Planting Goodness in Your Neighborhood
As church planters, we often talk about strategies to evangelize within our context. This is important — we must preach the gospel and wisely choose our words when doing so. It is our calling and the primary way we minister in our cities. But we also have a responsibility to serve our cities.
However, we can often turn serving into a bait-and-switch — “What kind of service will allow me to preach to the most people?” Many times, that’s how we decide our strategies and navigate our programs. Proverbs gives us some wisdom on how to serve: “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it is within your power to act” (v. 3:27).
The gospel gives us immense hope for the world we live in. Almost all entities people encounter try to take their resources, time, money, or energy, but churches must be radically different. They must be seen doing good because of the gospel, because of the good that was not withheld from us––the means of salvation. They must not withhold good from their communities. When the church does good for its community, it can be seen as a place where people’s needs are met, rather than yet another place after their resources.
Churches must be seen doing good because of the gospel, because of the good that was not withheld from us — the means of salvation.
What follows is a small example of living this out and what it can produce. My hope is that it will encourage and inspire church planters, wherever they are.
I am planting a church in Tel Aviv, Israel, in a neighborhood called Florentin. I have lived there for twelve years. About three years ago, we began gathering other followers of Jesus to figure out what a local congregation of Christians should look like in Florentin.
As a small church plant, we did a few things to engage our community, like baking holiday cookies and cleaning the park. One time, we went out and did a social experiment. We held up a board and invited people to write and answer the question: “What is missing in our neighborhood?” We got to engage dozens of people and got into some excellent conversations.
When we returned and read the answers, we noticed people complaining about the water dripping off of buildings’ air conditioners down to the sidewalks below (if you’ve lived in the inner city, you know what I’m talking about) and the lack of greenery. As I looked at this, I realized we could actually do something about it, and that we shouldn’t withhold good. So we didn’t.
We posted a picture of the board on our neighborhood’s Facebook group and asked people how we could solve the problem. We got over a hundred responses, and with some researching my wife did, we gathered people who were interested in helping and began brainstorming. We got to meet all kinds of people, including activists who were all about environmental and behavioral change. They wanted to teach the rest of the neighborhood how they could help the environment. (Funnily enough, my fellow church member and I were the only ones who weren’t preaching). With everyone’s help, we began to experiment. We created a pipe with holes, dirt, plants, and a bucket, extended the drains from the air conditioners, and watched the plants flourish.
The city got wind of it and funded the project. We gave out twenty of these kits in December, and then another twenty in May. Two major news websites wrote an article about the project, and I even got invited to a morning talk show, which, unfortunately, I couldn’t attend. We regularly get stopped on the street and are known as the “drip plant people.” The community center manager bragged on us in a citywide official meeting, asserting that “citizens like these are what make a difference in the city, and we need more of them.”
The fascinating thing is that this shouldn’t be seen as an evangelistic strategy. Aside from a few normal evangelistic conversations, people mainly asked, “Why are you doing this?” I answered, “Jesus told me to love freely, and I’m trying to figure out what that means today.” The immediate reaction we get from that is, more often than not, a willingness to hear the gospel presented to them.
Galatians 6:10 reads, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” We often focus on the second part of that verse — serving the church community — and unknowingly ignore the first part — doing good to everyone. Church planters in the city need to apply the Scripture to our opportunities to do good works in the city.
Churches in the city must have a faithful presence and be known for the good they do. The gospel gives us the strength to serve even with small acts of goodness. That’s what we did in Florentin, and it can happen almost anywhere if we begin by listening, and then start acting.
Jeremiah 29:7 calls the exiles longing for a righteous kingdom to seek the prosperity of the city. The biggest challenge with doing that is figuring out how to start. But when we ask people what they lack and meet those needs in our communities, they begin to see that a church is a place that does good. I believe that’s how we can live out the gospel and bring the hope of Jesus to those in Tel Aviv — and throughout the rest of the world.
About the Author
Eli Birnbaum is the upcoming Director of Israel’s Jews for Jesus and a church planter in Tel Aviv. He participated in CTC’s International Intensive in 2016.