A couple of days ago I listened to a Ted Talk in which a pastor described an experience that forever changed his ministry, and, eventually, his city. The church that he serves is in the area of a city that, 20 years ago, was extremely violent. The homicide rate was staggering, as was prostitution, robbery, and illegal narcotics use.
The change came when the pastor awakened to the knowledge that he knew his neighborhood and city as it was before 9:00 PM, but he knew nothing about life in his city from late night to the early morning hours. That’s when he determined to get to know his community at night. He began to walk the nighttime streets and he recruited a few others to join him. He engaged the “young toughs” and the others too, many of whom were just trying to survive.
As he developed relationships with these people, and as he learned the needs and issues of the city at night, the church crafted ways to respond. They had functioned as sort-of-a “9:00 to 5:00” island in the community in which people could stop by if they chose. But now they became a church that reached out, and reached out in multiple ways and at various times. No longer a cistern from which people could draw water when the church was open for business. The church became a “spring of living water,” pouring ministry into the neighborhood beyond bankers business hours. Over the next several years the neighborhood changed, the homicide rate plummeted and lives were forever changed.
What this pastor learned of his city is true of yours and mine. Every town, large and small, is comprised of multiple communities. There are the daytime people and the nighttime people. There are multiple neighborhoods, many spoken languages, the rich and the poor. One person told me that in his Northwest city less than half of the students graduate from high school. Less than half! The world that they occupy in their city is a different world from the corporate types, and, almost certainly, the church attenders. How many who attend your church are functionally illiterate? Probably very few. The kids who go to college diverge quickly from the kids who don’t, and they occupy a different space and time in the city.
Getting to know a community takes time and intentionality. Recently my wife and I took a walk through our neighborhood. We were amazed that several dozen new homes have been built over the past year. They are built deeper into our neighborhood than we are required to drive. We drive to our house, and we drive out to the world beyond. But just a few blocks behind us the community is expanding significantly, and we didn’t even know it.
As you seek to reach your town or city for Jesus Christ, seek ways to engage the multiple peoples that live in your city. Get to know your city at night. Drive different routes to and from work or the store or the church. Wander through different neighborhoods with eyes open. One person told me that he makes a point of travelling through his city using different modes of transportation. You experience different things, and hear different conversations, when you ride the city buses, take the train, walk, or ride a bike.
One thing I’m trying to improve is my ability to observe. Listening, watching, and observing are important skills for Christian workers. It takes effort to see our community clearly. We must work to listen well, so that we understand our city better, in all its variety and with its various peoples and needs. Cities are fascinating. You can live a lifetime there, and only know your city in part. But as Christian leaders, we must do better. And we can do better. So, make a plan to explore your town or city. Visit new areas of the town and do so at different times of the day. You might be surprised what you learn about your town, even if you were born and raised there.