Neighborhoods around the world are changing. Rising immigration, financial instability, and social mobility are bringing together new people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups. Some Christians are tempted to respond to these shifts with fear and defensiveness. But God commands us to love and embrace the people he’s sovereignly put around us.
In short, he’s calling your church to look more like your neighborhood.
That’s what our church realized when God moved us to a new area. We’d planted the church four years earlier in one of the whitest and richest parts of our city (Honolulu, Hawaii), and our church was primarily white and upper-middle class. But when we lost our meeting space, God sent us to a neighborhood that was primarily Asian and Pacific-Islander. Many of our new neighbors lived in low-income and government-assisted housing.
And even this neighborhood was changing. In Hawaii, 15 percent of the population changes homes every year; 18 percent were born outside the United States; and 25 percent speak a language other than English at home.
We didn’t plant our church just to reach people who look like us.
We didn’t plant our church just to reach people who look like us, but to reflect the unity in diversity of our triune God, in whose image we were created. As a result of the lost meeting space, we quickly realized we were going to have to pray and work hard to see our church look more like our new neighborhood. While in this process, we were preaching through Mark’s Gospel. In God’s sovereign timing, he taught us many lessons through Mark, who deliberately wrote his Gospel as a bridge between the Jewish people in his church and the Roman people in his neighborhood.
With that in mind, here are four things we’ve done that I’d highly recommend for every church-planting team.
Mark’s writing style suggests he’d studied the people in his neighborhood, as he crafted an action-packed Gospel for the arena-loving Romans.
As we got to know our neighbors, we quickly realized that one of the major differences between our members and the people in our neighborhood was education level.
We had many highly educated people in our church. Most of our sermons resembled seminary lectures. But in our new neighborhood, we were meeting recent immigrants who didn’t speak much English, along with folks in government housing who never graduated high school.
We knew they weren’t going to come listen to seminary-lecture style sermons, so we began to manuscript each sermon and run it through an online grade-level analyzer. I discovered that my sermons were averaging a 10th-grade level, so I started using simpler phrases and words to get them down around a 5th-grade level. My aim hasn’t been to patronize, but to communicate God’s Word effectively to our hearers.
We’ve also chosen simpler songs. God was saving folks coming out of serious drug addiction, and some of them would say: “When we sing these hymns, my brain just can’t keep up with all the words.” We loved our hymns, but we decided to sing fewer in favor of simpler sung worship.
Mark challenged the Jewish people in the church to welcome the Romans; this is evident in the feeding of the 4,000 (Mark 8:1–9). At first glance, it seems there’s little difference from the feeding of the 5,000 just two chapters earlier (Mark 6:30–44). Both stories feature hungry crowds and a miraculous feast. Why do we need two nearly identical stories?
Well, there’s one detail that makes them radically different: the location. The first story took place in Galilee—with thousands of hungry Jews. On that occasion, it was the disciples who were worried about the people.
The second story took place in the Decapolis: a Roman colony. Now they were dealing with thousands of starving Romans, and the disciples didn’t seem to care. It was Jesus who took the initiative: “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have nothing to eat.” Mark was challenging the Jews in Rome to be just as welcoming to the Romans as Jesus was.
We challenged the upper-middle-class folks in our church to go out of their way to welcome people who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like they do.
Our church had to do the same thing. We challenged the upper-middle-class folks in our church to go out of their way to welcome people who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like they do.
Because food is a big cultural signpost, we told our members, “We’re going to start having food at church that might not be to your liking. You won’t even recognize some of it. But food is one of the best ways to make people feel welcome, and we want to go out of our way to be hospitable to our neighbors.”
An easily missed high point in Mark’s Gospel concerns the Roman centurion who witnessed the death of Jesus. While everyone else simply saw a dying man, the centurion saw the humility, strength, and compassion of the dying Son of God. Hence his exclamation, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
He was the only man in Mark’s Gospel to declare that truth. Mark was deliberately celebrating the work of God among Roman people.
In our neighborhood, we wanted to do the same thing. As folks from different cultures have come to faith in Christ, we’ve intentionally highlighted their testimonies. In our sermons, we’ve sought to tell more stories about Christians in Japan, China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
We’ve also translated some of our songs into the native languages of people in our neighborhood. As God has given us musically gifted people from different cultures, we’ve done choruses in Mandarin, Samoan, Hawaiian, and Tagalog, all with the aim of celebrating God’s work around the world.
In his Gospel, Mark wanted to bridge the Jewishness of Jesus to the Romanness of his neighbors. So he took the time to translate Aramaic for the Romans, like when Jesus raised the little girl: “Taking her by the hand Jesus said to her, ‘Talitha cumi,’ which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’” (Mark 5:41).
When Jesus walked on water, Mark said it happened at the “fourth watch of the night” (Mark 6:48), which is how Romans—not Jews—divided time. Mark knew the importance of explaining things.
We came to realize the same. Before our move, most of the people we were reaching had some kind of Christian background. But this wasn’t the case for the majority of people in our new neighborhood.
In my sermons, I’ve sought to define every biblical or theological word that wasn’t part of the everyday vernacular of our neighbors.
In our church services, we’ve sought to communicate both the what and also the why behind each component: “We love to sing praises to God, so join us if you’d like.” “We take time every week to study a portion of God’s Word, and we work through it section by section.” “Every Sunday we remind ourselves of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who took away our sins and gave us new life. We do that by taking communion, which is for people who’ve put their trust in Jesus.”
In my sermons, I’ve sought to define every biblical or theological word that isn’t part of the everyday vernacular of our neighbors. We’ve encouraged our small-group leaders to discuss the same biblical texts covered on Sunday. That way, people of varying levels of spiritual maturity would have the same basic understanding of the passage, allowing them to focus more on how the passage applied to their everyday lives.
As a result of these kinds of initiatives, God began to bring many people to our church who didn’t look, talk, act, or eat like we did. We now have a beautifully chaotic community full of people who’d never choose to hang out together if they weren’t brothers and sisters in Christ.
There are still plenty of misunderstandings, unintentional offenses, and ignorant mistakes. But our diverse family is learning and pressing on together in Christ.