Working for shalom

FRONTLINE: A church with its community

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I believe church planting is the only form of church renewal strong enough to heal the historically dominant narratives that hinder Jesus’ great commission. These four fragmenting stories include moving away from neighborhood-focused mission, emphasizing “decisions for Christ” more than discipleship, planting homogenous churches and relying on technology to foster community.

The first trend emerged around the time of Constantine in the 4th century when Christian churches moved toward political affiliation and away from localized neighborhood-focused mission. The second came about in the 15th century. With the emergence of early globalization, churches focused on “getting people saved” without a strong emphasis on biblically defined discipleship.

Since the 20th century, U.S. and Canadian churches have tended to plant churches according to homogeneous church-growth principles and business models without developing a strong mission to the neighborhoods where these churches are located. And now in the 21st century, our technology age, technocrats (those who think technology can solve societal problems) are enticing churches to use A.I. and virtual reality to create Christian community.

I think these faulty narratives are only healed when men and women filled with the Holy Spirit plant churches. But not all churches are worth planting if they replicate the trends that got us here. Recent U.S. statistics show that only 35 percent of churches are growing and the majority are plateaued or in decline.

According to Robert Linthicum, founder of Partners in Urban Transformation, churches tend to be planted in three forms:

  1. A church in its community. While they are physically located in a neighborhood, they often fixate on their own existence and largely ignore the needs of the neighbors around the church.
  2. A church to its community. They provide resources to the neighborhood they are physically located in, but view themselves as the savior of the neighborhood.
  3. A church with its community. This is the only type of church that leads to the rapid acceleration of the great commission in the neighborhood it represents. The church joins with neighbors to address issues in the local neighborhood and sees itself as part of the neighborhood’s struggle and the primary disciple-making partner in its renewal.

Nine years ago, Neighborhood Church was planted to be a church with its community, the Jackson Neighborhood in Fresno, California. The Jackson Neighborhood is eight blocks by 12 blocks with 923 homes representing 3,300 residents. We see our neighborhood as a geographical area of spiritual responsibility. Whether the issues are spiritual, economic, educational, environmental, political or relational, we pursue Jesus’ vision for our neighborhood and its residents.

Metric after metric shows that Jackson is vulnerable and under-resourced. But that’s not its final story. Jesus believes in underdogs! With our neighbors, we started a business that employs a handful of residents with barriers to employment. We formed a non-profit organization that meets the practical needs of hundreds of residents and runs a dozen programs such as in-class support for underperforming elementary students. We also started two weekly gatherings of neighbors dedicated to being disciples of Jesus and following his mission. We are three things working together for the flourishing of the Jackson Neighborhood—a church, a small business and a non-profit all working in coordination for Jackson’s shalom.

Church planting is what happens when church renewal and neighborhood renewal coalesce—and it’s the only thing strong enough to uphold Jesus’ great commission.

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