arrived when the neighborhood was embraced. A neighborhood watch program was organized by the homeless members, on the property of Travis Park Church, for the purpose of protecting the people who had begun to call the church grounds their home. The church leaders who operated out of the old culture of ignoring neighbors watched in disbelief, while church leaders who had adapted to a new culture began working with and supporting new leaders in the homeless community to create a safe sanctuary around the church.

One of the fascinating side effects of embracing their neighbors was the elimination of all graffiti from the walls around the church building. Tagging and destruction of property stopped. The people who slept around the building’s perimeter were very protective of the church that sought to treat them with dignity and respect.

Who is my neighbor? The parable of the good Samaritan teaches us that our neighbors are the people who travel the same road and occupy the space next to us. Who is God sending across your path?

The authors' book Adapt to Thrive will be published by Abingdon Press in the spring of 2014.

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