By Rich Gorman
When we waited on God and watched to see what he was already doing here, we discovered how he would work through us to accomplish his will.
The voicemail we received the day after we moved to Chicago ended up having a greater impact than we could have imagined. My wife, Dori, and I could not remember who this woman was, though she knew of us from our ministry in Johnson City, Tennessee, during our time at Emmanuel Christian Seminary.
She said, “This may seem weird, but I was praying this morning and felt that God told me to tell you something. He says, ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.’ I think the Lord wants you to let him build it.”
At the time, we took this passage from Psalm 127 as really good advice. But this would eventually become our greatest hope and guide as God broke our hearts for our community and taught us to search for him in the most unlikely of places. Along the way he transformed us to be a church for our city.
We moved to Chicago in August 2010 to join Jon Ferguson, his brother Dave, and the family of Community Christian Church on their mission to “help people find their way back to God.” Specifically, that meant we were to plant a campus of Community in the city, using what some call a “missional-incarnational” approach. We came here to be the hands and feet of Jesus—a source of hope and healing for our city.
But things did not go well early on—at all. We read and studied all the books and blogs, but those formulas broke down in this context, one of the most dense and diverse neighborhoods in Chicago. We found ourselves overwhelmed and confused with no idea where to turn. As we stumbled along, we started taking that voicemail more seriously. Perhaps we should “let the Lord build it.” (After all, we didn’t have any better ideas!)
So out of sheer desperation we committed to do the only three things we knew to do:
1. We prayed.
2. We rooted ourselves in God’s Word.
3. We engaged in life here, looking for evidence of God at work. This meant saying “yes” and volunteering for almost everything.
So, with the guidance of a random phone call, a core conviction that God was already working in this place, and an emphasis on letting the Holy Spirit lead through prayer and Scripture, we launched out.
Everything Is Awful
As we started, we found it difficult to find God’s fingerprints on anything, because apparently everything here was just awful.
We attended a neighborhood block club meeting. According to these folks, everything was awful—the increasing crime rate, gang violence, failing schools, bad parking, potholes, you name it! One woman even griped about problem squirrels. We left that meeting feeling like this was the absolute worst place in America. I hated this place already! We heard similar commentary from others as well.
I soon found myself fixating on the deficits and needs of the city. People who asked me about my neighborhood heard the common refrain about the crime rates, gun violence, problem squirrels, and every other reason why this was a terrible place.
But there was one hope: We’re here now! We can provide the answers to all of these problems!
But God did a strange thing while we were fixating on all of the problems. He introduced us to fantastic people and organizations that were doing fabulous work contributing to the healing of the neighborhood.
We discovered Lamanda, a woman who founded The Peterson Garden Project, a grassroots organization committed to helping people learn to grow their own food by establishing community gardens in vacant lots and broken-up parking lots.
We discovered Brian, who leads a local organization committed to helping businesses and the community adopt sustainable modes of living, including neighborhood composting.
We discovered Harlee and Sal, principal and assistant principal of Swift Elementary School, where our church now gathers on Sunday morning. These two have worked tirelessly to turn around a failing school where more than 100 nations and 50 languages are represented.
We discovered our alderman and his staff. This team is committed to fostering a thriving, vibrant, and diverse community of citizens from around the globe.
We discovered Ally, who owns a local cafe and has a passion to see people live connected lives.
The list could go on and on.
To our surprise, not only were things not awful, we began to discover more of God’s presence and goodness than we ever imagined.
We discovered a community full of hope. We discovered a neighborhood teeming with life and a city loaded with kingdom possibilities. We discovered God’s fingerprints everywhere. God was already at work in and through the people he had placed here. We locked arms with these folks because their hope for the city reflected Jesus’ kingdom hope.
But there was one big problem. Jesus, the creator and source of restoration, was named nowhere within the work. These people who were doing this fantastic work were passionate about a vital aspect of Jesus’ mission, but wanted nothing to do with Jesus. We learned over time that our primary role here was to lock arms with them and contribute to the cause and, along the way, whimsically introduce the name of Jesus as the source of total restoration.
Throughout this process we have learned several key lessons in what it takes to become a church for the city.
1. Prayer and Scripture are our most powerful gifts.
In John 5:19, Jesus gives us his ministry secret: “The Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.” Key to Jesus’ work was a deep reliance on his father’s continual leading that he cultivated in prayer. If that was the case for Jesus, how much more true is it for us? We must cultivate a passion for and reliance on prayer and Scripture, allowing the Holy Spirit to inform and fill us to provide wisdom and insight into the deeper things that God is doing behind the scenes.
There are tons of ideas flying around, most of them very good. But good ideas are not enough. If we don’t rely on God’s wisdom and the Holy Spirit’s power, we will be operating on our own strength and insight. Go this route long enough and we will find ourselves exhausted and doing more harm than good.
2. Ruthlessly destroy the negativity bias.
Social psychologists have coined the term “negativity bias” as a means of explaining why we tend to fixate on bad things. If our strategy to become a church for the city entails simply finding the deficits, then that is exactly what we will find. After all, there’s a lot of bad stuff out there. But if we see the city as only a collection of problems and needs, then we may be arrogantly dismissing the work God has been doing through faithful servants for years and decades. We also risk missing the work he has been preparing for our churches. Often that work has been advanced by people who want nothing to do with Jesus. But Jesus wants everything to do with them.
3. Embrace the reality that everything needed to heal our cities for God’s glory is already there.
This can’t be overstated.
As we engage in God’s mission for our cities, we have to acknowledge the challenges but we also need to work to discover the good. Most of the time, the resources needed to meet the challenges of a community already exist within the community. These assets are found in people, organizations, buildings, and infrastructure. With regard to people, everyone has something to contribute. If we help people understand they have voices and are gifted and have roles to play in healing their neighborhood, they can begin to experience a greater purpose and passion for their lives, for the city, and eventually, for Jesus, who designed them with many of these passions, gifts, and skills.
Perhaps our primary kingdom mission in healing our cities for God’s glory is not to be the sole deliverer of goods and services, but rather the primary connector, equipper, and enabler.
Jesus is in the process of putting it all back together—for his glory—so as many as possible may come to faith. Much of the work of restoration is already being done, but by people who are far from God. Perhaps our goal should be to join them, sweat with them, celebrate with them, and in the process, introduce them to Jesus. Then we can earn the opportunity to “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples” (1 Chronicles 16:24). Some of those “all peoples” are engaged in the marvelous deeds. Perhaps our job is to help them engage with Jesus.
Rich Gorman and his wife, Dori, serve as copastors of Community Christian Church’s Edgewater campus on the north side of Chicago, Illinois.