Over the years I’ve helped prospective church planters try to learn about the community they’re praying over in anticipation of planting. We “exegete the community” to gather facts and opinions about what’s going on, hoping to better inform our prayers, our understanding of God’s leading, and to help come up with an initial approach to birthing these new local works.
It’s good, beneficial work, for sure. Yet, it really just touches the surface.
The two families who moved from California to Mckees Rocks fourteen years ago to start Faithbridge are bona fide members of the community. Five of our collective eight Hogan and Christopher children were born here. We live right here in town. In fact, we live on the edge of one of the town’s four low income housing projects. We shop here, we engage here, we walk our dogs here, ride our bicycles here, and work some of our multiple income-generating jobs here in town.
Yet, we’re still exegeting the community, learning more and more over time. A lot of what we learn is troubling and frustrating, but we’re looking for opportunities for impact. Those revelations can become a crucial part of the fabric of our interactive approach to bring the gospel to folks, helping them in their circumstances, and creating growing, reproducing disciples of Jesus.
At the beginning of the current school year, I started teaching an after-school program at the local elementary school for 6th graders once a week. At first the students—who’d all chosen to take part in this program on becoming leaders—took a bit of time to engage. Over a few weeks, they became more comfortable and started opening up. I was a bit ill-prepared for what they were aching to share.
All of the kids live in single-parent situations. One girl’s mother left home in those early weeks, leaving her father to figure out her and her siblings as she and her boyfriend took off for a life unencumbered by the responsibilities of her family. One boy shared that his dad isn’t allowed near his family, having just been released from jail for trying to stab the boy’s mother. In front of the kids. All but one of the kids eventually shared about their home situations, speaking in oddly calm tones about things far from normal… except it’s normal for them. I’m both hoping and dreading for when the last child finally feels like sharing what she’s holding inside.
Another thing we’ve found is that none of these kids—as well-spoken and normative as their classmates—can read at 6th grade level. They’re willing, and they volunteer, but it’s hard to listen to them as they try.
Recently we were learning about compassion. Three enthusiastic students wanted to read some of the material. I’ve learned that whole passages are too much, so I gave them each a couple of questions to read. In turn they halted at the words “praise,” “comfort,” “through,” “receive,” and “someone.”
All ministries have unique challenges and require faithfulness and hard work. It’s tempting, especially when we’re struggling or in need of a break, to see those challenges as daunting mountains and a backbreaking weight to carry.
I advise young ministers about dealing with the emotions of the tough truths they find in their community: Get your breaks, have a team that bears one another’s burdens, cast your cares to God and yoke with Him so you’re not carrying the parts of the load that aren’t yours to carry… and bring a healthy perspective to what you find.
If you’re truly involved in ministry, you’re like a chaplain to the community. Or a doctor. You can’t address and help with things of which you remain unaware. Be grateful for what God allows you to see.
Henry Blackaby warned, in his wonderful Experiencing God, that ministers often see tough challenges as a “closed door” and run for easier climes. God, however, often shapes us through such difficulties. Blackaby says he challenges people wishing to flee hard seasons with this question: “Do your difficult circumstances have to do with you obeying God?”
Just yesterday, as a men’s meeting wrapped up at a local restaurant, the food server asked me to stay a few moments. We’d spoken recently about a difficult family relationship they have, and I assumed we’d address that some more.
Instead, they opened up about being trapped in heroin addiction. My heart broke for the server, yet leaped for the opportunity.
Now that I know the elephant in the room, and I know three things for sure: If they’re willing to let me, I can help. I know freedom is possible, because I lived it a quarter century ago. And I know Jesus wants to make them a “new creation in Christ,” where “the old is gone and the new has come.”
It’s a privilege to be entrusted with that information by them, and with this opportunity by God. We’re still learning about our community, and, thankfully, God is being glorified in what He’s showing us.