Discipleship Out of Neighborhood Conversations (May 1993)

By Matt Dabbs

by Nathan Pickard
January – February, 2009

A half dozen signs are bolted to the chain link fence that is a barrier between our church property and the high rise condominiums beside us. The signs read, “Private Property: No Trespassing! Violators Will Be Prosectued.” The signs have been posted by the condominiums and I hate to think they are posted in hopes that maybe we will leave them be and not try to make disciples of Jesus out of them.

The four lane road that travels East and West at the front of our building is bumper to bumper with cars. The road stands as a barrier between us and one of the poorest subdivisions in our city. Unfortunately the subdivision has been nicknamed, The Dog Patch. Drug addicts, single mothers, criminals, low-rental units – some legal and some illegal, unemployed, employed and even a few retired individuals as well as a host of other people live in this subdivision.

As we look at our neighborhood we are wondering how to make disciples of those around us. How do we make disciples of the people who live in the high rise condominiums even though we have a barrier between us – a barrier that reads, “No Trespassing”? How do we make disciples of Jesus out of a neighborhood that is very different than most of the people who attend our church? How do we make disciples out of a neighborhood that has the stigma of being called The Dog Patch? I am lost and confused because I don’t have the answers to these questions and so off I go to across the four-lane road and buy a cup of coffee at the local Tim Horton’s coffee shop.

As I am standing in line that is twenty people deep to buy an overpriced cup of coffee I discover that I am in the midst of people who live around our church building. I am standing behind seniors who live in the condominiums and I am standing in front of four single mothers with their strollers who live in the neighborhood across the street – and than it dawns on me: Lets meet the neighbors by drinking coffee with them.

Neighborhood Conversations

With this new idea our church began to organize two evenings where we could have neighborhood conversations. Posters were placed on the information boards in the condominiums while at the local public school in the heart of the Dog Patch subdivision we asked if they would have a representative to help us learn about the neighborhood.

During the first neighborhood conversation we learned about the individuals living in the high rise condominiums. We learned that the majority of those residing in the condos were seniors. For many of these seniors they have sold their homes and downsized to more manageable living quarters. Not all of these seniors are married for many of them are widowed or widowers. Many are now beginning to have health complications, some are even losing their driving licenses to failing eyesight and others are simply lonely from losing their spouse.

After learning about our neighbors in the high rise condominiums our church gathered together and we asked ourselves how we might go about making disciples of the people who live beside us? What program could we offer so that we could make disciples?

During our second neighborhood conversation we learned about the Dog Patch subdivision. We learned that 70-80% of the students who attend the local public school (less than 2 miles from our building) are most likely from single parent families. We learned that too many single parent families are stuck in rental units with 2-3 kids per bedroom and the mother having to sleep on the couch. We learned that some parents don’t have an education and therefore are unable to help their children with homework on a daily basis. But probably the saddest thing we learned is that too many kids go hungry. One story we heard was of a little girl eating a plain hotdog bun for lunch – and nothing else.

Our hearts were broken and crushed. Our minds were in a state of shock. How could a neighborhood be this poor and be across from our church property and we have no clue about this sad state of affairs? Again in the midst of our brokenness over these people we wondered out loud what we could offer to make disciples of the poor in our neighborhood.

Learning To Be Disciples

As our church started to wonder how to make disciples out of the neighborhood we first came to the realization that our neighbors wouldn’t care what we said if they were going hungry, if they were going to remain alone, if they were going to remain sick and in ill-health. So first things first – lets meet the needs of the people and than figure out how to make disciples.

We put our minds together and developed the idea of a community garden. If our senior neighbors who live in the condominium have downsized from a large home with a backyard to a condo with only windows and no porch wouldn’t it be nice to provide a space for them to garden? The dream was born, plans were put in place and the church came together and built fourteen garden boxes and provided the seniors with a space to grow their own vegetables.

We put our minds together again and said that we cannot allow children to go hungry. The public school was contacted to see how we could feed the children – “sack lunches would be a great help” they told us and so we put together a few volunteers and each week over thirty sandwiches are made, with snacks and drinking boxes. These children, our neighbors, will not go hungry if we can help it.

In the midst of all this our hope and our prayer is that through these ministry initiatives disciples of Jesus will be made out of our neighbors. But what we are discovering is that we, the church going people, are the ones who are being made into disciples. We are learning to be the presence of Jesus; to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We are learning what it means to be servants like Jesus. We are learning what it means to embrace the brokenness of our neighborhood just as Jesus embraced the brokenness of the world. We are learning what it means to die for the sake of our neighborhood just as Jesus died for the sake of the world. We are learning what it means to be humble and not self-serving just like Jesus. We are learning to love the unlovable just as Jesus loved the tax collectors, prostitutes, and those with diseases. We are learning to share our possessions as Jesus calls us too. We are learning to forgive. We are learning to be disciples.

We started the neighborhood conversations in hopes that we could discover ways to make disciples out of our neighbors but what we are discovering is that Jesus is making disciples out of us.

Garden Boxes To Teach Our Children

Word started to spread in the neighborhood about the ministry initiatives our church had begun. Word even reached a local garden association and they inquired if they could use our building for monthly meetings in exchange for some advice and help in our gardens. Over conversation with the garden association they asked a question, “Are you using the gardens to teach your children?” At first I didn’t understand the question and then several months later it dawned on me, why are we not using the gardens to teach our children about creation, stewardship, giving? With this we are making plans to use our community garden to teach our children.

In May, our children will begin to learn the stories of creation and how God created the heavens and the earth. In addition, they will learn the stories of how God gives us life through food: stories such as the widow of Zarephath and Peter and the disciples being nourished through bread and fish. As the children learn these stories they will then begin to plant vegetables in one of the garden boxes and they will be responsible for the watering and weeding of the garden over the summer months. In October, the children will then begin to learn stories of stewardship, giving, gleaning. As the vegetables are harvested the children will then be required to give the vegetables to their neighbors.

Becoming Disciples

We started this journey with the desire to make disciples out of our neighbors. Along this journey we discovered that God was working in our midst to make disciples out of us. With our eyes opened our church prayer has become these words:

May you O God help us to be your hands and feet in this neighborhood. Lord, teach us what kind of church you want us to be. Teach us what discipleship in your name looks like. Through the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.

(See the related Photo Gallery.)New Wineskins

Nathan PickardNathan Pickard is the preaching minister for the Newmarket Church of Christ in Newmarket, ON, Canada, where he moved with his wife, Katie, after graduating from ACU with a Masters of Divinity in 2004. His passions are working with small churches, preaching and the outdoors.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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