Church plants can’t reach people they don’t know anything about. It’s crucial, then, for church planters to be familiar with the demographic makeup of the place in which they wish to plant.
But my fear is that most church planters stop there. Knowing demographics is essential, but in order for that understanding to be accurate, we must also know the history of our community. Every community’s present state has been forged in the past. No place can escape its history.
And if we fail to rightly understand such history, our churches risk doing more harm than good.
What You Don’t Know
We started South Dallas Community Church in September 2017. A year prior, while still a small group, we took time to research the history of our city. Initially we researched out of necessity, because the majority of our core team weren’t natives. As we talked with residents in the community, it became clear just how much we didn’t know.
We developed something we called the “Learn to Serve Project”—a document chronicling the history of our community and how it relates to ministry. What we learned from these efforts has proven invaluable for our young church’s witness in our community.
As we talked with residents in our community, it became increasingly clear just how much we didn’t know.
Unsurprisingly, we discovered that our community’s history is complex. Like many historically black communities in America, our neighbors have faced numerous hardships. In South Dallas, many continue to suffer from the effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws.
Now, imagine if our church-planting team had ignored such realities. That would’ve been detrimental to our hopes of reaching and discipling the people here. Failing to understand our community in its historical context would’ve led to simplistic solutions regarding issues that have a long and sordid history. For example, I can’t approach evangelism alongside a white member of our church without being sensitive to the harm that some professing Christians have had on our community. In our community’s not-too-distant past, a group of white “Christians” bombed the houses of African Americans in our community.
In more recent times, people have made promises they haven’t kept. Because of this our church has faced skepticism, and sometimes downright hostility, from those around us. If we approach our communities with no understanding of their historical context, it shows a lack of love and concern for who they are.
Where You Fit
We must also realize where we—as the church-planting team—fit into our community’s historical context. Are we one of the many groups helping build a new suburb? Or are we the third wave? Are we part of the new younger, wealthier residents moving into a historically poor community? Have churches been planted here before? If so, are any still active? Did the community welcome them?
Ethnicity, socioeconomic status, church size, and many other factors must be taken into consideration in how your church—and how you, pastor—fits into the community’s history.
For us, being young in age and half white—in a community with an average age of 45 and which is predominantly black and Latino—we recognize where we fit in our community’s historical context. We represent gentrification and, regardless of our motives, that’s how we’ll be perceived. To combat this perception we must be humble, consistent, and demonstrate, as much as possible, that we genuinely care about the people here.
Knowing our history has helped us see the assets that already exist in our community.
We’ve sought to do this in a variety of ways, including providing mentoring, health care, and educational support. Additionally, knowing our history has helped us see the assets that already exist in our community. For example, we meet in the neighborhood YMCA on Sunday morning, because we want to gather in a place familiar to the local people. The YMCA has been such a place for decades. Many of us work out, send our kids to various programs, and try to spend time there outside of Sunday mornings. This is one way we’ve tried to weave ourselves into the historical fabric of our community. We want to be a counter-narrative to traditional “gentrifiers” who come to take from neighborhoods and transform them into their own image, as opposed to coming to serve, share Christ’s love, and build up the current residents.
Listen and Learn
Just as every person has a story, every community has a history. Do you know yours? If you don’t, here’s a good place to start: Get to know people who’ve been there a long time.
Find the elders in your community and ask them to tell you their story. How has the community changed? What significant events have shaped them? Have they experienced oppression from certain groups? If so, how has that affected the locals’ perception of outsiders? The key here is to ask good questions, and then simply listen. Humble yourself and labor to learn. Fight the urge to jump to quick solutions.
Humble yourself and labor to learn. Fight the urge to jump to quick solutions.
The second stop should be your local library—read as much as you can. This availability may vary depending on your context: If you’re in a large city, there may be books written on the history of your city, or even your neighborhood. Some cities also feature information on local history at museums or parks.
No matter your context, knowing the history of your community will help you understand, and therefore love and serve, the people God has put in front of you.