The Church and Your Neighborhood
By Josh Reitano
Church

Illustrations by Metaleap Creative

If your church closed today, would anyone in the community know the difference?

I’ve been wrestling with this question on and off for the last 12 years since planting New City Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati.

I’ve wrestled as to whether it’s even a proper question at all, or merely a distraction from our commitment to the ordinary means of grace (Word, prayer, and sacrament).

But I’ve concluded this is a good question, because our commitment to the ordinary means of grace is always embodied — that is, it happens in time and space, with a group of people, in a particular place. A fundamental part of being a local church is that it is in fact, local. Your church community exists not in your mind (or on the internet), but in a particular locale. Thus you see Paul in his Epistles addressing the church “at Corinth” or “at Thessalonica,” or “at Colossae.”

As a local church, in a particular place, we have neighbors. We necessarily exist within communities, neighborhoods, and cities. And so it is proper for us to consider the church’s role in relationship to the broader community. We can think about this through the lens of prophet, priest, and king.

The Church as Prophet

Prophets are messengers, speaking the words of God to the people. In this sense, every church has a prophetic role in relation to its community.

Jesus kicks off His ministry in Mark 1:14 by “proclaiming the gospel of God.” Particularly He says, “Repent and believe for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus proclaims, and so should we. The Book of Acts tells the story of the gospel going forward through its preaching. The apostles healed the sick and cared for the poor, but they also preached. They spoke. They used words.

Our worship services are also public meetings, and we should treat them as such. As we apply the Scriptures, we should always be asking, “How is this text good news for our neighborhood?”

Even the etymology of the word “gospel” tells us it needs to be proclaimed. It’s fundamentally good news, and news is something you share. Tim Chester warns of “a tendency in some quarters today to promote a kind of evangelism without proclamation. Acts of service are done or people are invited to experience Christian worship. But without words of explanation these are like signposts pointing nowhere or, worse still, signposts pointing to our good works. The gospel is good news — a message to be proclaimed, a truth to be taught, a word to be spoken, and a story to be told.”

How does a church work out its prophetic role in the community? Every week our church gathers for worship services. We’re used to thinking of these as solely for the people of God. But our worship services are also public meetings, and we should treat them as such. In 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, Paul just assumes that outsiders will be present in worship. Pastors should preach as if the neighborhood is listening in, and soon they will be, as church members sense this is a helpful place to invite their neighbors. As we apply the Scriptures, we should always be asking, “How is this text good news for our neighborhood?”

Our prophetic role to the community includes helping church members confidently communicate the gospel to others, through sharing their own stories. The gospel spreads most effectively through webs of relationships, especially what we call our “extended family” — our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers who live in the area.

We see this in the New Testament. Jesus’ first followers were all connected in webs of relationships: John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin, Andrew and John were students of John the Baptist, James was John’s brother, Peter was Andrew’s brother, Philip was Peter’s neighbor, Nathanael was Philip’s friend (John 1:35-51).

The gospel continued to spread this way. Levi invited his friends to a dinner party and many believed (Mark 2:14-15), the father of a sick child believed and then his whole household (John 4:53), and Cornelius invited his relatives and friends to hear the gospel and they believed (Acts 10:24, 44).

As my mentor Walter Wood so often says, most people come to know Jesus through multiple exposures to God’s Word and God’s people.

The Church’s Priestly Role

But our role in the neighborhood cannot be completely reduced to the prophetic. A church also has a priestly role in loving its community. Old Testament priests were the servants and mediators. They were servants in the sense that priests cared for the poor and the sick. They also came to God on behalf of the people — they confessed sin, made offerings, and interceded on behalf of the people.

Church

Perhaps this role is difficult to imagine for the church living in a secular society. But we have an example of this in Jeremiah 29, as the prophet describes the role of the exiles in pagan Babylon.

First, we should pray for our neighborhood. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf …” (Jeremiah 29:7). Jack Miller has written about the difference between “maintenance prayer” and “frontline prayer.” Maintenance prayer is typically short, mechanical, and totally focused on physical needs inside the church. Frontline prayer involves humility — confessing the church’s sins, particularly our sins in not being salt and light in the world as we should. It involves bold and specific prayers for the needs of the neighborhood.

Pastor Ray Cannata says that when he prepares an agenda for a prayer meeting or helps craft prayers as a part of the liturgy, he does so having asked, “If every one of our prayers were answered tomorrow, would our neighbors notice? Are we praying primarily for our own health, financial, and personal concerns, or are we praying for our neighbors, community, homeless, poor, schools, police, politicians, and firemen?”

One of the elders at our church prepared a document with 21 prayers to pray for our community in 2021. They include intercessions for government officials, teachers, police and fire workers, future dreams for new ministries and Christian schools, intercessions concerning social problems (such as poverty, crime, racism, and abuse), as well as prayers for other gospel-centered churches and their work.

Second, a priestly role entails becoming significantly involved in the neighborhood. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce” (Jeremiah 29:5). Jeremiah forbids them to hunker down and wall themselves off in a ghetto. They are called to participate in the life of the city.

Not all of our neighbors are reading the gospel story, but when they encounter the church, they learn something about who God is and what He is doing in the world. 

A church’s effectiveness is directly tied to its involvement. A church will need to train its members in this, because our news cycle trains us to be most emotionally invested in the things with which we have the least agency. In other words, the spotlight is all national, while your greatest capacity for impact is local. A church should encourage its members to get to know and love its city.

Jonathan Dodson suggests people can participate in the life of the city by eating with neighbors and co-workers, walking through neighborhoods and public spaces, becoming a regular at certain businesses, and participating in city events. Churches can also encourage this by planning meet-ups out in the community, sending representatives to neighborhood councils and civic group meetings, and planning church activities in conjunction with broader community activities.

Every spring Cincinnati plays host to the Flying Pig Marathon. This is a great showcase for our city and also brings many people from around the country into town for the weekend. The race also happens to cut right through our neighborhood. Rather than being annoyed that streets are blocked off making it difficult to get around, we’ve embraced the event by having special evening services, throwing a catered party after church, and hosting a water station during the race.

Finally, a priestly ministry involves serving the city. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile (Jeremiah 29:7). This happens when a church is deeply involved in meeting needs in the community and partnering with others doing the same. A church with a robust diaconal ministry can have a deep impact on its neighbors.

In this sense, priestly ministry often opens doors for prophetic ministry. I saw this one summer in Cincinnati as the city went through a budget crisis, forcing the closure of many public pools. A larger church in the city stepped in and paid for the pools to remain open. This is the closest thing to the Acts 2 “having favor with all the people” that I have ever witnessed, as people throughout the city were grateful for the generosity of this church. And the goodwill spilled over to other churches too — as many noticed the ways Christians labored in our city to care for others.

Most of us don’t have the budget to open pools for poor neighborhoods all summer, but we can make more modest contributions to similar effect. Our deacons provide 30 boxes of food each week to a local elementary school so that teachers can send them home over the weekend with children who deal with food insecurity. This is a small way of adorning our doctrine with deeds (Titus 2:10, 1 Peter 2:12).

Creating Community Like a King

Kings have the responsibility of creating and shaping a community. A church’s life together must take a particular shape and form. Much of this is spelled out for us in our Book of Church Order. But even so, individual churches must make decisions about what their community will look like in relationship to the world.

Leslie Newbigin has said that a believing community becomes a hermeneutic of the gospel. Not all of our neighbors are reading the gospel story, but when they encounter the church, they learn something about who God is and what He is doing in the world. The church must be intentional about the story its life together is telling to the world.

The inertia in American culture was already toward fragmentation and isolation before COVID-19; now more so. If COVID has “dismembered the body” in some way during the past year, what does “re-membering” look like? At minimum this will involve reminding ourselves what it looks like to pursue Christ together in community. It will also mean re-habituating ourselves to the rhythms of hospitality. Rebuilding the community life of the church is part of our kingly role both internally, but also in relation to our city.

Church

During COVID we began to think about what story our physical space was telling the community. We became aware that it wasn’t just our church that was struggling to figure out ways to meet during the pandemic, so we put some building plans on hold and instead constructed an outdoor pavilion and playscape adjacent to our building so that we could hold outdoor services and meetings, but also so the community could make use of it. As COVID restrictions lifted, we threw a massive Pentecost party with food trucks to celebrate not only as a church, but with our neighbors. Through all these decisions we are telling a story to our neighbors, not only about who we are, but who God is.

There is a place in “The Brothers Karamazov” where the characters talk about Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana of turning water into wine. This would have been a wedding with fairly poor people. The family would have spent all of its resources to make the party happen — to celebrate its kids and really the whole village. So what a disappointment, then, to have the wine run out. What a disappointment to know that all you have is not enough. So Jesus steps in.

And Dostoevsky writes: “I love that passage: it’s Cana of Galilee, the first miracle … . Ah, that miracle! Ah, that sweet miracle! It was not men’s grief, but their joy Christ visited, He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness … . ‘He who loves men, loves their gladness, too.’” Part of what we want our community to see is that Jesus loves them, and their gladness too.

If your church closed tomorrow, would anyone in the community know the difference? I hope that they would. Because as we focus on the ordinary means of grace, we reach out to the community we serve and invite them in to taste and see that the Lord is good.


Josh Reitano worked as an assistant pastor at North Cincinnati Community Church in 2004 and remained there until planting New City Presbyterian some five years later. Josh and Paige have two active children, Lucy and Crosley.

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