by Leneita Fix
While my husband and I had done this thing called “urban” ministry for a long while, it wasn’t until about ten years ago we felt the Lord tugging on our hearts to move into the inner city neighborhood with the people we were serving. I’ll never forget, it was Fourth of July weekend that we settled into our new home. I remember laying in bed on the holiday as we listened to a mix of homemade fireworks and gun shots enter the night sky. I recall rolling over in bed to my husband and asking, “What have we done?”
It had seemed like such an amazing and “noble” idea at the time. We would become literal neighbors to those who were in our ministry. Instead of telling everyone how the “’hood” should change with its issues, why not live there and be a light in the midst of it? It took less than 24 hours for culture shock to set in.
We all carry stereotypes and we didn’t even realize that our neighbors had certain pre-conceived thoughts about us. Within 20 minutes of arrival someone had asked us for money. The “Christian Folk,” are supposed to give it all away, was what we were told when we said “No.” Within a week, a policeman pulled me over and asked if I was “lost?” The color of my skin apparently did not fit “this place” in his eyes. (This has since happened many times.) Our family is unlike any other on our block in so many ways and it has not been uncommon for those who have always lived here to ask the question often, “Tell us again why you live in our neighborhood?”
The last decade has been one of learning so many things about what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Our world is changing and so often the culture of our communities are in a constant state of flux around us. The city of West Palm Beach where I currently live (yes, even the resort areas have a ‘hood) just was cited in a Barna study as being the number one city housing people who never have been to church. We are the 11th city holding the highest population of those who have left the church and ranked 19th of those who don’t believe in God at all. Yet, this does not mean there are not thriving churches here that are working hard to reach our area. Instead, I think the believers have gotten together to learn our community. The reality of an area where regardless of address or economic status people are struggling with church has forced me to learn some things:
Get To Know Your Community
We start by simply getting to know our neighbors. It is easy for any of us to make assumptions about people we don’t know. For example, the census bureau would tell you that my block is riddled with crime and absentee dads. However, on my street, there are a few rows of homes proudly owned by those who have raised their families here. My 97-year-old neighbor “grandma” prays diligently for all those in West Palm who live in poverty, and misses her husband of fifty years who went home to be with the Lord. The first step is to ask questions of the people in your area. Who are they? What are their dreams, hopes and fears? Most importantly, don’t decide how to serve your neighbors until you get to know them. What you think they need, may not be the actual need. Remember, this isn’t a one-time “assessment.” Our communities are in flux; my street could succumb to the statistics by just a couple of people moving out and others moving in. Constantly get to know your community.
Relevant Needs To Be A Dirty Word
I often get in trouble for making this statement. To me the word relevance suggests constantly changing with the culture around us. The trouble with a focus on relevance is that we will never be able to keep up. Our world is changing too often. It is my belief that Jesus was not relevant. He was unchanging in who He was, even as He walked among the least, the lost and the lonely. HOWEVER, He was culturally AWARE. He knew who did what and how to show them compassion. Our message of hope that comes with the good news of the gospel of Christ should be never-changing. Yet, we need to learn the way people are thinking, feeling and responding around us. Jesus understood the culture of the tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes and such, but He was not relevant to them. It is less about finding the new gimick that will reach the masses and more about bringing truth to the place they are.
Which Audience Are We Serving?
Too often, I meet those who tell me they believe in family ministry, yet when I dig down deep they don’t believe every family will respond to the Lord. It’s like saying just because people in West Palm Beach don’t go to church that there aren’t churches. Ask yourself: “Who’s my target audience?” And then be honest with yourself. If it is really ALL families, then do you believe God is big enough to be transformational in every situation? We may need to change the way we approach some families, and care may mean being creative in our approach. Listen to the voices of those in your midst and never be afraid to try something new that will help them better hear the voice of Jesus, while fully believing He will change their hearts.
My family and I remain in the ‘hood and I can say it has changed immensely in the last decade. Yet, we are part of a ministry that is full of diversity of background, culture, economics and the like. The biggest lesson we have learned is never judge a book by its cover, whether it be a person, family, street or a church body. We have to be diligent to keep Christ at the center of all we do. As we get to know those in our midst, and become aware of their situations, we may need to try something “family ministry” in a way that no one else is doing. Chances are it will only work for you, because you have gotten to know the needs of your particular community.
Maybe it’s as simple as never losing site of the hope that God sees each person as redeemed, whole and His. You may not live in the ‘hood, but when is the last time you really thought about learning something new about your neighbor?
Leneita has been involved in youth or family ministry for over 24 years serving in rural, suburban and urban settings, camps, small and large churches and non-profits. She has authored or co-authored several youth ministry books, including, Everybody’s Urban: Understanding the Survival Mode of the Next Generation and contributes to several youth ministry websites and curriculum companies including Leadertreks, Simply Youth Ministry, Lifetree Family, Download Youth Ministry, ParentMinisty.net, InWord and YM360. Leneita is the ministry and training coordinator for BowDown Church, co-founded a coaching and training organization called Frontline Urban Resources (everybodysurban.org) and lives with her amazing husband John and four children in Florida.