“Where do you live?” That’s one of the first questions people ask me when I tell them I’m new. My family and I just moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to replant a church on the East side, and as any Nashvillian will tell you, the city isn’t simply “the city.”
Nashville has a rich history of music, arts, and local eateries and was ranked as 11th this year on the US News & World Report’s top 20 cities to live in. Unfortunately, however, it also has a history of crime, segregation, and dying churches. Each borough or “side” is as unique as the people who populate it and each side pretty much keeps to itself in a “neighborhood pride” kind of way.
Thirty years ago, no one traveled to “East Nasty” (what locals call the East Side). It was a place where drugs and prostitution ran rampant. The locals refer to various area grocery stores as “The Murder Place” and I have (on at least one occasion) had to walk back to my car in a store parking lot when a man told me that two employees were fighting and had called their family in for “backup.”
On the flip side, East Nashvillians are very proud of their borough. The food, drink, and music scene are defining factors in the area, and with this pride comes a changing demographic. Young, hipster families are moving in and settling, as musicians and artists make up the majority of the population in the City of Broken Dreams.
With such a large population, the list of churches who have and are attempting multi-site venues and the number of churches trying to plant in East Nashville is extensive. But, as one East Nashville pastor of more than 20 years told me recently, “The Eastside eats ‘outsiders’ for breakfast.” Over and over again, the story is the same. A church moves in, the community doesn’t accept it, and (like an organ transplant gone awry) the church eventually moves away or simply ceases to exist. As a fellow “outsider,” this at first felt very daunting and intimidating. One does not simply walk into Nashville and expect a positive response — especially pastors.
So, how does someone who is replanting a church in a community like East Nashville engage its neighborhood with the gospel? I think two things must be recognized:
1. The gospel isn’t a long-distance relationship
When God established the rescue plan for mankind, it didn’t consist of God yelling from heaven, “Here you go!” In fact, what we see is the opposite: God came down. One of my favorite words in the New Testament is Immanuel (literally “God with us”). God’s way of saving people was to get close to them. To become one of them. To wrap himself in humanity’s flesh and walk in their shoes for more than three decades. God could have simply allowed Jesus to be born and then, in an instant, die for the sin of the world. But as Christ walked on the earth, he wasn’t just a good moral example of what we ought to be doing as Christ-followers. He lived, worked, cried, and prayed with people who were not just his “salvation project” — they were his friends and family.
For my family and I, that meant we moved next door to the church. Seven of my 10 neighbors are homosexual, I regularly see homeless people walk by my front door, and most days the police are circling our neighborhood with their lights ablaze and sirens screaming. But that’s what it means to be incarnational. One of the first questions people ask me when I introduce myself is, “Where do you live?” What they are really asking is, “Are you one of us or are you just another outsider?” When I tell them I live on McKennie Avenue, their shoulders relax, take a deep breath, and begin engaging in conversations that otherwise would be difficult.
If we are going to engage our communities with the gospel, it can’t be from a “saving project” approach. We have to be willing to not just go where they are, we have to be willing to become one of them. We have to be willing to be like Immanuel — God with our neighbors and our community.
2. The gospel is the message, the culture is the language
Simply being in the community isn’t enough, however. We have a message to deliver and needs to meet. The biggest issue our church has faced over the past 30 years is how to communicate that message without compromising the core truths of who we are. Unfortunately, our church (and so many churches like ours) has not done a good job of connecting message to need. The result is that the church has locked its doors in fear of the community and the community has responded in kind, thinking the church had actually been closed and abandoned.
Our mission is too important — and our time too short — for us to live in this manner. So what we’re trying to do is to reintroduce the church to the community. There are several things we specifically are praying through as a church to assist us with this, but one of the biggest is looking at the language we use. I don’t necessarily mean English as opposed to another language, as much as I mean “the nature by which we communicate our message.” The first thing we determine is what are the non-negotiables. For us, we stand committed to key doctrines: salvation, God’s word, etc. Then we place everything else on the table (the music, the space, the signage) and ask God to help us translate the message into the local dialect.
Each community has its own language, its own way of receiving information. It may be its music or arts. It may be local cuisine. It may be a huge community need that your church can meet in a real and tangible way. Regardless, God has put you there and given you an opportunity. Our opportunity in East Nashville will look different than yours. As pastors, however, our responsibility is to know the community and to speak their language. Then, and only then, will our community hear the gospel from us in a way that is meaningful and transformational.
Published July 24, 2018