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July 23, 2015Leadership

Border Crossing: Renting to Churches of Other Cultures Part 3

Elizabeth finishes her series on renting to churches of other cultures with some helpful concluding advice.
Border Crossing: Renting to Churches of Other Cultures Part 3

Can sharing facilities with immigrants prepare churches to become multiethnic?

My last two posts have contended that rental relationships between host-culture churches and immigrants can work for certain purposes, as long as decision-makers understand everyone’s true motives.

Nowhere is this principle more obvious than in the third type of motivation: renting as preparation, an arrangement that can bless or backfire.

A True Story

After pastoring a vibrant multiethnic church in the city, Rick moved to a declining church on the depressed side of town. On his first day, he gazed across the white fence separating the tidy church from its turbulent neighborhood. “Lord,” he prayed quietly, “help us to cross this border somehow.”

He knew the church would resist a challenge to become multiethnic, so he chose his words carefully. “We’re called to join God’s mission in a diverse world,” he taught on a Sunday morning. “Jesus showed us how to do it. He crossed from a place of comfort into discomfort, from control to vulnerability, in order to communicate love to everyone. We should be doing the same.”

When an immigrant pastor inquired about low-cost worship space, Rick thought renting might be a baby step in the right direction.

“Immigrants need an affordable worship location,” Rick told the board, “and we have the opportunity to share. I think we should do it. And wouldn’t it be great if God would use this experience—the rewards and the difficulties—to prepare us for reaching out to our neighbors in bigger ways someday?”

But after only six weeks, influential members began complaining. “This isn’t working,” they insisted indignantly. “We’ve taken care of this property since 1948, and we’ve never had crayon on the walls and trash in the parking lot until now.”

What’s a Pastor to Do?

Rick weighed his response. “If we were renting as a financial solution,” he considered, “I’d suggest a cleaning fee or deposit. If we were renting for pure benevolence, we’d forgive the alleged offenses outright and just increase the janitor’s pay.”

But he reminded himself that his aim was preparation, not business or benevolence. Rather than expecting an immediate turnaround, he knew that learning to cross cultural borders would require a messy, long-term, and high-touch approach.

He resolved to speak the truth in love. Like a parent training children for a lifetime of healthy relationships, Rick helped settle disputes honorably. He reminded people that messes happen but that method—or how we treat each other—matters more.

He accepted resistance as the curriculum of discipleship. Rick knew that he could bypass the burden of leadership by simply cleaning messes up himself without involving other people. Instead, he wisely recognized that sharing and partnership provided a double opportunity for spiritual growth.

When the discomfort of sharing facilities exposed self-serving attitudes of ownership regarding church resources, he led his congregation to consider mission as God’s ultimate purpose. “Why has God shared with us?”

When the discomfort of cross-cultural partnership exposed feelings of superiority, contempt, and fear buried beneath political correctness, Rick remembered God’s desire to sanctify his people, not just to civilize them. He taught about stewardship, generosity, hospitality, God’s image in everyone, and the heart as life’s wellspring. He pointed out the evil one, ever-active at the root of division to keep God’s people from loving their neighbors.

He cultivated a learning culture. At many moments, Rick recognized growth as an antidote to fatigue, so he invited leaders to join him whenever he read books or attended seminars about cross-cultural ministry. “I’m still learning,” he readily admitted, “so let’s learn together.”

He remained committed despite setbacks. As with many true stories, things got worse before they got better, and the rental relationship eventually dissolved. Rick felt pretty broken. But remembering long-term goals, he continued the labor of preparation.

In preaching and teaching, he steadfastly pointed to the inclusive mission of God in a beautifully diverse world—especially in the neighborhood across the fence.

To awaken border-crossing understanding and desire, he invited speakers, prayer leaders, and musicians of other cultures to contribute to worship services and share testimonies. He hosted movie nights and book clubs focused on stories that humanize strangers and give glimpses into their lives.

He celebrated incremental success. Rick’s efforts worked. A year later, with a new spirit of openness, the board received (graciously this time) another immigrant congregation. Influencers had begun seeing crayon on the walls and trash in the parking lot not as offenses but as welcome signs of life. They greeted and prayed for the new renters and shared cheerfully in response to needs.

The fence still remained, but the gate was now open. Rick thanked God for a good start.

Unfortunately, this story is not the norm. Without alert leadership, renting rarely prepares people, in heart or practice, to include others. It forces sharing but not necessarily the maturation of love. Had Rick not exercised patience, long-term vision, and clarity about the purpose from the start, failures and frustrations could have convinced his people that crossing cultural borders was just too much hassle.

But as Rick’s experience illustrates, renting honorably can provide the CPR to quicken the border-crossing pulse in a dying body.

And that’s the first step of preparation toward becoming multiethnic.

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Border Crossing: Renting to Churches of Other Cultures Part 3