Christ in Middle Neighborhoods: How Churches Can Reach These Forgotten Communities

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August 27, 2017 by Kyle

In an article authored by my district’s congressional representative, he discusses the idea of “middle neighborhoods.” Northwest Philadelphia is one of those middle neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are not severely impoverished, but not known for being up and coming. West Oak Lane sits on the border of Cheltenham Township and if you were to drive East or West on Cheltenham Avenue, you would observe upper middle class neighborhoods. The dividing line of Cheltenham Township tells a story. As one moves South on Ogontz Avenue, you will find yourself within an African American community on the cusp of being an up and coming community or a place in decline. There are drugs, violence, litter, unemployment, theft, failed schools in this community but there is also the presence of community organizations that have been working for years to resurrect, and insert life into this place.

WOL

Today I am interested in how the church can reach these kinds of middle neighborhood within a city like Philadelphia.  Many of those who have committed themselves to the gospel are very aware of the struggles of communities dealing with extreme poverty, but many may dismiss these important communities that can easily turn if they continue to be neglected. Congressman Dwight Evans remarks about middle neighborhoods and how they thrive,

Our neighborhoods rely on anchors like great schools, bustling shops and small businesses, and a competitive housing stock in order to attract homebuyers and increase long-term homeownership. “Middle Neighborhoods” are caught between growing and declining neighborhoods. They are neighborhoods that are doing “good enough” right now, but are threatened by decline, as the demand to live in these neighborhoods is weakening.

These neighborhoods also rely on churches that are committed to having a presence within the everyday life of the community.  Wherever there is struggle, there is opportunity for the presence of the people of God. Presence is something that has been discussed and written about within missional circles for quite some time.  When we exercise presence as the people of God, we replicate what the Apostle John says about Jesus in John 1:14. Exercising presence is what many churches find difficult to do. This activity requires patience, and if we are honest, patience is a characteristic that should define who we are as followers of Christ.

Consider what the authors of “The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community” state in regard to transitioning a church towards presence within a community. In a chapter entitled, “Rooting”,

Localizing the things you already do: What patterns of life might take on new significance when oriented back to the neighborhood?…It’s important to remember that you don’t need to add more activities to your life to be meaningfully rooted in place; simply increase your intention around where you do your activities so as to increase the opportunity to bump into neighbors and deepen local relationships. [1]

These authors don’t mention anything about middle neighborhoods, but the type of activity that they mention is a partial answer to the struggle that these neighborhoods face. In the realm of contextual ministry within the urban community, it should be clear that our knowledge of a place must go beyond a “black” or “white” neighborhood. The label, “hood” doesn’t quite capture the nuanced differences between Southwest Philly and Mount Airy. Why does this matter? Well, so often a one-size fits all approach is used by churches to reach the neighborhood and then churches wonder why there’s no traction with residents.

The following suggestions are possible ways to reach a community facing imminent transition. Here are things that the church can do to help these communities:

First, create a culture within the church that is aware of the need to expand the kingdom/community footprint. Jesus traveled the region of Galilee, Capernaum, Samaria, Judah, etc. He was known because of His works. (Luke 24:19) Too many churches don’t know their region and their region has no clue who they are. This is not a call for more marketing, but a call for more presence.

Second, pray for “Middle Neighborhoods”. One thing that is missed with all the sociological research of communities is the spiritual assessment of these neighborhoods. Ephesians 6:12 tells a story about communities that we must not miss. There are spiritual forces at work in communities. It is critically important that we recognize community work as kingdom work and utilize the necessary tools to engage the locations God has assigned us to be in. In our prayer we should repeat the words of Jesus, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew. 6:10)

Third, address injustice as an ambassador of reconciliation. The work of shalom is important work. (Isaiah 30:18-19) These neighborhoods are broken or on the verge of breaking and too many churches are only taking up parking or planning anniversaries and revival services. If we ignore injustice around us, we side with the oppressor. A school that is failing the most vulnerable is an injustice. Liquor stores flooding urban space is a disregard to the issue of addiction that some middle neighborhoods face. These communities fear being replaced through the engine of gentrification. Generations of middle community homeowners become disposable in exchange for coffee shops and microbreweries.

The church must be ahead of these developments–it would be irresponsible not to be aware of neighborhoods flipping. Will pastors show up at community meeting or get to know their local representative as an advocate for residents and not just to advocate for building projects. These are questions that I struggle with as I come to better understand my role as an ambassador for Christ, which makes me an ambassador for those who exist in the place where God has sent me.

[1] Sparks, P. (2014). The new parish: how neighborhood churches are transforming mission, discipleship and community. Readhowyouwant.com Ltd. 149

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