What Local Churches Can Do About Gentrification

As we enter a new year, pastors, like the rest of us, often find themselves reflecting on the past year. New years give us an opportunity to remember, realize potential areas for growth, and move forward with hopes and goals for a fresh start. While a new year offers these positive opportunities, we remain in a polarized and often burdened culture or community. These divisions within our society, though, offer the church opportunities for peacemaking for the local church.

As leaders and congregations committed to biblical authority and the timeless moral and spiritual convictions of historic Christianity, we will never please everyone or always win over our opponents. This is why compassionate, intercession-infused courage and wisdom are vital for leading God’s people in to maturity and kingdom influence.

The obvious “hot-button” economic, moral, and social issues must be confronted: divisions of class, gender and race, abortion and infanticide, marriage and sexual ethics, peace and war, and many more. These require deep study, discernment, and humility.

There are, however, “hidden issues” of love and justice the local church is uniquely equipped to address. Convening partners and confronting particular barriers to human flourishing will enhance peace among diverse groups and offer a shining witness of Christ in a world darkened by moral inversion and spiritual confusion.

A prophetic opportunity

One day in Nashville, Tennessee, a group of pastors met to learn more about connecting Sunday faith and Monday work and infusing integration into their worship service, discipleship plans, and outreach efforts. In the midst of a lively conversation of church and community flourishing, an African-American pastor stood up and spoke, his voice trembling and full of pathos:

I am not an angry man. I have been a pastor in my church and neighborhood for over 30 years. Your church [here he pointed to a young church-planting leader] just set up your franchise two blocks away. No one called me. No one thought to talk to the people of the neighborhood. What you call gentrification and opportunity we call exile. Aren’t we supposed to work together? Where will my people go when they can’t afford to live in their neighborhood?

There was a holy silence. The church planter humbly apologized through tears, and both leaders agreed to work together in the future. The hidden issue? Gentrification. What some see as a positive transformation of blight is often displacement of generations of residents. What can the local church do?

Creating space for shared vision, dialogue, and forging alliances among business, cultural, educational, social service, religious, and political leaders for the common good is a prophetic opportunity. Asking the question, “What does a flourishing neighborhood look like and how can everyone be a part of the future?” and hosting people with the influence, skills, and wisdom to forge a just answer is part of our calling as a church. Pastors can bring wise believers and people of conscience in all domains so a community can improve without scattering generations of residents.

Creating opportunities for flourishing

The second hidden issue is deeply connected to the first: How can we help foster true equity and create opportunities for sustainable work so all classes and cultures flourish in a rapidly-changing world? Put another way, how do we empower people who are left behind in the name of “progress” or the “gig economy”?

The local church, in cooperation with other churches and agencies, can shine brightly as she empowers congregants and the community with the spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational, and occupational support and wisdom people need. Immediate emergency aid is good, but long-term, relational investment in people will yield much better fruit. The 21st century global economy demands workers with clarity and stability in their vocations and great flexibility and nimbleness in their daily occupations. Pastors can help create disciples able to understand and respond to the local and global changes. Local churches can convene forums for community growth that is inclusive and just.

One growing local church recently sold some property. Instead of either building a bigger church building or sitting on the funds, the congregation fostered 10 new initiatives that help the community flourish, including new business incubation, life skills training, and compassionate outreach programs, offering hope for many.

Jeff Greer, senior pastor of Grace Chapel in Mason, Ohio (in the Cincinnati metro area), has articulated a vision he calls “Biznistry.”  The local church can be an incubator of economic, social, and spiritual transformation as she empowers and equips men and women in creating sustainable enterprises that in turn contribute resources for future entrepreneurs.

Unseen workers

The third hidden arena of love and justice concerns the unseen populations often overlooked in our conversations on flourishing. These include ex-prisoners and their families, and people with disabilities. Our neighborhoods and our nation are missing out on these divine image bearers that have much to offer as opportunities for meaningful work and service are made available.

People coming out of incarceration need the social capital of the local church so that they can grow in self-worth, learn needed skills, and find open doors for sustainable work. Women and men with disabilities can be productive workers, not just objects of charity. These hidden groups can be participants in the more that 600 churches with some form of “job club.” Helping people find sustainable work in a rapidly changing economy is integral to the local church’s mission.

Whether it is the Career Actions Ministry of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (now helping older people find and keep work in a “gig economy” that favors the young), Jeff Greer’s Biznistry for entrepreneurs, or the efforts of Tom Landis in Texas who employs men and women with autism and Down Syndrome, local churches can foster a creative and innovative vision, offering hope and wisdom.

Navigating political and cultural issues will never be easy. Pastors need love, courage, and wisdom as they equip God’s people for engagement in being part of the solution. Pastors can also help churches and communities look past the obvious issues and create fresh pathways forward so all can thrive.

Topics: Church Mission, Culture, Mission & Outreach

About the Author

Charlie Self serves as director of learning communities at Made to Flourish. Charlie is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God. He has served as an associate and senior pastor in several congregations in California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., and has served as an interim pastor six times. He currently also serves as professor of church history at The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where he teaches courses in apologetics, church history, mission history, leadership development, and discipleship. He is also co-developer of discipleship dynamics, a new research-based tool for churches and individuals to assess the effectiveness of their discipleship programs. Charlie is the author of three books: The Divine Dance, The Power of Faithful Focus (with co-author Les Hewitt) and his most recent work with The Acton Institute, Flourishing Churches and Communities: A Pentecostal Primer on Faith, Work and Economics for Spirit-Empowered Discipleship. He has an M.A. in history on the church and social change in Latin America (1992) and Ph.D. in modern european history, with foci on Belgian Protestantism and studies in virtue ethics and the holocaust (1995), from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He also has an M.A. in philosophical and systematic theology from The Graduate Theological Union and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. Charlie is married to Kathleen, a professional artist, and they have been married and on mission for 36 years. They have three adult children.