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It’s All About the Neighborhood by Aaron Fortner

The Church is abuzz today about reaching cities, and as a city planner, that excites me. But talking about “impacting cities” can sound like an insurmountable task. How can one person or one church shape a bustling metropolis like New York, Atlanta, or Dallas? I’ve found the secret can be summed up in one word: neighborhoods.

The governing principles of healthy cities and communities are timeless. They are timeless because who we are and what we are made for is timeless. We are creatures of soul and spirit and every ounce of our being yearns to be known and loved. There is a reason we are to love God and others and it’s not just because we ought to – it’s because we’ve been made to.

The desire for connections is laced throughout our DNA, and neighborhoods are the perfect size for making these connections meaningfully. You can really get your arms around a neighborhood – you can walk it, you can see it, you can hear it, you can feel it and you can truly know it. While the heart of the church will always be for the world, the hands of the church are the perfect length for the reach of a neighborhood.

[For a story about good neighboring, read “Who is My Neighbor” by pastor Gideon Tsang.]

You can’t fix a car with a triumphalist proclamation that you are going to “reach the automobile,” but rather through fixing its broken parts. If the car in this analogy is the city, then the broken parts are that city’s neighborhoods and the people residing therein. The city is just a function of its collage of interconnected neighborhoods – each with its own distinct character, personality and potential. You don’t meet up for coffee in Atlanta, you meet at 7th and Spring in the heart of Midtown. You don’t just live in Portland, you live in the Pearl.

So the hope for the city is the neighborhood, but what is the hope of the neighborhood? If God’s people get serious about God’s mission, it’s the Church. . A church body on mission within the fabric of a local neighborhood could be a massive force for restoration, innovation, prosperity, peace and empowerment for the betterment and lifting of that entire neighborhood. When the majority of the neighborhoods in a city are being championed in just this way then the result is a city of life, love, justice and purpose.

A church in metro-Atlanta is modeling this truth in a powerful way. First Christian Church of Decatur routinely asks the question, “How can we leverage whatever we have to help meet specific needs in the community?” The answer has led to various community groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, music lessons, community organizations and even other churches using the church building every day of the week. The response to this heartfelt question has led to the church lawn being used for fireworks viewings, the transformation of rarely used property into a sorely needed neighborhood park, and the renovation of the old church gym into a proposed community recreation center.

They are making a difference, and people who live in other parts of Atlanta are beginning to talk about their work. By meeting the needs of the surrounding neighborhood, First Christian has captured the attention of many in the larger city.

Stories like this are not difficult to reproduce. The local neighborhood is the geography of essence that enables a local community of believers to be faithful with a little (“our” neighborhood), and in turn prepares them for the opportunities to be faithful with a lot (“their” neighborhood). It’s not the most we can do – it’s the least.

[For ideas on how to impact your neighborhood, check out GOOD magazine’s “Guide to Better Neighborhoods: A Neighborhood Manifesto.”]

This imperfect world will always be just that, but still we endeavor for good cause. In the midst of our imperfect world the church provides a glimpse of a perfect world to come. Revelation 21 describes the day when perfection will finally arrive by saying, God will “move into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women.” Until then, the Church must love its local neighborhood, knowing that the foundation is being laid for reaching an entire city.

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Do you agree with Aaron that neighborhoods are the key to reaching cities? Can you share a story of how a church or group of Christians have impacted a neighborhood and shaped a city?

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Editor’s Note: The picture above is quoted from One Thousand Scientists.