Friday, July 22, 2005

Transition no. 2: Who are the people in your neighborhood?

Sing along if you know it: Oh the postman always brings the mail, in rain or snow or sleet or hail...

The Sr. Pastor I worked with in Roanoke had an interesting experiment going on when I started: he would stop for gas at the station less than two blocks from the church property and would routinely ask the attendant for directions to our church!

When he first started this practice, the response was usually something vague, at best. “I've never heard of that place,” “Isn't that on ___ street [on the other side of town]?” and, “Sure-- it's a half-mile south of here [exactly the opposite direction]” were some of the answers he received. In time, it became a joke-- and not a very funny one.

Our church was fairly active in local issues, and though it would have been easy for my pastor just to explain who he was to the attendants, he wanted to see if they knew about the church by its reputation. I appreciate this desire, but I think that a new pastor can do great things for his ministry if he is attentive to intentionally building relationships with his neighbors, as well.

One of the aspects of transition that is probably overlooked more than any other is this sort of relationship-building outside of the congregation. Getting to know the physical neighbors around the church property (and around the pastor's home, as well) is definitely a ministry-builder, and an invaluable part of settling into ministry.

Here are a few things that such relationship-building accomplishes:
  • It allows genuine fulfillment of the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
  • It heals past hurts-- particularly those inflicted by other Christians-- by showing true care and concern.
  • It is itself an exercise in hospitality, and it opens up further opportunities for hospitality.
  • It creates a venue for the Gospel to be shown and told.
  • It helps in future circumstances when civil and political difficulty may arise.
My pastor in Roanoke would agree with this: when Planned Parenthood erected a clinic directly across the street from our church property, he was the first one to extend a hand of hospitality (but not a hand of welcome, exactly, though the distinction is a fine one; make no mistake, he is strongly “pro-life” and was not supportive of what the clinic was built to do) and worked hard to build a friendship with the clinic's director. Rather than only showing opposition to the clinic's purposes (which he also did, in a loving way), he also led the charge to long for, pray for, and work for the salvation and redemption of those who work there. Those workers, it seems, are people too-- in need of a Savior, just like me.

Who are the people in your neighborhood? You don't have to try to meet them all in the first week or even the first months, but set some goals-- maybe you can get to know every merchant, businessperson, or resident on your block by name by the end of the first year of ministry. One new introduction a week would be fairly ambitious. Do you know your regular mail carrier's name, or the folks that make deliveries to your offices? How about the pastors of other nearby churches (more on this in a future post)?

Eventually, those station attendants did get to know us, and where we were. Not long before I left, my pastor can in from lunch beaming. “I stopped at the station like always,” he reported, “but when I asked if they knew where the church was, the guy said, 'You're there! It's just in the middle of the next block on the left!'”

They're the people that you meet each day...

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