I’ve got a pastor friend who is spectacular at being in her neighborhood for good. The congregation is known by the neighborhood and is integral to it. They garden in their back yard. They use the basement as a shelter. Members of the parish are residents of the immediate geographical neighborhood.
As a result, this pastor often gets asked by newly called pastors and church outreach committees, “How can we reach out to our neighborhood more effectively?”
Often these questions come from nearby congregations. As her friend, I want to step in to the conversation and answer, “Donate to her church. She’s already doing it! Support her!”
That is in fact one excellent answer to the question. If you want to reach neighborhoods for good, you could do much worse than simply finding the churches already doing it, then donate cold hard cash.
But many congregations are asking this question, and not all of them are going to donate to neighboring churches (even if more should). It’s not a bad question to ask.
So to reach a neighborhood, the real answer is, It will cost you. The first answer to the question, “How can we reach out to our neighborhood?” is itself a question: “How much are you willing to spend?”
Honestly, if you want to reach your neighborhood, you are going to need to be like your neighborhood. An upper middle class congregation will not be effective in reaching a poor neighborhood in which it is situated unless it divests itself significantly of its wealth and learns to live among and with the people it hopes to “reach.”
This is why so many Christians form intentional Christian communities in specific neighborhoods. They know that to do good ministry in a neighborhood, you have to join the neighborhood. Culturally. Economically. Linguistically. Spiritually.
If your congregation isn’t willing to make ALL the requisite changes necessary to join the neighborhood, it won’t reach the neighborhood. Full stop.
Neighborhoods are real places. So in addition to joining the neighborhood of people in their sociological location, a congregation that wishes to reach a neighborhood will need to think about the actual neighborhood. It needs to “find” itself in the neighborhood, as it were.
This looks like knowing the third places, knowing the people, knowing the businesses, knowing the public services, knowing the other churches, going door to door.
If you want to reach the neighborhood, spend time in it. It’s really that simple. If you spend time with your neighbors, you’ll hear their needs… especially if you ask. There aren’t magical strategies here. It’s really about time and conversation.
Finally, most neighborhoods are completely caught by surprise when a congregation actually impinges on their lives and makes a difference for good. People have become so accustomed to churches as quiet little “no-places” about which they know little, a gathering of folks they seldom see, that they are pleasantly surprised when the church actually does something for or with them.
I read your pastor’s column in the newspaper this weekend! That water stand you set up for the kids after school was amazing! I love it that your church takes risks on behalf of the LGBTQ+ and stands with them. I heard your church has a little food pantry. Your church does social gospel well.
After a while, if your church does impact the neighborhood, the neighborhood starts to teach you your own mission statement. You hear echoed back in their vision of you what God is calling you to.
But in my experience, neighbors don’t notice a congregation until it has been willing to be actually vulnerably, truly at risk, in order to connect with them. Surprise surprise, when Christ tells the church to take up its cross, that’s actually one of the most missionary of expectations. It’s how you reach the neighborhood.
Don’t even start asking how you might get more neighbors to join the church until you’ve asked a much harder question in your community: How can we risk everything for the sake of our neighbors and their needs?
That’s how you reach your neighborhood. It’s rather rewarding, actually, although there’s much sweat involved.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)