Know your community, but also know the people God has given you

My friend, Al Gooderham, has written a post about network and neighbourhood churches. I’d encourage you to read it, there is some great wisdom in it. Al makes a distinction between two kinds of churches: (1) the gathered church, spread across a geographical area, that pulls people into it and seeks to equip them to reach out wherever they live and work; and, (2) the neighbourhood church that is tightly located and seeks to impact a local community that centres on connecting with the local area in which the majority of members live. Al’s main point is that we need to work out whether we are in a networking or a neighbourhood area and formulate the mission of the church accordingly if we are to be effective.

On all that, I agree. In fact, Al says most churches will inevitably be a bit networking and a bit neighbourhood. But, he says, we still need to be clear what our mission is and then expect people to be actively involved in it. Which means, if we’re travelling in to a neighbourhood church, we need to make the effort to actively be involved in the neighbourhood even if we’re coming into it from a distance. If we’re a network church, we can’t expect lots of central events taking place in the neighbourhood but will be expected to focus as individuals reaching out wherever we are. Working out what kind of church yours is will help you set the mission expectations on those coming.

But – and not to disagree with Al (honestly!) – I do sometimes think we overstate the issue. I think there is certainly wisdom in understanding what kind of church you are and, therefore, the kind of mission you will be engaged in. But, as Al rightly says, most churches will be a bit of both. Which, I suspect, probably means actually doing a bit of both. Our church is likely to be equipping those who don’t live locally to reach out where they are whilst, simultaneously, providing opportunities within the postcode of the church for those who live in the community. Those who are living may need to make the effort to come in to the community to be involved in those things whilst those who live in the community will still need to be equipped to reach out in the various wherever they ares, not so much of where they live, but where they work, volunteer and generally engage in the community itself. It seems to me we are almost always in a both/and situation.

If it is true that we are almost always going to be in a both/and setting, and we are likely to be doing a bit of both/and all the time, worrying about the kind of community you’re in seems, well, less important. At least as far as the ‘come and see’ and ‘go and tell’ stuff goes. It’s going to be both/and. So far as equipping people to invite folks to things and equip members to reach out to their existing networks, you’re going to want to do a bit of both/and too, are you not? What seems to be more key in understanding the kind of church you are in or the neighbourhood in which you meet is what kind of networks will exist and what kind of efforts are likely to be fruitful. It seems understanding your community and networks for the sake of knowing what is likely to connect is the key, even though in every community there will be some ‘come and see’ and some ‘go and tell’, some networking and some neighbourhood focus.

The other thing I think relevant is understanding what ‘local’ even means. I have spoken at more length about this here. On the council estate my church was on when I was young, local was on the estate and nowhere else. Everyone from anywhere else was an outsider. In the church I am in now, local is (excluding maybe Saddleworth and Failsworth) pretty much anywhere inside the 55 square miles of the borough. In the rural area in which I spent most my teens, anywhere within the boundaries of Swindon, Newbury, and Oxford (a triangle in which my village was dead centre). What is reasonable to travel, what is deemed local, what is legitimately reaching an area is not limited to geography but is locally determined. A fifteen mile trip in rural Berkshire is considered nothing to a local. A one mile trip off some estates and in some city settings may as well be the other side of the world. Some neighbourhoods are geographically quite big while others quite small. One could be a network church with people travelling three miles in and a neighbourhood church with people spread across a significant geographical area.

But if we’re probably going to be a bit networking and a bit neighbourhood, and we may well be in a locality that is geographically massive or much smaller, aside from knowing our area and its people, I wonder whether we just want to trust God’s sovereignty and reckon we will reach those the Lord would have us reach. We may want to reach a neighbourhood, but if God has given us a load of networks, then we might just want to press into what he has given us. We may want to reach a particular demographic, but if he has made us a neighbourhood church with lots of local people from a defined area, we might just want to press into that. It may be that God brings us some people who are attracted to whatever we are that allows us to be a bit more networky and reach particular demographics when we are otherwise a largely neighbourhoody kind of church. It may be that he brings us a load of people from the neighbourhood allowing us to do more locally when we are more networky because of who he has given us up to now.

I think we can be sanguine about all of that and trust in God to give us whomever he would have us receive for the sake of his mission wherever he has put us. It may be that our church changes over time from network to neighbourhood or vice versa. In the end, I think our best focus is less on network or neighbourhood – because we are most likely to be a bit of both – and focus more on the people God has given us. If God has granted us particular people with specific networks, or those with a particular hand in the local community, we can shape our mission around whom we have. If we are doing that, we will almost always end up doing a bit of both as we’re likely to have both in our midst.