Changing the Sign

Why can’t the Church push the envelope on social obstacles and try to bridge the gaps that exist in our cities?

It felt like he had punched me in the stomach. “You can put up a ‘No Trespassing’ sign if you want.” I know he meant well, but his comment was further from anything I would ever consider.

As a church, we had just purchased a new facility for the ministry—an old elementary school in a very needy, predominantly African-American neighborhood. The contrast is simple to see, as we could be classified as a few hundred Starbucks-sipping, white college students. Mike, the man selling us the property, was simply telling us that the community is actually very respectful of the school property. It seemed natural to him for this white church to want to protect its property in a reasonable manner.

I still can’t get over this story. Since then, I have heard seemingly endless comments expressing everything from surprise to exuberance over the fact that we chose to go against the grain, making this neighborhood and edifice our church home. Others have given us warnings, and I assume those people would be quick to post the same sign offered by Mike.

Why is this a shock? Why would it be such a big deal for racial barriers to be broken? Why would economic diversity in a neighborhood mattered so much? Why can’t the Church push the envelope on social obstacles and try to bridge the gaps that exist in our cities? These questions plague me as I struggle to find answers.

Try as I might, I cannot help but find this same calling throughout the Bible. God blessed Israel to be a blessing to the nations. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves. In action, Jesus was always spending time with “the least of these,” setting an example for His followers to pursue. And I don’t think there would be many pastors or leaders who would disagree with this.

But back to the initial quote. Why does Mike think that we would want to put up a sign to keep our neighbors off the property? And why is it a shock that we are in this neighborhood to begin with? The answer is because it is not normal. “White flight” is normal. Pulling out of urban neighborhoods to move to the suburbs is status quo. Whether or not we say it, our actions continue to make our crowds more homogenous.

The travesty here is not a racial one. It’s about breaking barriers in general, whether those of race, economic status or social structure. In following the example of Christ, we have to put our money where our mouth is and become something that doesn’t come naturally to us. It means that we don’t move out to some large acreage near the highway because it is accessible to all our suburbanites. Christians are making the problem bigger rather than being the answer.

Now, obviously, not every church or ministry is going to be called to move to an urban setting. I would never advocate this as a blanket situation for everyone to follow. But the Church has been on the move to comfort and security for far too long. We have been far too concerned with our own interests and not with the interests of others. And, just like a seat cushion that retains the mold of the person who sat there even after he has gotten up, the culture around us shows us the places where the church used to be, even when it isn’t there anymore.

So, whether or not we should relocate to a less-privileged neighborhood is not the issue. The issue is our willingness to follow the calling of God wherever He wants to take us. And, if the Bible is true, the precedent seems to be that God is most often interested in moving us outside of our comfort zones than anywhere else. God seems to want to bridge the gaps, not create them. Parables such as the Good Samaritan only reinforce the idea that bringing the kingdom into the world around us means reshaping the social constructs that we have grown so comfortable with.

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As leaders, it is up to us to continually seek the heart of God for the sake of our people. And it means leading them, even if through a wilderness. Sometimes there are things that keep us from leading our people where God is calling us. Those can take the form of an advisory board, a job description or budget limitations. Sometimes the barrier can be our own personal fears or insecurities. But whether these hindrances are external or internal, our mission is the same: to follow God at all costs.

Our church is hardly the model. We struggle in all kinds of ways. This building means nothing if we don’t do something with it. We must engage the community in relationships. We must be willing to invest long-term and not just be another well-meaning, yet fickle person who is here to help. The hardest part is definitely yet to come.

Our hope is that we are on to something here. Our hope is that God is pleased with us as we are seeking to follow His heart, no matter where it takes us. And for the Church at large, the calling is the same.

Matt Conner is a church planter and freelance writer living in the Indianapolis area. He can be reached at [email protected]

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