The One Question Every Congregation Needs to Ask

Who is in Our Back Yard? Every congregation needs to ask that question. From the early church until now the mandate to be in mission has been a foundational piece of being the church. Jesus inaugurated it when he said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the world.” (Acts 1:8) Followers of Jesus then and now are called to faithfulness and mission locally, regionally, nationally and globally. For the early disciples Jerusalem was home. As congregations we describe “our Jerusalem” by asking, who is in our Back Yard?

It is a counter-cultural question to ask. The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) perspective dominates today’s culture. Lots of energy is spent on keeping people or businesses deemed undesirable out of our back yards. Christian disciples following in the way of Jesus live differently. We want to know who our neighbors are and how we might share the light of Christ with them.

Discovering the answers to the primary question of, who is in our Backyard, requires creativity, energy and intentionality. The following are a few suggestions of how to learn who is in your back yard. As we learn who our neighbors are, then we can discern avenues of relevant ministry to them.

1. One easy tool is to consult demographics available from civic, denominational or other sources. What does the raw data say about your back yard? Prayerfully analyzing the demographics may lead to an idea of a relevant ministry that your congregation can offer.

2. Go on a Prayer Walk. Door to door surveys are usually unwelcomed. And, truthfully, most of us don’t want to do them anyway. In most neighborhoods one is greeted with a “No soliciting” sign. So, unless it is prohibited legally, simply walk and pray as you go through the areas around your church building or parish area. Walking slows us down and we will see, hear and encounter more than even a slow drive through provides. One pastor lived 5 blocks from his church for many years. Usually he drove to the office and then to hospitals and homes of his parishioners. One day his car was disabled. So, he walked home. He said, “On my walk, I saw three houses on Elm Street that I never knew were here.” As you walk observe the patterns of people. What do you notice? For example, does the neighborhood come alive in the afternoon with school children?

3. Determine a 1-5 mile radius around your church site. (Whatever is reasonable for your situation). Identify any businesses in that area. For example is there a Fire House, hospital or police station. If so you might consider taking a meal to workers who have to work on the holidays. If there is a school, set up a meeting with the principal and see if there are things your church could do to help that school community. Many churches provide school supplies, for example.

4. Establish a base in each of the neighborhoods or sections of your back yard. Are there members of your church or friends already in those areas? Interview them regarding the needs of people around them. Consider offering in a neighborhood community building a Bible Study, prayer group, parenting skills class or other classes of interest.

5. Observe traffic patterns near your church building or gathering place. Just simply sit and watch at various times and record what you see.

Now that we know who is in our back yard, what do we do? First discern whether they need what you currently offer in worship and service. Ask do the ministries we offer touch the needs of people around us. A number of years ago while pastoring a church near Charleston SC I was called to the local hospital to minister to a friend of a church member whose relative visiting from Michigan was near death. So, I was separated by 2 degrees from the patient; a church member’s friend’s out of town relative. I was accompanied by a lay leader who was not originally from SC. The patient did indeed die and we were trying to decide how to help the family. My lay leader said, “I don’t know why but I’ve noticed that every time someone in this church dies, people start cooking chicken. Do you want me to call the bereavement team and get them started cooking?” “Let’s ask the family,” I said. We discovered that the family was vegetarian and had plans of an immediate return to Michigan. No chicken was needed.

As you get to know the people in your back yard, give them chicken, only if they need it.

Debra Griffis-Woodberry, Pinnacle Associate
Helen