This is the seventh installment in a series based on my adventures in planting a church. For more information on the series, or to see what else we have walked through, check out the original post. My hope is to use this series to develop a resource for planters as they are thinking about diving in, or need to process their current situation… this resource is incomplete without your contribution (that is a subtle way of saying leave a comment).
When we were preparing to plant The Garden Community, we were pretty certain that we knew what we were doing, and who we would be serving. As we moved into Baltimore, and began to better understand our surroundings, we began to tweak our understanding of what we were up to and who we would be intentionally investing in. We came to a realization that we would most likely NOT be made up primarily of artists, but would be more intentional about bridging two neighborhoods, and cultures.
For us, being on the ground, and being able to watch, listen, and learn about the neighborhoods that we moved into was huge… and it enabled us to better serve those whom we encountered as we went about the work we were called to. This cultural exegesis is a process that every planter needs to go through, and while demographic studies are a good start, exegeting your community is a process that takes time, patience, and a great deal of listening.
Put simply, exegeting your community is how you go about understanding the needs and expectations that the people living in your community have. It is from developing this understanding that you are able to know how to best impact your neighborhoods. Last week I had the pleasure of listening to Nicholas Smith share about some of the ways that his church is meeting the needs of the surrounding communities. As he was discussing how they come up with new ways to serve their communities, he stopped… looked at those of us listening to him, and said “sometimes we need to stop praying and go outside to talk to some people.” That is the very essence of exegeting your community.
The key to doing this well is being flexible, willing to learn, and moving on what you learn. Hours spent researching your community and learning what makes it tick will ultimately be worthless if you are unwilling to make the strategic shifts necessary to act on the wisdom you have gained. How do you gain this wisdom? I believe it is slightly different for every neighborhood, but here are some basic suggestions that can help you get started:
- Camp Out. In every place that I have lived I have been intentional about finding a handful of places that I could spend expended periods of time in, on a regular basis. In Baltimore, this was a great little place called On The Hill. Not only was this place just down the street from my house, it was a neighborhood hotspot that had a great deal of people coming and going all the time, had all sorts of regular customers, and makes some killer sandwiches (try the Mosher). As I got to know the staff and the regulars, I also was able to learn more about what was going on in the neighborhood, and learn more about the needs and struggles of those who lived there.
- Meet the Mayor(s). Every neighborhood has at least one person who knows everyone and everything that is going on. I call this person the Mayor. In Bolton Hill, my neighbor Ruben was one of the mayors. In the spring, summer, and fall Ruben would hold court on his stoop, talking to anyone who happened to wander by. Ruben was brilliant, and could speak intelligently about just about anything, and he had lived in the neighborhood for years… which enabled him to tell the stories of how and why things became the way they are. The mayor is not always easy to find… but they are great people to get to know, and learn from.
- Know the Players. Every community has people who have influence on getting things done. Whether they are members of the community association, a well connected business owner, nephew of a city council member, or just plain influential, learning from these people will only help you better understand what is going on in your neighborhood. In Baltimore, I made it a point to get to know our neighborhood association and the principal of the local elementary school. I also was able to develop a relationship with the Deputy Major of the Police District and aides to our city councilman. Through these relationships I was able to develop a fuller sense of what was going on around us, and we were able to tweak some of what we were doing to better serve.
- Be Nosey. Ask questions, lots and lots of questions. Nicholas Smith suggested finding out what the number one police call is for your neighborhood… and working to change it. It is only through watching, listening, and asking why that you will be able to fully understand what is going on in your community… and be able to minister well to it.
How are YOU exegeting YOUR community?