Wednesday, August 9, 2017

We Go to Church in a New Neighborhood

Here's where you'll find Neighborhood Church in Fresno: at Jackson Elementary
Neighborhood Church, Fresno, California
Is “neighboring” a verb? I know the term is usually an adjective for “adjacent” or “very near,” but I think the people at the Neighborhood Church in Fresno are intent on making it a verb as well, beginning with the way they use their name. They’re putting being a neighbor front and center in their title, and they’re in Jackson Neighborhood, the area that surrounds the school where they meet, Jackson Elementary School.

Last year, when we were visiting a church and bar in every state, people often told us they wanted a sense of community from a church, so we’ve decided to take this month to go to churches that make community a priority -- at least enough of a priority to put something like “Community” or “Neighborhood” in their name.

We were frankly a little puzzled when we arrived at Jackson Elementary on Sunday morning. We saw sound equipment and chairs set in rows in a space by the playground. The thing that really confused us was the signs on the fences around the school. They advertised Neighborhood Church Services at 4:00 pm. Mindy had seen the 9:00 am time on the website, but the website also had pictures of the group meeting inside. As we drove by, we could see that all the gates were chained and locked. Eventually, we noticed the (really obvious) open door into the school auditorium, and all was explained when we walked out the doors on the other side of the room.

Heidi, who’s married to Joe, the church’s lead pastor, greeted us as we approached the chairs. She told us that for most of the year, the church does gather at 4:00 on Sunday afternoons, but the school doesn’t have air conditioning, only swamp coolers. It can get pretty hot inside, so for nine weeks during the summer (“9 at 9”) they meet in the cooler hours of the morning. On this particular morning, someone had forgotten to turn on the swamp coolers in the building, so the leaders decided everyone would be more comfortable meeting outside.

Heidi was surrounded by a number of small children, some of her own and others that weren’t. Some of the kids were taking advantage of the watermelon available on the community table to advertise Ooooby (“Out of Our Own BackYard”), an organization that sells the produce of local farmers to local consumers; restaurants, markets, and families can order a weekly customizable box.

I wondered about why Ooooby was there, but during the service announcement time, it was presented as something that fit nicely with the church vision. We learned that three things form the chief priorities of Neighborhood Church: 1) Jesus, 2) People, 3) Place.  The first two things are pretty common in church vision statements, but the third is less so. Neighborhood Church believes in the importance of getting “entangled” in their neighborhood, their community. Buying from local farmers is a way to be engaged in the community.

We learned that Pastor Joe wasn’t there that week because he’s been working on a book about the importance of neighborhood in ministry, and he was taking a little time for concentrated effort on that work. At the church website Joe has written, “We are a Neighborhood Church that is deeply invested in our Jackson Neighborhood. If the church vanished from the neighborhood overnight, we would want people to say, ‘We miss them. They were a part of us’.”

The service started about nine after nine (which seemed appropriate for a “9 at 9” service). The congregational singing was complicated a bit by being outside, because the monitors that normally display the lyrics, weren’t available. Fortunately, we knew the songs well enough to sing along, and there was the occasional lyric line spoken in advance, but it would have been tough for some guests to sing along.

During greeting time, we were encouraged to ask those around us about the highlight of their summer so far. I met Rosie, who said she was happy that this summer her kids have been able to experience summer camp for the first time, and they got to go to a local water park, too. About ten minutes or so into the service, Pastor Heidi led the children off for Kids Church, taking a rather large contingent of the congregation.

Pastor Mitch, who does youth ministry for the church, preached. His text was Psalm 133, a chapter short enough that I’ve had it committed to memory at times (and at times it has gone away). “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.”

Mitch’s opening illustration of the the fellowship described in that chapter came from work he does with the football team at nearby Roosevelt High School. He told about kids sharing what it was like to be homeless while attending school and playing on the team. Sharing that pain brought the team together as brothers. I was greatly encouraged to hear that Mitch is able to minister in such a powerful way with these kids from a public school.

Mitch had a three point sermon, noting first that Relational Harmony (which I kept hearing as “racial harmony”) was a gift from God, second that we are in a world with little Relational Harmony, and that God wants to restore that Relational Harmony. Pastor Mitch emphasized that the most important relationship we have is our relationship with Jesus, and that other good relationships can flow from that.

Mitch also talked about his work with neighborhood kids to combat gangs and drug abuse. He said that when the church began in the neighborhood (only a year and a half ago), the neighborhood kids mocked the ministry, but now relationships of trust and respect have developed.

At the conclusion of the service, people were asked to add pictures or words to one of the signs that would be a gift to the teachers of Jackson Elementary on the first day of school.  People were to write notes of love and appreciation for the work of the school’s teachers.

Though the church has considered buying a building in the neighborhood (particularly a house across the street from the school or even a closed bar a few blocks away), Neighborhood Church has no plans to move their worship services off campus. The school is central to the neighborhoods, so it’s a good place for a neighborhood church to meet. Such “entanglements” suit the church as they reflect the way Jesus came down from Heaven to become “entangled” with us.

Service Length: 1 hour 6 minutes
Sermon Length: 28 minutes
Visitor Treatment: As we drove up, a woman pushing a stroller smiled at us as she crossed the street. Once inside the schoolyard, the same woman came up to say hello, along with Pastor Heidi and another woman. Heidi made sure we were aware of the church's informational materials and told us about the church's ministry in the community. During the worship service, people seemed happy to chat with both friends and strangers during the greeting time, and after the worship service ended, several people struck up conversations with us.
Followup by Tuesday Morning: On Monday we got a personal email from Lawrence, who'd led the music during the service and who we'd talked to for a few minutes after.
Our Rough Count: 31
Probable Ushers’ Count: 35
Snacks: Cool water and watermelon (and anything else that could be eaten raw) on the community table
Musicians: acoustic guitars (men)
vocals (woman)
Songs: “Your Love Never Fails”
"Your Grace is Enough"
"Great are You, Lord"
"Everlasting God"
"I Give You my Heart"
Distance to Church: 6 miles
Open WiFi: no
Tie/Suit Count: none
Church Website:

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