by Tammy Heidbuurt
In 2007 I joined a small group of people in my church who were interested in starting a church plant – a new church specifically focused in and on the community where we lived. We talked about the importance of being a “presence” in our local neighbourhood – a faith community that would have a place-based ministry. Our focus would be on our neighbours, the people and places that were geographically close to us. And we determined that the best way to start as a new church was to get to know our community.
It started with conversations. Often when people talk to each other, they don’t listen attentively. They are often distracted, half listening, half thinking about something else. In our churches, we are often thinking of the kind(s) of ministry the community needs from us: We should build a playground in this community. This community needs free programs because it is poor. We should do a barbecue in our parking lot and invite the community to come so they can get to know us, and then we can invite them to join some of our programs.
Though these ideas may have the best of intentions, the focus is on us, the church. It can be damaging to decide what a community needs without inviting their input, ideas, stories, experiences and skills. It may impede our efforts to establish trust, our actions may be perceived as paternalistic, and we will miss out on the assets and resources that God has placed in our community for us to use and be blessed by.
As our church plant began to get to know our community, we needed to practice a way of listening and responding to others that would create mutual understanding. In some of those initial conversations we began to see people’s perceptions and expectations of the church shift and soften. Many in the community were expecting our focus to be on delivering bibles door to door, and/or shaming and guilting people into coming on Sunday mornings for a church service. Instead, we wanted to know their story, what they liked about the community, and how they saw us working together to make our community even better. They were surprised that our posture was one of listening.
God was also softening our hearts to see his image in those around us. As a church, we also began to see where God was already actively working in the people, places and institutions of our community (who was partnering with whom? What areas were city staff or service providers focusing their energy on? What resources already existed?).
All churches need to work toward healthier, intentional interactions with their community. For our church plant, it has been a journey. We are being stretched in our ideas of what church is and does. We are forging relationships with various people and stakeholders in our community that change their perceptions of “church” and “Christians,” and our perceptions of “un-churched people.” We have fun trying new things. We experience challenges. And, by God’s grace, we are able to contribute to positive change in our community as we work in partnership with organizations, city/community leaders, businesses, schools and our own neighbours.
So, let’s listen deeply, discern wisely God’s leading, and then move to action for the sake of God’s Kingdom!