This past week I had the amazing opportunity to spend time with a small church in Tampa, Fl helping them with some strategic planning. They are a perfect example of so many houses of worship in the US today. Decades ago when the doors first opened it was placed in a primarily “Anglo” middle-class neighborhood. As years have worn on the congregation who “grew up there” have become commuters while the community has changed around them. The main road to the church that once was barren now holds stores as evidence of the Colombian, Venezuelan, Peruvean and Vietnamese population that has moved in.
The church had a choice to make: Do they move where they worship, keep the “face” of their congregation the same or actively open the doors to the community at hand? We all know the “Jesus” answer. However, the reality is I have known churches who have moved, and others who have made sure the changing neighborhood knows they are not really welcome. They decided to welcome in the large number of primarily Hispanic and Vietnamese neighbors at their door. This has caused a unique set of challenges, the least of which is all becoming multi-lingual. It’s funny how you believe you came to serve and the Lord teaches you so much more than you had to give away.
Here is what I learned:
1. Unity takes Action
It’s easy to go “do an outreach” in our backyard. Then we can invite those we meet to what we offer anyway. However, when you recognize the people in your pews are a now a different mix of people, it takes work to bring unity. First, they invited a Columbian pastor from the area onto their staff. Then they held services in both Spanish and English with an integrated service once a month. These were first steps. We came in to help as they work intently towards becoming a multiethnic church as one total body of Christ. This means thinking through various languages, cultural differences and styles of leadership in all they do and offer.
2. Beware Of Pre-Conceived Ideas
As I met the Hispanic congregants they were clear they didn’t want to be seen as a “ministry” of the church. The current church body were already welcoming in addicts, the grieving, the mentally ill and reaching those in prison. The new members would identify themselves as previously disconnected from church but not those living on the fringes of society. As we reach out it’s important we talk to those we invite in. We may see them as more “broken” than they see themselves. They may not want to be added to the list of those we “outreach.”
3. Involving ALL Families
This church had a deep history of mercy and love. This meant that it’s youth group was full of primarily “unchurched” teens prior to the church opening it’s doors to the community. Families coming from the neighborhood come from a culture of tight-nit almost over-protection of their children. There are actually an equal amount of single Dads to single Moms. As the church seeks unity one challenge has been teaching to groups who have grown up in the church alongside those who have never heard anything about the Bible. This means they have had to rethink the way they approach all of their programming to include ALL families, from ALL backgrounds. It would be easy to exclude some parents and just focus on their children. Instead they are finding creative ways to bring the FAMILY to a deep relationship with Christ, even when it’s complicated.
Walking the journey with this little congregation has left me a lot to think about the way I have approached my own community and notions about who lives there. Yes, I happen to live in “the hood,” however, it doesn’t mean all who live there are “stuck in a place of survival mode.” It leaves us with a choice as we “do” church. Are we willing to take any step necessary not to only invite the community in, but will we seek intentionally to meet them at their deepest need? This may mean giving a cold cup of water on a hot day, it might mean learning a language we never knew or it just might mean that we ask them first the question:
“What is your deepest point of need?”
How is your church or youth group working to outreach into your community?