Where your church meets, and where the needy are.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 March

My church (I’m not a pastor; just a longtime member) meets in a strip mall. We’re next to a Walmart Neighborhood Market. We moved in during the recession, before Walmart moved in and the building owners drove up the rental prices. The higher rent was part of the reason we had to give up our Fellowship Hall; there’s a carpet store there now. It’s next to a junior high school, next to a 7-Eleven, across the street from a health club. It’s not a good neighborhood. We got crime. We got homeless people. Which means it’s a really good place to put a church. Needy people and sinners need Jesus!

So occasionally homeless folks come into the building. Usually it’s because we have coffee in the hall. They see free coffee; they want free coffee; I don‘t blame ’em. Come in and have some coffee! Sometimes we also have pastries, doughnuts, muffins, or other baked goods; they’ll eat those too. The hope is they’ll also stick around for the worship service. And every once in a while they do.

We had the same situation at one of my previous churches. (Still wasn’t a pastor; just a board member.) We met in the city’s community center. The building used to be a Lutheran church, so it was a really suitable place for a church to meet. Because it was centrally located, and pretty close to a bus line, sometimes transients would wander in to use the bathroom. And they’d notice we had a table with coffee and bagels and pastries on it.

THEY. “Is this for anyone?”
ME. “Yes. Help yourself.”
THEY. “Thank you!”
ME. “You’re welcome to stick around for the service too, if you want.”
THEY. [some excuse to get out of that]
ME. [shrug; well I tried]

But every so often one of the church ladies would come to me, scandalized: “There’s a homeless person over there. Eating our pastries. What should we do?”

“Invite ’em to the service,” I said. Duh.

But you know how suburban Americans are: We want our churches to accommodate us, not the needy. We wanna feel “safe,” even though safety is an illusion. How many churches with child-molesting clergy were once considered “safe”? How often do gun nuts wander into a “safe” church and start opening fire? “Safe” nothing. And to paraphrase one of C.S. Lewis’s children’s books, Jesus isn’t safe either. He’ll upend your whole life if you let him… and sometimes if you won’t.

Still, this quest for “safety”—and this fact they really don’t give a crap about the same people Jesus does—is why Christians build our churches on the edge of town. Ostensibly this is because the land is cheaper, the tracts are larger, or it’s outside the city limits so they can evade certain city building codes and permits. It’s “good stewardship,” we claim. But really it’s because we don’t want poors in the building, making the place look less than rich, prosperous, upscale, trendy, “blessed.” We want our great big shiny buildings to stay untouched and undirtied when we’re not using them. So we put ’em far, far away from crime, the bus routes, the needy; in places it’s impractical to walk to. This way nobody comes wandering into the building at odd hours to drink our coffee, use our bathrooms, or interrupt our happy-clappy time with their problems and needs.

If any of us do care at all about the needy, we’ll deal with them on our time. We’ll come to them. But come Sunday morning, or any of our midweek functions, it’s okay if they stay away.

And yeah, this attitude towards the needy is really subtle. Comfortable Christians are totally blind to the fact we have it. Say any of the things I just did, and their knee-jerk response is, “Well I don’t think that way.” Fair enough… because they probably never thought about it either way. They just figure growing the church, then moving it to a new building on the edge of town, far away from the inconveniences of an inner-city location, is what you do. They don’t see these inconveniences as people God sends our way so we can be like Jesus to them. (They’re not like Jesus to anyone outside the church anyway.)

So this is why I regularly point out: Where does your church meet? Because its location reflects your church’s idea about where they minister to.

I know; churches don’t always think about that. They rent a space because it’s the right size, and the rent’s cheap. People pick apartments or houses for much the same reason. But once they move in, they start to discover: They’re part of the neighborhood now. They have neighbors. They’re in a school district. They have a city government. They gotta deal with these other people. In a church’s case, you gotta deal with the same sorts of things; more so because Jesus instructs us to love our neighbors, and unless you’re one of those cults which constructs a compound and won’t let anyone in or out, you gotta interact with your immediate community.

When your church is first starting up, so you meet in a home, community center, or school, honestly you don’t really have a location. Because once your services are over, the church scatters. It isn’t headquartered in that location. The space goes back to being a home, community center, or school. The church only ministers to the people who know the church exists, and where you meet. Which is fine; you’re new. But eventually you get an established location, or you open a church office at least. And then your ministry starts to get shaped by the people in your neighborhood, and their needs.

If your church is in the middle of a city, naturally you’re gonna minister to the people who live or hang out in the middle of your city. If surrounded by houses, or in a suburb, you’re gonna minister to suburbanites. And if it’s outside of town, and nobody lives or works around it, you’re gonna minister to… well, nobody but your regulars.

Is it good if you only minister to nobody but your regulars? Depends. Do you have any needy or poor people among them? Or do you only cater to other wealthy Christians? ’Cause Jesus described such “ministries” like this:

Luke 14.12-14 KWL
12 Jesus also said to those who invited him places: “When you have a lunch or dinner,
don’t call out just to your friends, family, tribesmen, nor even wealthy neighbors—
lest they invite you in return, and this reciprocation becomes your ‘payback.’
13 Instead when you have a party, call to the poor, disabled, slow, or blind.
14 You’ll be awesome, because they have no way to pay you back!
For you’ll be paid back at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Doing for the poor, Solomon wrote, is like lending to God, who pays back with generous interest. Pr 19.17 When our worship services—which, when they’re done properly, are celebrations of Jesus—don’t do squat for the needy and the poor, they’re not done properly. God’s kingdom is meant to include them. The gospel is specifically for them. Lk 4.18 Woe to us when we leave ’em out, because we figure they’re in any way spoiling our fun: We’re not being God’s kingdom. We might not even be part of it.