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January 9, 2018

How to Transform a Community

By Rich Perez

One of the great and worthy causes of church planting is the desire to influence neighborhoods and cities for the gospel of Jesus. We long to shape the hearts of our friends, families, and neighbors, and by doing so to shape the systems and structures of our cities. We seek to create more just and God-honoring individuals and more just and God-honoring societies through the impact of our churches.

But we often make a mistake—we think the most powerful way to shape our neighbors and our cities is through arguing with them. No, we might not always word it that way, but we instinctively act that way. We think if we can clearly articulate our positions and our opinions, and then forcefully argue our “opponents” into admitting we’re right, we can shape a society. Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.

Transformation via Honesty                                                                       

It’s true that skeptics need to hear clearer arguments about our convictions and worldview. But actually—and especially when it comes to social issues—clarity is not their greatest need. In fact, for today’s Christian, the best way to influence a skeptic is not through a clear argument, but through an honest and God-inspired life. By honest, I mean being emotionally and spiritually accessible. I mean being open about what keeps us from a meaningful and intimate relationship with God. By honest, I mean caring less about image and caring more about identity.

I read short stories and memoirs far more often than I write them. But from time to time—or de temps en temps, as my wife likes to say (she’s a French enthusiast)—I enjoy grabbing certain life experiences, turning them into short stories, and publishing them anywhere I can. I figure that one day my kids will get hold of them, read them, and find them a source of joy. I really enjoyed writing this one story called “Home Base.” I posted it on Instagram with a photograph to help the reader better enter into the story. “Home Base” was a hit! A ton of people enjoyed it and shared it through social media. The story captures the relationship between a dad and his son and highlights the son’s longing for his dad’s attention, affection, and approval. All his life is a performance in which he seeks those things from his father. The story ends with a string of questions intended to stir up readers and help them realize that the relationship between father and son is best hinged on identity rather than on performance. There is nothing the son can do, nor anything he can perform, that will earn or lose his father’s affection. The son’s home base, so to speak, is not what he can do—but, rather, who he is.

Of all the reactions to the story, the one that most captured my attention was from an old high school classmate. He isn’t particularly sympathetic toward Christianity; in fact, he very confidently considers himself an atheist. Needless to say, our conversations are always interesting. His response was simple but also very encouraging because I felt it was an indicator of what we all long for essentially. He said, “This [post] hit me unlike other posts do. Salute.” He went on to share that, as a soon-to-be father, he had been thinking about what that relationship was going to look like for his family. My story would help him think a little more deeply about relationships, fatherhood, sacrifice, and love. I was so grateful for his honesty. I was grateful that my story was able to strike that chord and get him thinking.

As a Christian, my desire is that my relationships lead to friends knowing Jesus. Only then can friends become a true family. I’m realizing that it is important that our lives as Christians have that kind of effect on the people around us.

Do the Hard Work           

I remember when my wife and I led a premarital counseling session with a couple of our friends. The soon-to-be-bride said she felt like she had no one to talk to about the conflicts that she and her fiancé were experiencing. I asked why, and she responded that many of the married people around her didn’t show signs of conflict, or at least of any deep conflict. If they had conflicts, they did a good job of masking them. All of this, she concluded, contributed to her and her fiancé confronting their obstacles poorly and thus jeopardizing the health of their relationship and future marriage.                                    

My heart broke for them. I realized that failing to live honestly is failing to live with faithful influence and that living honestly—as I described honesty earlier—makes us accessible. Because the experiences in marriage and relationship of most families in her life were not accessible to her, our friend couldn’t gain insight and wisdom from them.

In Matthew 22:37–40, Jesus makes it plain: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”

In essence, Jesus takes all the stories of the Bible— all the historical accounts, the poetry, the prophecy, and the wisdom literature—and condenses their message down to a tweet. And Jesus’ several million followers probably would generate several hundred thousand retweets, shares, and comments on that post. But although I think that our generation has leveraged social media effectively in the face of great social turmoil and that we’ve seen several heroes emerge from it, we are still largely a generation with merely social media activists. One hundred and forty characters is not remotely equivalent to 140 hours of personal, intimate time with people, working for causes and for truth. The problem is that intimacy demands openness, and quite frankly, some of us are far too afraid to be that honest. It’s hard work! How many of us would not only retweet this “love God, love others” tweet by Jesus, but would commit ourselves to the hard work of living it?

That is exactly what our neighbors and our communities need. Yes, we ought to clearly stand for what is just and right. We should be prepared to articulate our opinions and the causes for which we stand. But more than that, we ought to be honest, open, and vulnerable with our neighbors in a way that invites them in and creates space for them to work through the questions of life. Our churches should be bastions of gospel truth, but they should also be places where our neighbors feel loved and wanted. This takes honest and open lives, and these honest and open lives can be formed and shaped by churches with a heart for lost people and lost communities.  

Excerpt taken from Rich Pérez, Mi Casa Uptown (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2017). You can purchase the English version by clicking here, and the Spanish version by clicking here
                                             

 
 
 
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rich Perez

Rich Perez is the lead pastor of a growing church in the Uptown section of Manhattan in NYC. Accepting the call of Jesus at a young age, Rich has always had a heart and deep love for the community of Uptown, NYC. Rich attended Elim Bible institute and trained in Biblical and Theological studies. He also studied under Redeemer's pastoral incubator program. He currently lives in Inwood, with his wife Anna and their two children, Josiah and Hayden. Rich is also the mind behind Mi Casa Uptown, a creative collective whose heartbeat is to tell the stories of neighborhoods while preserving and building the culture of neighborhoods. In April of 2016, Rich is set to release his first book called Mi Casa Uptown: Learning to Love Again; a memoir reliving his childhood experience as a Hispanic kid in NYC now leading a church in the very neighborhood he grew up in.

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