But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7 (ESV)
Church plants begin with vision. Vision leads to prayer, prayer to planning, and planning (hopefully) to execution. If these align properly, a church is born that plays a vital role in reaching a community with the power of the gospel, but as we dream, pray, plan and work we cannot view the community as mere recipients of the work – the community are partners in the work! Virtually everyone in your community is vested in its welfare, and when we truly seek the welfare of our cities, starting with our specific communities within our cities, you’ll find that you have a lot of partners you might not have considered.
There are other groups, families, organizations, individuals, and churches in your community. Some are doing great work. Some need help. You need their help too.
Over the next few posts, I will be sharing my learnings and best practices for community partnerships. Much of my experience comes from the church I have planted in a community of need in New York City, but I believe many of these concepts have value whether you are in the inner city, a rural area, or something in between.
I. Know Your Community
A mentor of mine once said, “No one should ever know more about your city than you.” If you seek to genuinely serve your city, and even more specifically a community within your city, become a student of that community. Study its history, come to understand why it is the way it is. Know the backstories and how all the pieces fit together. Ray Bakke says this in his book A Theology as Big as the City:
“I needed to know the city because if you don’t know it, you can’t love it.”
Here are some practical steps to knowing your community, (in no particular order)
Seek out as much information about your community as you can. Read as much as you can find. Google everything from street names to zip codes. This is a task that will never be completed, only broadened.
My advice to anyone beginning a work in a community is to take an intentional period of at least six months and do nothing but listen. NEVER FORSAKE THE COMMUNITY’S ABILITY TO TEACH YOU. You can read every word ever printed about your community (see above) but there are many things about your community you’ll never find on Wikipedia.
Too often as church planters and ministry leaders, we see ourselves as the keepers of knowledge, but to seek the welfare of our community we must first listen and learn. You are courting your community, and these days are some of the most important. Not unlike a new romance, if you get it wrong in these early days your relationship will not last long.
If you have been in your community for a long time (or perhaps a lifetime), it’s never too late to be intentional about listening. It’s often said “familiarity leads to contempt”, if you’ve spent your entire life in your community you might be the most in need of an intentional focus on listening.
To seek the welfare of your city, you must be in prayer for your city. In addition to general welfare, pray for specifics. Pray for people by name in your community, leaders, principles, store owners, people who are mean to you… Many days when I first moved to my community I would pray along these lines:
“God, please let me make one meaningful connection this week. Help me see opportunities to develop a meaningful relationship.”