The drive around
Context matters. When interpreting Scripture it's one of the golden rules. It's also a prime factor in defining the mission of a local church. That's why I always did the weekly drive around, a Thursday afternoon sight-seeing trip around the our greater demographic area---one, three, and five miles, as well as 5, 10, and 15 minute drives. These thirty minute or less cruises informed me about what was happening around us. You know, context.
There wasn't a formal checklist or schematic to direct the drive around. Usually I was just doing a quick inventory. In residential areas I was looking for moving trucks, for sale signs, vacancies, new construction, recently cut streets or roadways, traffic patterns, school bus stops, and other visible indications of what was happening close by. In the commercial districts I counted empty stores in the strip shoppiing areas, new retail establishments, customer traffic in the anchor stores, vacancies in the large mall, announcments of new enterprise and big name outlets. Each was a small finger on the pulse of the community, a way for us to know more about what was happening in the districts closest to our church. Occasionally I would stop to talk with the managers of the eight apartments complexes across or down the street. One evening I stopped and prayed with the two Mormon missonaries who were biking around.
Yes, I know the message and mission of the church was established by Jesus two thousand years ago and that his assignment is the same in every locale, regardless of their unique makeup. In Bible study, I also learned that Jesus, his disciples, missionary Paul, and most of the characters in the New Testament were keenly aware of their surroundings when they sought to fulfill their mission. Paul "...observed the the objects of your worship..." (Acts 17:23) in Athens, knew where the women did their washing, found his way to the synagogues, and knew where the believers gathered. He preached to some, taught many others, and understood the necessity of reasoning with still more.
A couple of years ago one of the national cafeterias in our world closed. They couldn't make a profit in this thriving community. What happened? Populations shifted and the younger cohorts in apartment communities and new middle class neighborhoods didn't frequent their place, preferring fast food over the cafeteria line. Last year two major clothing outlets re-located from the strip mall closest to our condo. Two local restaurants closed. There were sixteen empty spaces in one shopping center. Then suddenly, Bass Pro Shop announced a store close by, Gander Mountain opened. Starbucks opened another new location close-by, Fire House Subs came to the community, signaling a resurgence of what could have been a decline. Our church was, and continues to be, in a thriving reidential and commercial region. We should be thriving too.
That some pastors and leaders are totally unaware of their surroundings is toally amazing. He has given us a message that translates in every language, including red neck, ebonics, spanish, South of Broad cultured, millennial, college student, Gullah, and whatever they speak in Bonneau. That's a joke. It would be best however, to speak the language of the world to which you are assigned. Yes, that would be the context thing again, learning to connect with those who share our living space.
It was this awareness that led us to begin the Celebrate Recovery ministry, knowing the heart- beat of a growing, mobile apartment home population. The Northwood Community Counseling Center was another addition because of the housing preferences of young marrieds, military personnel, and first home buyers. Just noticing the number of homeless individuals walking through the area or emerging from the wooded areas adjacent to the church property led us to begin the homeless ministry. Seeing the number of young people on the streets after school every day led to the basketball goal in the parking lot, and the Friday night community basketball ministry that serves so many families. And, there are so many more opportunities that were the result of just looking around so often.
As mentioned, there are many evidences that the Apostle Paul understood this principle. Evidently he was always keenly aware of what was happening in the cities he visited. Being alert to the world of his mission was a central principle of his service, motivated by his undertanding of genuine evangelism and discipleship. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 he talked about ministering to Jews, those under the law and not under it, the weak and the strong. He was aware of and knew the language of the people to whom he was sent. His tone and activities reflected the multi-
cultured flavor of the first century world. Everywhere God sent him involved a walk around so that he could deal with the various layers of their rich society.
It was just a drive around, a conviction to be more strategic in ministering in a particular place. It's just having eyes to see...
And, that is important. Always.