What will the neighbors think?


Churches in our parts talk a lot about being “missional.” It’s in our mission statement for the local governing body. The statement’s pretty cool (and how often do you get to say that?). It’s summed up in three easy-to-remember words:

Missional. Pastoral. Prophetic.

Although, I guess the first one trips people up a bit. So, as good Presbyterians, even as we came up with a quick, snappy statement, we’ve also dedicated hours of meetings and workshops to educate people on what it means.

Missional might be a new word among emergent books, or it might just be a new suffix added to an old word. But to sum up all the meetings, it’s the realization than churches can no longer be “attractional” (we needed another neologism to go with missional), sitting in our pews, waiting for people to stream into our sanctuaries, and then quickly closing the door, bunkering down, and figuring out how to arm ourselves against the big bad world outside. It’s the intention for churches to move out in the community, out into the world.

It’s trendy to talk about right now, but we all know that some churches have been doing this for many decades. For instance, my husband, Brian Merritt, pastors a wonderful neighborhood church. Located on a fantastic piece of land, the church is tucked among houses, yet clearly visible from a main street.

Their idea of “neighborhood church” goes far beyond the positioning of the real estate. This small ecumenical congregation was started, not by any denominational entity, but by the community itself. The neighbors wanted their children to go to Sunday school, but their were no Sunday schools available near them. The church formed for the neighborhood kids, and that’s carried on in their DNA for 83 years. Today, that original vision takes the form of a preschool, where children come from all over the neighborhood to play and learn. And they have one of the greatest church playgrounds I’ve ever seen.

The Palisades neighborhood’s not just any neighborhood. They have many very distinguished residents. And so there are certain churches where you can go to see certain people, if you know what I mean. Palisades Community Church is not one of those churches. They are a wonderful mix of the ordinary and interesting.

There’s the man who kept the White House running from Eisenhower to Reagan. There’s the woman who designed ballet costumes and often ended up doing Baryshnikov’s laundry. There’s the woman who worked in the White House’s historical society. Each person has a story. And Brian happily listens to them all.

But here’s the compelling thing. Brian doesn’t just see himself as the pastor of that church. He understands himself to be the pastor of an entire neighborhood. He drops by the local salon to check on the colorist and stylist. He tends to the needs of the preschool parents, never missing an opportunity to talk with them. On Monday mornings, he spends hours in the kitchen baking homemade bread for every new resident. On Tuesday, he walks the neighborhood to deliver the goods. Their biggest church event is the biggest neighborhood event: the Fourth of July Parade.

Every time they make a decision about how to spend their time, energy, or capital, they wonder, “What will the neighbors think? How can we help the community?” As a result, everyone in the neighborhood knows Palisades Community Church.

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