By Rich Gorman
We were failing miserably.
We moved into our Chicago neighborhood in 2010 to join others in starting a new church that would help people discover Jesus and lead to lasting life change and community transformation for God’s glory.
Our neighborhood provided some unique challenges. It is one of the most dense and diverse in the city, a home to refugees and immigrants from all over the world. It is a community of stark divisions: ethnic, racial, gender, socioeconomic, language, religion, culture . . . and the list goes on. But we were certain God would bless what we wanted to do. We showed up with plans and blueprints, everything necessary to get the job done. We had boatloads of ambition and zeal, as well as ample amounts of training.
But none of it seemed to work.
As I was walking home one day, the realization hit me that we were going to need to scrap all of our plans and start over.
So that’s what we did.
We determined to do three things: pray, anchor into God’s Word, and engage in the life of our neighborhood. We figured if God wanted to build something here, he would have to do it through us, because our attempts to do it for him were coming up empty.
Almost immediately, God started opening our eyes to dynamics that we were missing. We soon found we needed a way to better understand what was happening.
We developed a grid to help us understand the complex dynamics of our neighborhood. This helped us discern how and where God was inviting us to engage our community. For the lack of a better acronym, we simply call them “The 4 P’s”: Power, Pennies, Parties, Pain. This grid does not determine outcomes, but instead helps us better understand the changing dynamics of our neighborhood. My hope is that you, as you seek God’s will, can use this grid to help determine the complex dynamics of your own community.
There are gatekeepers who hold great influence in every city or neighborhood. Whether such folks are in local or city government, homeowner associations, condo associations, school boards, or serve in no official capacity, these power brokers have a great influence on what can or can’t happen. What would your community look like if the power dynamic were transformed to reflect God’s kingdom?
In our community, the local alderman holds the power. We are fortunate he is reputable and has impeccable integrity. (Yes, we actually trust a Chicago politician.) As we figured this out, we started to build bridges. We learned he needed volunteers to answer phones in his office, so my wife, Dori, began volunteering. From that initial weekly investment, God has developed a strong partnership where we work together to solve the most pressing problems in the community.
This “P” represents the economy, specifically the way financial resources are made and invested.
All people are impacted by the economy. Your local economy may be driven by military, health care, universities, or tourism, to name a few. What would your community be like if the economy were transformed to reflect God’s kingdom?
In our community, local business is the economic driver. According to experts, if the people of an average American city were to shift 10 percent of their spending from chains to local businesses, it would bring an additional $235 million per year to that community’s economy. Upon learning this, we approached our local chamber of commerce and started offering to help it accomplish its goals.
Today our partnership with the chamber and local businesses is strong and vibrant. We partner together on many initiatives throughout the year and encourage our congregation to shop local whenever possible, because it’s one of the easiest ways to love our neighbors.
This “P” represents celebration. Every community celebrates something. It could be anything from sports to food to art. What would these celebrations be like if they were transformed to reflect God’s kingdom?
Environmental conservation (what we call “creation care”) and art are two ways people celebrate in our community. Once this became clear and we felt God give us the green light to engage, we contacted a local urban gardening organization and started helping build community gardens. Today, our largest garden has 400 people gardening every season. The vast majority of these gardeners want nothing to do with Jesus, because they have never actually encountered him. Every season, God opens multiple opportunities for us to introduce people to the Jesus they’ve never met.
Every community has multiple pain points. Some examples are poverty, homelessness, and human trafficking. Our community’s pain points are gun violence, racial hostility, mental health injustice, failing schools, and recently relocated refugee families. As God made clear he was inviting us to engage in each of these areas, we contacted local partners to begin discovering how we could help them reach their goals. Today God has deepened and matured our engagement in arenas of mental health justice, racial reconciliation, and public education.
Our neighborhood is home to the largest number of IMDs—an acronym for “Institution for Mental Disease”—in the state of Illinois. The ages of people who live in IMDs range from 18 to 100-plus, and all have been diagnosed with and stigmatized by “severe mental illness.”
Many of the residents of IMDs have been wards of the state for decades. As a result, they are treated as is they have nothing to offer: no gifts, no skills, and no purpose other than receiving services. The services are necessary (and inadequate), but as we have ventured into this arena, we have learned that these folks are talented, smart, and gifted, and simply need an opportunity to display their gifts. As we come alongside them for weekly art projects, game nights, and Bible studies, we have been able to introduce them to a Jesus who sees them as his creation and of inestimable worth. We have had the honor of baptizing several residents and count many among our congregation.
This leads to the greater dynamic within the “4 Ps.” It isn’t just about the issues, but the people. Transformed people transform communities. As we enter each of these dynamics, our central focus is on the people who work and live within them. Our driving desire is to help people encounter the Jesus they’ve never met. As God leads, he will provide opportunities for the love and power of Jesus to be put on display.
In John 9, Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind. They ask Jesus who’s at fault for this, the man or his parents? Jesus says, brilliantly, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3, English Standard Version).
Our communities are filled with opportunities for the works of God to be displayed in them. We simply need to slow down, pray, and keep our eyes open for God’s invitation to join him as he makes all things new.
Rich Gorman and his wife, Dori, serve as copastors of New Story Church in Chicago’s Edgewater Community.