The first thing a person sees when walking into Neighborhood Church in Visalia, Calif., is a giant wooden board inscribed with “For Visalia.” These two words have changed the culture at Neighborhood, revolutionizing its models for preaching, worship, giving and discipleship, as the church lives its mission—“To inspire people wherever they are to live like Jesus wherever they go”—by investing in the next generation, loving its neighbors and helping its city thrive.
“If you attend our church, you can’t miss it that we are on the goal of being for our city,” says Bryan Muirhead, pastor of development. “It opens up a lot of creativity.… The minute you serve your neighbor, you’re serving God.”
It all began two and a half years ago as the church ran out of space in its kids’ ministry.
“We believe when someone begins to follow Jesus, it affects them and in turn affects the people and the world around them in positive ways,” said lead pastor Forrest Jenan in a March 5, 2017, message kicking off the “For Visalia” campaign.
“It’s why our mission is very, very simple here at Neighborhood Church,” Jenan said. “We believe our best next step toward accomplishing this mission is to address some of the challenges we face right here on our campus, and here’s the challenge: We are out of space in our kids’ ministry.”
Three years ago, Neighborhood averaged 250 to 260 children, birth through sixth graders, on Sunday morning. Today, that number is between 500 to 520 and reached 650 on Easter Sunday.
“This is an incredible time to be a part of our church, but we can’t just enjoy what’s been handed down to us,” Jenan said in his March 5 message. “We need to move the story forward. We need to express what it looks like in our generation for Neighborhood Church to be a church that is ‘For Visalia.’ We don’t have to change the world, but we have to change something. The little faces in Visalia, they’re our something.”
Children a priority at Neighborhood
Kids have been a priority at Neighborhood since the church began. In the 1940s, Bob and Lucille Willems moved to Visalia and served cupcakes and provided a volleyball net for the children who walked to school past their house. Soon, parents came and brought their friends.
In time, the gathering became known as Neighborhood Church and moved from the Willems’ front yard to a pub to a field in northwest Visalia, where neighborhoods sprung up around it.
As church staff planned the “For Visalia” campaign, they found notes from an elder meeting 30 years ago affirming Neighborhood’s focus on families and children.
“Thinking about Jesus and his ministry and the times where the children ran to him, all they want is to be close,” Muirhead says. “They just want proximity. We started thinking about that and how do we bring better proximity. Well, we have to create an environment. We have to create better space.”
Neighborhood launched its “For Visalia” campaign in March 2017. The plan includes 10,000 square feet in two new Neighborhood Kids buildings, 2,000 square feet of new office space, 100 new parking spaces, a shade structure outside the auditorium lobby and lighting and water fountains in Houston Neighborhood Park. MB Foundation is helping with project funding.
The space will also be used to host small groups and serve the community.
“We realized it was for our city,” Muirhead says. “We wanted this for the people in Visalia, not just for our church so that we could grow, but so that our city can be better. That’s how this whole ‘For Visalia’ thing started. It started out as a campaign idea and then quickly revolutionized into a culture of support for one another (and) love for our city.”
More than a building campaign
“For Visalia” has changed Neighborhood’s culture—Sunday services, church events and everyday life. The campaign gained traction with “For Visalia” magnets, T-shirts and merchandise.
The church uses strategic language to signify how it is and can be for its community and hosts services like Easter For Visalia and Christmas For Visalia.
“’For Visalia’ has been a way not only for us to remind people that we’re supposed to care about our city, but even to take the Bible and cast it in a new light, in this Jesus lens, that Jesus is for us,” Muirhead says. “He’s for you, so the best thing we can do is be for our city.”
It’s also why, in April, Neighborhood hosted its second-annual “S’more Visalia” event, which included live music, fire pits for making s’mores, food trucks and inflatables. Between 2,700 and 3,000 people attended.
“We really want to set up our campus as a light for our city (where) you can belong before you believe,” Muirhead says. “We want to remind our people that we’re for them, regardless of what they believe, (and) that they have a place that loves them and cares for them.”
In the community, being “For Visalia” might look like paying for the next meal in the drive-thru line, supporting local restaurants in low-income neighborhoods, buying someone’s coffee using the church Starbucks card, filling school teachers’ boxes with gifts, hosting a young adult small group at a local brewery or wearing “For Visalia” shirts while frequenting local restaurants and tipping well.
“It’s been so common, this idea of, ‘Let’s just get them the news—the reality that Jesus raised from the dead,’” Muirhead says. “Well, guess what? That’s a crazy reality we’re asking people to believe.
“If we really want to convince them that this is real, then we need to act like it’s real,” says Muirhead. “We tell people all the time, ‘Belong before you believe,’ because by belonging, once they’re authentic and they’re safe and they feel like they can be their true selves, then they find salvation very quickly.”
Neighborhood has seen a 7 percent increase in attendance over the past year and is averaging 15 to 20 first-time guests each Sunday. Neighborhood plans to finish its new building by the end of August, hoping to host 600 to 650 kids per Sunday, says Muirhead.
Beyond the campaign, the church plans to continue to love its city. In November, Neighborhood will launch a new event—a prom for people with special needs.
“From the get-go, this has not been about getting people to come to Neighborhood Church, but getting people to remember, and maybe even to believe for the first time, that Jesus-followers are actually for their city and for the people that live there,” Muirhead says, adding later: “When people realize there’s a city filled with love, it’s contagious, and then they start to ask the question, ‘Where is this love coming from?’, and my hope is that the answer is Neighborhood Church.”
The headline to this story has been adjusted.