Planning for ministry initiatives is incomplete without considering context. Just as individuals are part of a larger congregation, churches are part of larger communities. Often this look at the surrounding neighborhood is focused on needs, on ways that the people around us can be recipients of our care. While Jesus urges us to respond to serious lack and systemic injustice, it’s important to notice the gifts and stories of our neighbors as well. Then we can build relationships and find out where we fit in our community’s ecosystem, not just rush in with well-meaning but wrong-headed (and sometimes destructive) “fixes.”
Considering context first involves knowing who your neighbor is. Here are some ways to identify the people who live and work around you:
Conduct a demographic study. Check with the judicatory or denomination to find out if it has contracted with a demographic service. If not, contact your local chamber of commerce or search online for demographic information. Look for age, gender, race, ethnicity, age, family composition, population concentrations, economic levels, education levels, and any other available statistics. Put the demographics of the community with the demographics of the church side-by-side. What do you notice?
Learn who the local leaders are. Brainstorm (as a team or by a mini-survey to the congregation) or look online for the following:
- Local government officials
- School principals/superintendents/deans/presidents
- Chief emergency responders
- Business owners
- Directors of organizations/agencies/associations
- Clergy of other congregations
- Other influencers
Collate the above information and pray for the people in your neighborhood.
Considering context doesn’t end with information-gathering, however. It also involves interacting with your neighbors. Below are some ways to go about that. (Note that the first three suggestions below are particularly family-friendly.)
Go into the neighborhood. Create a scavenger hunt to encourage church members to go into nearby businesses, particularly ones they might not normally patronize. (Be sure to contact businesses ahead of time to let them know about the purpose and date(s) of the scavenger hunt and to get their permission.) For example, go into the home insurance office and get a business card. Go into the comic book shop and take a picture with the life-size cardboard cutout of Spiderman. Go into the local diner and order a slice of its famous cherry cobbler. At each location, introduce yourself to at least one employee. Make note of the people you meet and your experiences going into the businesses.
Take a prayer walk or drive. Give church members a map of a fairly small walking or driving radius. Go in groups or families, praying for the people and places along the route. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you along the way.
Lower the barriers for church members to volunteer. Create a list of local service agencies or opportunities as well as conversation prompts for interacting with people. (Where is your favorite place in the neighborhood? What is something that makes you smile? What are you good at?) Go in groups or families to volunteer. Make an effort to talk with the people – particularly the “clients” – in that place. Afterward, talk about what surprised, delighted, and challenged you.
Encourage church members to attend a city council meeting, community forum, and/or a school board meeting. Listen for the good that is going on as well as the needs being expressed.
Invite community representatives to a panel discussion at your church. Ask them what they love about their jobs and the community. Encourage them to share where they see neighborhood gifts, both individual and collective. Get them to tell about good things happening in the community, challenges they observe, and places that the church can join in either.
Next week I’ll share some ways to process the information your church gleans and the experiences congregation members have in the community.