Church Planting
February 7, 2022

Exegeting Neighborhoods

Dennae Pierre

Recently, I talked with Clara, a woman in her late 70s who had lived in the same impoverished neighborhood since she was a child. She was concerned about youth being pulled into gun violence, low literacy rates, and the prostitution happening at the empty lot around the corner, but none of those things seemed to concern her nearly as much as the city keeping the neighborhood swimming pool closed for the 4th summer in a row. She explained to me in detailed history what kind of trouble youth get into when the pools are closed versus the opportunities when they are open. She believed strongly in the impact made by even just 8-12 youth hired as  lifeguards for the summer and elementary school kids swimming 3-4 hours a day instead of staying indoors alone. She had decades of observation from her front porch and well-formed opinions on why she needed help getting the city to prioritize this particular park.

The single topic of an underfunded city park system and a closed swimming pool led to a 90 minute history lesson on the neighborhood from Clara. I wondered how many volunteers, city officials, and churches have designed projects for this particular neighborhood unaware of the history Clara seemed to be an expert on. When it comes to working in distressed neighborhoods, there are many different approaches we can take, but some will only be possible if we take time to get to know the Clara’s in our neighborhoods.

In Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence authors Samuel Wells and Marcia Owen provide a framework for engaging with those in need. They offer four different ways of participating in the alleviation of poverty and needs: (1) working for, (2) working with, (3) being with, and (4) being for. Here is a quick summary of each:

Working for

Wells and Owens describe this as an act of experts and professionals. It allows for distance between the one doing the work and the one benefiting from the work and has potential to be transactional. The best examples of “working for” can often be found in vocations that depend on professionals such as law or medicine or it often shows up in philanthropy and relief work where the rich and poor can have an exchange, yet remain strangers.

Working with

A way of working that does not assume the solution and diagnosis must come from the “expert,” but instead requires a reciprocal relationship. Instead of the ones with the financial or educational resources maintaining the power and autonomy, they surrender some of both in order for those within the community to contribute their own skills, networks, and resources and to participate as an equally valuable voice in deciding how to make a difference.

Being with

A way of being that is less given to programs and movements and more focused on relationship and incremental initiatives. It prioritizes friendship in the midst of suffering over and above solutions. It does not only pay attention to their material well being, but also notices the ways poverty impacts their sense of self and connection to others. While we want to see relief from injustice and poverty, being with “dispels an easy view of poverty as romantic and of disadvantaged people as simple and virtuous.”

Being for

Owens and Wells describe this as perhaps the most negative of the four because it allows someone to become very informed about a social issue through reading and analyzing news sources, but without participating in concrete change. It can pull them into training, debating, and passionately expressing their opinion, but keep them alienated from actual relationships with those suffering from particular injustices. While the average social media user may be among the worst examples of this; the most charitable example might be an academic institution doing research on a particular neighborhood.

I appreciate this framework because well intentioned churches with zeal to bring the gospel to impoverished or distressed communities often jump into church planting without stopping to examine their own assumptions, quick diagnosis, and presumptive solutions. It can be easy to only see the need, brokenness, and suffering in the neighborhood and overlook the gifts embedded in neighbors and communities. They quickly begin to initiate ministry without taking the time to get to know the longstanding history or the “elders” and leaders in the community.

Church planters can enter neighborhoods with seminary training and the post-graduate vocabularies pastors pick up along the way and unintentionally assume that because we know Christ is the hope for this neighborhood and we are trained to exegete the Scriptures; that we also hold the keys for how to exegete the neighborhood. We can subconsciously see the neighborhood as “the lost” and the church plant as “the savior.” This practice of such large categorization can lead to missing out on opportunities to see how the Holy Spirit has been working long before we arrive to start a new church.

Before we show up with a new church, these neighborhoods have “grandmas” who pray for each kid on their street by name, folks who may never enter the doors of a church that have started community gardens, employees of the local corner store who know when something bad is going down, public school bus drivers who figure out how to get kids jackets who need them when winter comes and use their minimum wage salary to give a small Christmas present to kids on their route. There are small businesses run out of backyards and kitchens; artists sketching away on notepads; and existing churches started 50+ years ago that may not share your theology and perhaps only have 12-20 members left, but embody the neighborhood’s history and provide a subtle, preserving presence in the community.

These people are able to offer far more wisdom to what is going on in the community and what new programs or initiatives it needs than the most zealous or gifted church planter who just moved into the hood. If we arrive “working for” or “being for” a neighborhood without taking the time to get to know the blessings already embedded in the community, then we will end up talking about the neighborhood in ways that lack nuance, erases complexity, and can distance us from the very people we want to be in relationship with. Healthy church plants want to find the treasures hidden all throughout a neighborhood and discover the richness of God’s work through his image bearers.

In closing, let me leave you with this quote from Wells and Owens as they make a strong case for “working with” and “being with” versus “for” as the best models for engaging those with need:

A key question to ask is, “to what extent are we prepared to allow Jesus; death and resurrection to be the fundamental working for that relativizes all our attempts to work for?” We would love to have the ability to “save” others by securing their temporary, abiding and even eternal well-being, but the Gospels witness that this salvation is something that comes only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Thus all our attempts to work for--our attempts that are not short term, temporary acts of goodwill--are in danger of masquerading as salvation. Working with and being with are best understood as enjoying and making more widely available the working for that is fundamentally done only by Jesus.
And so the question of how we approach engagement in relation to social disadvantage is fundamentally a question of how we see ourselves before God. The joy of being a child of God is more than anything else the joy of being with God--not just working for or with God but simply being with God because there is nowhere better to be. (p. 43)

Instead of designing ministry for our neighbors, let's design ministries with the wisdom and input of our neighbors. This allows us to do more than labor for a neighborhood or church plant, but to find joy in “being with” them. If our relationship with the neighborhood is not built on paternalism or professionalism, but on reciprocity, we will end up finding neighbors who become significant gifts of friendship and love and they will teach us how to see a community through the eyes of Christ.