Every place has cracks in it. The pain is real, but it might take some work to uncover it. The cracks show the brokenness of our world and expose the skepticism and distrust that has trumped neighborliness and goodwill in our day. If we are going to be part of renewing our places we must take on the posture of gospel sociologists, community investigators and missiologists seeking to uncover the cracks in our places so we can illuminate Jesus there. Instead of entering our places with solutions we need to come asking important questions about its past. As I learned in middle school history class; the past shapes the present.
I work with a lot of church planters. Often they are arriving in a place, sometimes my city, to take up residence for the first time. They have studied the place from a distance and made a few short trips to visit. A friend of mine shared with me how he took the first two years on the ground unlearning everything books had taught him about this city. Boots on the ground are the great equalizer. Instead of approaching a place as an outsider we need to look at our places through missionary lenses. A missionary approach to a place should follow this order.
STORY OF A PLACE >> CURRENT REALITIES >> NEEDS >> MINISTRY STRATEGY
I hope a guy wouldn’t go on a first date and talk the whole time. The goal of a first date is to get to know someone, and asking questions is a way of showing respect. A new community is like a first date: you don’t know this place yet, and you need to show it respect. Here are a few things I recommend if you are heading to a new place.
Seek out locals you can listen to about the story of your place.
Craft good questions that seek to uncover the current realities of the new place.
Uncover the needs others have identified about your new community.
Be patient in developing your assumptions and ministry strategy about your new place.
As excited as you might be, take a chance to listen to the story of your place from people who care about it. Ponder how the story of your place has led to its current realities. From those current realities will emerge a list of needs, and those needs can help determine your ministry strategy. Remember, we are called to live the gospel into our places, not to live strategies into our places.
Many church planters “plant a church in their head instead of in their community.” One of the greatest ministry mistakes we make is forming strategy without properly understanding the past story and current realities. A soup kitchen, biking club, soccer league or coffee shop might work in one place, but it might not be meeting actual community needs in another. We must take on the posture of curious question askers instead of problem solvers if we desire to have long-term impact in our places. Take your time and work the process. There is no shortcut to understanding a new context.