Our church has worked in the Karesh/Abbey Lane neighborhood for the last ten years. For the last few years we've had 15-16 kids we've picked up every Sunday morning at 10:45 AM for church. Two weeks ago attendance dropped off dramatically. We found that a big yellow bus from a church 4 cities away has started coming in and picking kids up at 9:30 AM.
Why do churches come into new neighborhoods and not take time to find out what is happening before launching their work? I remember when we first came into Karesh/Abbey Lane. We look at the work as Spiritual Warfare. Karesh/Abbey Lane is an at-risk neighborhood with high crime, low income, and low Academic Performance Index scores. The thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy has gained the upper hand (John 10:10).
One day in the Spring I stopped short in front of a house with a nativity scene and the word "Jesus" still stenciled on the front window. Instead of feeling what I normally feel about people who leave their decorations up that long, I had an Epiphany. The Lord said, "You want to defeat the Enemy, but you're going to charge in here like the Allied troops landing on Normandy without thinking about the resistance I have been raising up behind enemy lines." Today those words have shaped our work around Asset Based Community Development.
I confessed my irritation to my congregation yesterday and asked them to pray for me. The look on the face of my staff person who works in that neighborhood told me she was struggling too. I'm trying to believe that the church four cities away (in CA that's only a few miles) has started picking up "our" kids for the right reasons. I'm trying to believe it not just to build their numbers and expand their ministry.
Someone once said to me, "Give me a bus and a few gallons of ice cream and I can build a children's ministry." Did the other church have a bigger bus (yes) and better ice cream (maybe, we did cut back on snacks)? Did the other church not consider what God already be doing in the neighborhood before jumping in (probably)? Are kids fickle (they can be)? Don't their families care that we have invested years not just into their kids’ salvation, but their education? Don't the families care that we have invested years not just into their families, but into their community to reduce crime and increase resources?
One of my other staff shared with someone at the Urban Youth Workers Institute this week. The person he spoke to said, "This can do two things for you. It can make you humble and it can drive your work." He's right. I'm trying to get to take that in. We need to find out why kids and families who we have had long relationships with were willing to get on the bus without saying they go to another church. Maybe it's not that people are fickle; maybe it's something we have to look at. Have we not discipled enough? Is there something at the other church for more family members? Have we missed something?
We can't do anything about what other churches do. But what we can do is chose how we will respond to it. We can feel like victims (small membership churches can do that) or we can pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and get back at the work. We can get angry and place blame, or we can humble ourselves before God and realize that our own issues (turf issues). We can attack the other church, or we can prayerfully look at what we can do better.
I remember many years ago, in the church we organized prior to coming to California, my daughter had invited a neighbor, one of her good friends to come to church. She had attended for a couple of years but suddenly stopped coming. Our hearts hurt and our spirits were broken. We prayed. We prayed a lot. I think it was a year or so later the young lady started coming again. Shortly after, she invited her parents. They came and brought her brother. Today that family is still in the faith. Mom and dad are grandparents now. The influence of our church on their lives was significant (all glory to God).
Today our hearts hurt and our spirits are bruised. But as Paul said, we press on to take hold of that which has been given to us. We're determined to humbly hand these kids over to the Lord realizing that he may have something there for them that we cannot or have not been providing. We're determined to praise the Lord that the reason for the absence of these kids is another church, not dropping out for lack of interest. We're determined to trust the Lord that he has learning in this for us and is preparing us for the next thing he has in mind for us. And, we are determined to continue serving these kids and their families with a good attitude, helping them with their homework, building life skills, and standing with them to make their neighborhood a safer, healthier place to live.
May God give us strength and we give him all the glory.