One afternoon, our neighborhood association called. They wanted to know if our church could help them "throw a party."
They had money available to spend on something the neighborhood cared about, but they were having trouble getting input from people who lived in two local complexes: one large low-income housing unit and a building that was home to people living with HIV-AIDS. The association had received a lot of input from homeowners in the neighborhood on how the money should be spent, but they wanted to be sure everyone was represented. They thought that a party might be a safe place for us all to gather, have a good time, and complete a survey on how to spend neighborhood money.
I was shocked. I remember saying, "Let me get this right. The neighborhood association wants to know if they can hire the church to throw a party for the people living in these two buildings?" That's right, that's what they were asking us, and they had several thousand dollars to make the party a good one.
Over the course of just a few years, the neighborhood had learned that our church cared about those living in these spaces. We had become people who had enough relationship and credibility to invite them to a celebration where their voice could be heard by our wider community. This was an incredible opportunity. So we said yes, and we threw a party.
It fit perfectly with the mission of our church: "to love our community in the name of Jesus."
Many people found it hard to believe that a church was behind the party—it was beyond their experience of what a church is and does.
So how did we find ourselves in this place? How did we get to the point where we could be invited by local leaders to help with work that was important to that neighborhood?
It began with an assumption—that God is at work in our local context, and has been working long before we have been there. God is out ahead of us in the neighborhoods where we live, inviting us to participate in the things he is doing.
If God is out ahead of us, then two questions guide our participation in his mission: "What is God doing?" and "How can we respond to that?" These are simple questions, but they can be hard to answer. Yet asking them is the first step in learning. They put us in a listening posture. They position us to become "divine detectives" in the neighborhoods where we live, work, and worship.
Discovering what God is doing and participating in that is the work of our church community. This is how we're learning to love our local community in the name of Jesus. This is a critical starting place. It doesn't assume we know what is best for others before we know who they are. It helps us not only learn to serve others in our local context, but also receive—we realize God has something to offer us through them.
In Luke 10:1-12, Jesus sends out a group of 70 disciples in pairs into towns and places that Jesus himself intended to go. Jesus sends them out without any apparent resources at their disposal. They go out as people dependent on the hospitality of those with whom they will share the good news. They offer peace in the places they go, and then receive hospitality as a first step in their new relationship with the locals. It is only after receiving this hospitality that they offer healing and good news about the kingdom of God.
We have returned to this text repeatedly. It goes against the conventional church/community relationship that first asks how the church can help meet the needs of the neighborhood. It forces us to ask how we can extend peace and receive from people before we can offer the good news we have received through Jesus. Returning to this text also reminds us that God is the primary actor in any work we are doing, and that we need to be sensitive to what God is inviting us into before assuming we know what we should say or do.