to redeem zip codes

One of the hallmarks of a successful church in a metropolitan area, beginning in the 70s and stretching into the 00s–and, in some places, yet today–was that the church facility was a destination and the congregation was drawn from all points across a metro. In the denomination in which I was raised, this was particularly true, and undoubtedly, with the luxury of time and resources, I could find this to be true in any number of Christian denominations and movements the world over.

This kind of ministerial strategy was highly idealized: in reflecting the vast tapestry of a metropolis, it helped to reflect the spectrum of backgrounds and cultures in a way which is supposed to reflect a colorless, classless, cultureless heaven on earth. And it was employed by many truly good pastors with noble intentions, indeed, as these congregations swelled, they became a kind of critical, self-sustaining mass. Indeed, these churches benefited from a sort of ecclesiastical inertia: objects at rest tend to stay at rest, objects in motion tend to stay in motion.

…until acted upon by an external source.

Whether it was pastoral indiscretion, a bottoming out of the economy, a resting upon the laurels or some kind of tragedy or atrocity, many of these destination churches were exposed. Some shed membership while others withered away, some resorted to consuming or assimilating other churches, the most thinly-veiled example of astroturfing for which one could ask from the church set. Others simply went about their business, completely oblivious to the fact that they were a four-engine aircraft operating on three.

What no one would dare admit was also the most obvious: the concept of the metropolitan, destination church is, at best, a Christian attempt at utopian central planning–that is to say, a well-intentioned fool’s fantasy. While the sound of a church that reflects the whole of a city is admittedly attractive, it is also based on fallacious reasoning. How can a single church reflect all of a city, all of its citizens, with all their respective contexts and backgrounds? It’s not only impossible, from this perspective, it’s prima facie silly to even try.

Inexorably, a church will reflect one of three things: the values of the community, the values of the leadership or the values of the parent organization. These metropolitan churches may genuinely care for the communities around them, but ultimately it is care on their terms, with the emphasis still on drawing people in rather than being an active force outward into the community toward becoming an inextricable part of it. If an urban church is the one thing keeping a neighborhood from descending into chaos, it has missed the mark in the exact opposite way of a suburban church with a lot of boulevard exposure and yet ignored for being taken for granted: in both cases, the church’s existence in a neighborhood is mistaken for presence in the neighborhood, when in fact, it is not present at all.

Incidentally, in the best case scenario, the church’s presence in the neighborhood should, ironically, lead to its absence there.

To redeem ZIP codes.

The New Testament model of spreading the gospel was first one of apocalyptic urgency, then, when it became manifestly obvious that Jesus wasn’t coming back in the lifespan of the apostolic age, in establishing colonies of believers throughout the known world (and beyond.) In both cases, the work was done 1) through the dynamic activity of a present Holy Spirit, and 2) in developing credibility with the people in each community. The former made the work fairly quick, the latter often took time, as credibility earned often does. In no case do we find the blessing of the astroturf model–there were the Jews who wanted new believers to convert to Judaism prior to accepting Christ, but that was quashed fairly quickly in Acts. What we do have, though, is a clear, established pattern of communities established within their cultures while inserting Christ as the redemptive centrifuge.

Paul’s respective letters reflect this local flavor, and yet our answer to building church growth is to do satellite church, or lumber on with our amusement park church blueprint. Without wandering too far into granola territory, I believe the answer to the quandary in which we find ourselves is to go local.

Much of the underlying premise of what I propose is found in a post a few months back, the great omission. In it, I argue that we have no business sending people to other parts of the world–particularly places like Africa and South America which are already very well Christianized, thank you very much–if we are not willing to make the same missional commitment to the places where our churches are. Not to where we want to move them, not to where the money is, but to where the facility and the community of faith is. We talk a lot about saving the city, but the city is an abstraction and the downtown is a myth we tell ourselves to distinguish ourselves from an other. What we need is action where we as people of the resurrection are. If our building is in the southwest part of town, what are we doing talking about the north side, or opening up shop in the bedroom community where all the money fled to after property values started dwindling? If we are in southwest, our efforts had better be and would best be served within southwest.

Think about it this way, you wouldn’t hear someone called to France talking about doing door-to-door evangelism in Cyprus, would you?

The work to be done isn’t to expand our buildings and create campuses and McChurches: it is to invest ourselves (yourself, myself) into the health and well-being of our neighborhoods (your neighborhood, my neighborhood), to stand against injustice–poverty, crime, education, avarice, excess, frivolity–and to reconcile people to Christ. In redeeming people and in redeeming circumstances, we grow less reliant on a centralized church facility and more on the natural economy of human relationships, forsaking church in favor of ekklesia.

Of course, there is still a place for the facility and for pastoral leadership: but it is a conduit rather than a mission station and leadership available to teach and lead when the opportunity arises and circumstances warrant. It is a fundamentally different approach to ministry than that to which we are accustomed, but let’s face it, is whatever it is we’re doing really all that effective, if we have large numbers in our Sundays but few noticeable changes in our neighborhoods? Is it worth adding a youth complex to our church building when there are families in need of economic relief and continuing education, broken homes with severe dysfunction or schools without adequate resources to teach children? Or is it possible that we believers suffer from all of these things–and more–and wouldn’t dare consider that addressing the social problems of our neighborhoods would be to necessarily address them within our own camp?

Part and parcel of the redemptive work to which Christians have been called is to speak life into dying hearts and breathe life into dying social systems. We are not called to merely win people to Jesus, but to transform entire parts of town. If we are downtown, let us redeem it. If we are in the suburbs, let us redeem them. If we are in the dangerous part of town, let us confront the entities which stand opposed. I do not advocate either for a high or low Christology, but a comprehensive one which treats social ills with the same contempt as we ought to treat sin, and cares for others as much as, if not more than, ourselves.

The goal isn’t to see every tongue and tribe get a copy of a Bible (an absurd attempt to force of God’s hand, and a singular notion which singly reflects everything wrong with American Christianity if there ever was one) the goal is to make the world stop and wonder what happened to the burned out neighborhood, ask why the wealthiest people in town are the most generous of their time and capital, be amazed that crime levels are consistently lower and educational standards higher. The goal is to see Jesus realized in every aspect of life, in every corner of a ZIP code, in every ZIP code in a community, in every community in a nation…you get the idea. We need not expand our churches, develop new ministries and programs or buy airtime on local radio or television; we need only to sharpen our vision by narrowing in on where we already are.

Here is the mission and now is the time. There isn’t a single ZIP code in America or postal code on the planet that couldn’t use the redemptive presence of Christ.

What will we do about it? Redeem or retreat?


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