Neighborhood Observations and a Theology of Neighborhoods

At the beginning of the week, I committed to walking our neighborhood every day-focusing on the poorer parts.  I usually took at least 1 kid or husband and 1 dog (our smaller one because she’s cute and less intimidating than our bigger one).  Some observations:

  • I live in a racially diverse neighborhood- White, Latino and African-American
  • People work on their cars in their yard/driveway.  I don’t work on my car-I’m certain I would kill it if I did but if I didn’t have the money to get it fixed-I suppose I’d have no choice.  My neighbors likely don’t have a choice.
  • People grill in their front yard-not their back yard.  (Have we always grilled in the backyard?)  We grill in the front now.
  • People spend time outside-whether it’s hot or not.
  • Clotheslines.  I’ve observed many clotheslines in our neighborhood.  They aren’t just for decoration.  They get used and seemingly used often.  Thinking that through….it means they are used because of lack of funds, space, availability of a clothes dryer.  Something I never even think twice about having and using.
  • Kids (and some adults) like our dog and she likes them.  Having the dog with us creates opportunities to meet people.  Example:  my husband and I were walking through the parking lot of the neighborhood laundromat.  There was a Latino family inside.  Their 3 kids saw our dog and started pointing and getting excited.  We came toward the door and indicated that we’d be happy to let them meet Ginger.  The family came out and we had a 10ish minute conversation with them-turns out they immigrated from Honduras.
  • Trash cans are left in the front yard.  In my old neighborhood, we received nasty letters if a trash can was left out.  I’ve heard my old neighborhood referred to as Disneyland.  The place where everything is perfectly manicured and landscaped.  We definitely don’t live in Disneyland any more.

Yes, my neighborhood has a laundromat and many more check cashing, pawn shops and title loan places.  It’s very different from where we used to live and I’m thankful.  I guess you’d say my ‘theology of neighborhoods’ has changed.  I don’t think of ‘bad neighborhoods’ the way I used to–as places to avoid at all costs.  I think of them as places where the brokenness of sin is on display to the outside world–as opposed to hidden away behind manicured landscaping and closed, attached garages.  I think of them as places to shine the light of Gospel truth rather than places to be written off as Godless and hopeless.

When Helping Hurts- Chapter 2-Notable Quotes

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All Quotes from “When Helping Hurts” Chapter 2 by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

“…while there is a material dimension to poverty…there is also a loss of meaning, purpose, and hope that plays a major role in poverty in North America.  The problem goes well beyond the material dimension, so the solutions must go beyond the material as well.”

“If we treat only the symptoms [of poverty] or if we misdiagnose the underlying problem, we will not improve their situation, and we might actually make their lives worse.  And as we shall see later, we might hurt ourselves in the process.”

  • If we believe the primary cause of poverty is a lack of knowledge, then we will primarily try to educate the poor
  • If we believe the primary cause of poverty is oppression by powerful people, then we will primarily try to work for social justice
  • If we believe the primary cause of poverty is the personal sins of the poor, then we will primarily try to evangelize and disciple the poor
  • If we believe the primary cause of poverty is a lack of material resources, then we will primarily try to give material resources to the poor

“If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” (Isaiah 58:10)  ‘Spending yourself’ often involves more than giving a handout to a poor person, a handout that may very well do more harm than good.  A sound diagnosis is absolutely critical for helping poor people without hurting them.

“God established four foundational relationships for each person:  a relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation.  These relationships are the building blocks for all of life.  When they are functioning properly, humans experience the fullness of life that God intended, because we are being what God created us to be.  In particular for our purposes, when these relationships are functioning properly, people are able to fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.”

“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.  Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.”

“…every human being is suffering from a poverty of spiritual intimacy, a poverty of being, a poverty of community, and a poverty of stewardship.”

“We are all broken, just in different ways.”

“By showing low-income people through our words, our actions, and most importantly our ears that they are people with unique gifts and abilities, we can be part of helping them to recover their sense of dignity, even as we recover from our sense of pride.”

When Helping Hurts- Chapter 1

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When Helping Hurts- Notable Quotes: Chapter 1 by Steve Corbett/Brian Fikkert

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Luke 4: 18-19

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”  Isaiah 58: 9-10

Why was Israel sent into captivity?  Many of us have a picture in our minds of the Israelites getting out of bed every morning and running off to the nearest shrine to worship idols.  Indeed, numerous passages in the Old Testament indicate that idolatry was a problem in Israel.  But these passages give a broader picture.  Here [Isaiah 58:1-3, 5-10] Israel appears to be characterized by personal piety and the outward expressions of formal religion:  worshiping, offering sacrifices, celebrating religious holidays, fasting, and praying.  Translate this into the modern era, and we might say these folks were faithfully going to church each Sunday, attending midweek prayer meeting, going on the annual church retreat, and singing contemporary praise music.  But God was disgusted with them, going so far as to call them ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’!

Personal piety and formal worship are essential to the Christian life, but they must lead to lives that ‘act justly and love mercy’ (Mic. 6:8)

Referring to Acts 4:34 “there were no needy persons among them”:

Luke is indicating [in Acts 4] that while Israel had failed to care for the poor and was sent into captivity, God’s people have been restored and are now embodying King Jesus and His kingdom, a kingdom in which there is no poverty  (Rev. 21:1-4).  Indeed, throughout the New Testament, care of the poor is a vital concern of the church (Matt. 25:31-46; Acts 6:1-7; Gal. 2:1-10; 6:10; James 1:27).  Perhaps no passage states it more succinctly than 1 John 3:16-18:  ‘This is how we know what love is:  Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.  And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.  If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.’

What is the task of the church?  We are to embody Jesus Christ by doing what He did and what He continues to do through us:  declare–using both words and deeds–that Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords who is bringing in a kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace.  And the church needs to do this where Jesus did it, among the blind, the lame, the sick and outcast, and the poor.

God has sovereignly chosen to work in the world beginning with the weak who are on the ‘outside’, not the powerful who are on the ‘inside.’

…the early church’s engagement with suffering people was crucial to its explosive growth.

Should the Gospel Inform Where We Live?

“Safe” and “good” neighborhood?  Subdivision with amenities (pools, parks, walking trails)?  Sidewalks?  Proximity to work?  Square footage?  These are a few things a typical American considers when buying a home or deciding where to live.

Should the Gospel inform where an American Christian lives?   I would answer yes.  If the answer is yes, than how?  What would that look like?

If God left us on this earth to be conformed into the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29) and to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28: 16-20).  It makes sense that where we make our home should be an outworking of what God wants to do with our lives and what He calls us to.

What does this look like practically for a Christ follower?  I propose that it looks like putting the typical American housing criteria toward the bottom of our list.  At the top of our list should be a home where God has called us to be Christ’s representatives to our neighbors and where we can do this most effectively. This might mean finding another family or families in your church body that are looking for others to come alongside them in neighborhood evangelism.  This may mean purposely moving into a lower income neighborhood with the purpose of mission.  This might mean renting an apartment rather than buying a house-for the specific purpose of reaching people living in that particular apartment complex with the Gospel.  Even if it means less living space and it makes less financial sense for your family.

Christians should look different from the world.  “Even in the sphere of house buying?”you might ask.  If you find yourself saying ‘no’, I’d like you to ask yourself why you might be saying that.  Could it be that you are more in love with comfort, ease, and the American dream than you are with Jesus and living on mission for Him?  I know it’s not easy to take a hard look at these things.  It’s going to cost something, it’s likely going to hurt in many ways.  I’m here to say though, that it’s worth the cost.  It’s good to question ‘the way we’ve always done things’.  How a Christian decides where he or she lives is one of those things we need to question.  The Gospel should inform where we live.  God is too big and we spend too much time in and around our homes to not take a hard look at this area of life.  God has something to say about every area of our lives-where we live is just one of them.

It’s Gonna Feel Like You’re Settling

No Ladies Bible Study.  No Youth Group.  No Sunday School.  Maybe even no nursery?  You may have just set foot inside a brand new church plant.

If you’ve been used to a larger church with all of the typical American church programs, you will probably feel like you are settling.  It might not feel like a ‘real’ church.  You might feel disturbingly ‘un-busy’ when you’re not at the church building 3-4 times a week.

I’m here to say that it’s ok.  I’ve been there and felt those things.  I’ve had to fight those feelings and I continue to fight them on occasion.  I’m here to tell you that you don’t need those programs to grow as a Christian.  Can God use them?  Yes.  But do you NEED them?  No.

I’m not anti-program.  I’ve participated in many and benefitted from them to varying degrees.  It’s just that I’ve found that I don’t need them like I thought I did and my kids don’t either.  At first, I thought I was harming my children by being part of a church that did not have a youth group or age appropriate Sunday school classes.  We’d had those things for 10 years and they were built into my psyche as a brand new Christian teenager way back when.  Then, as we spent time at a relatively new church plant with very few programs, I heard things from my kids.  Things like “Mom, I realized that I was really more excited to go to church to see my friends in Youth Group than to worship God.”  I saw adults praying with my children–purposely seeking them out to do so and befriending them.  My kids and I saw that programs can be really nice–but not having them is ok too-actually even better than ok.  When people show sacrificial love and kindness without a program to prompt them, even to a person they don’t share a natural affinity with–the Gospel is put on display in a big way.  People notice.  Jesus notices.  The Gospel is made attractive.  It’s completely different from the world.  The world loves to be around people just like them–have you ever noticed that?  The church should be different than the world.  It should be the one place on earth where we love to hang out with people that aren’t like us-just because we have Jesus in common.

So, most days, I don’t feel like I’m settling anymore.  There are still some nagging doubts that Satan jabs me with here and there but I’m pretty much over it.  I’m over believing that I NEED to have church programs that match mine and my families affinities.  I believe I’m the better for it.  Jesus is more than enough.  He doesn’t need programs to accomplish His work.

Live Sent

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“Because God by nature is a sender, it implies two simple ideas.  First, there is One who sends; and second, there are people to whom we are sent.  But, it is not that God just sends us anywhere; God sends us somewhere.  You are called and sent on mission; the only question is where and among whom.  It could be the Pokot in East Africa or to a cultural mosaic of urban Los Angeles.  We are called because we have a sender, but we also have a people to whom were are sent.  This is the reason we plant or lead so many diverse churches, because ultimately God is a sender by nature.  When you understand that God is a sender, you are simply responding to the character of God and His purpose for His world when you live sent.  And because you live sent, it means you will live and lead differently.”

Ed Stetzer

http://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2011/june/missional-idea-in-scripture-developing-missional-churches.html?paging=off

What would it look like for you to ‘live sent’?

For me, it’s waking up everyday to the view of the picture above and making a choice (however imperfectly) to befriend, love and serve my neighbors in the name of Jesus.

It means praying for my neighbors and neighborhood and those our family comes into contact with.  It means being intentional about getting to know them and befriending them.  It means seeing people as image bearers and valuing them as God’s precious creation.

Yes, I believe every Christian is sent somewhere to represent Christ.  My questions:  are we living as if we’ve been sent?  And once we realize we are sent–are we representing Him well?

Evangelism by J. Mack Stiles

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I had been looking forward to reading this book for awhile.  I honestly don’t know why I waited so long!  It’s a very quick read.  My husband and I actually read it out loud to each other together over a few evenings.

Stiles defines evangelism as ‘teaching the Gospel with the aim to persuade”.

Stiles’ main focus in the book is the importance of building a culture of evangelism within the church.  This will not happen primarily through evangelism programs that are sponsored by the church (an excellent point).  Stiles intimates that church leaders long for a culture of evangelism in their own churches.  My question is:  are church leaders willing to do what it takes to achieve this?  Even if it means cutting long standing programs or reducing the amount of formal meetings on the church schedule?  Are they ready and willing to release their people for the work of the ministry outside the brick and mortar church building?

What is a culture of evangelism you might ask?  The characteristics of a culture of evangelism are, according to the author:

  1. A Culture Motivated by Love for Jesus and His Gospel
  2. A Culture That is Confident in the Gospel
  3. A Culture That Understands the Danger of Entertainment
  4. A Culture That Sees People Clearly
  5. A Culture That Pulls Together as One
  6. A Culture in Which People Teach One Another
  7. A Culture That Models Evangelism
  8. A Culture in Which People Who Are Sharing Their Faith Are Celebrated
  9. A Culture That Knows How to Affirm and Celebrate New Life
  10. A Culture Doing Ministry That Feels Risky and is Dangerous
  11. A Culture That Understands That the Church is the Chosen and Best Method of Evangelism

While there’s a lot to like in this book, there is one rather glaring point that is missing and I would argue that it is a serious oversight.   Stiles’  writing came across as if he was blaming the average church member for the programmatic culture of evangelism that is the current norm in most churches.  There is no mention (that I noticed) of how pastors and other church leaders contribute to and perpetuate this problem.  The author says “a culture of evangelism is grassroots, not top-down.”  I strongly disagree.  Leaders must model and disciple their people in evangelism in order to grow a culture of evangelism.  What leadership celebrates and models, the church will become.

An area where this oversight stuck out for me was Stiles’ point that many Christians are isolated from non-Christians.  One reason he gives for this is that we can become too busy with ‘ministry’.  This is another area that I see as, in part, a failure of church leadership.  Many churches have a packed schedule of formal gatherings throughout the week.  What if we freed up our church schedules allowing members more time to pursue friendships and activities with unbelievers?  Does the leadership make it clear to their people that every believer is a minister and that ministry does indeed happen outside the walls of the church building?

Until church members AND church leaders recognize their own contributions to the problem of lack of evangelism in church culture, we can not move forward with solutions.  Every believer needs to take responsibility, repent where needed and seek to move toward obedience in evangelism by faith, with the help of the Holy Spirit.