Mark E. Strong, new release, gentrification, community flourishing

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How Churches Can Help Repair What’s Lost to Gentrification

A church for the neighborhood and a neighborhood for the church.

Each community will navigate these seasons differently and on different timetables. However, moving through each stage is critical for a congregation’s long-term healing and resilience.

It goes without saying that it would be difficult for any church to navigate a new neighborhood if it is knocked out, lying face-down on the canvas. It’s also highly improbable that a church will immediately leap back on its feet after suffering the devastating blow of neighborhood displacement. Recovery is a process requiring time. Time to work through the pain. Time to clear the visional fog. Time to recalibrate the missional nerves and muscles. Time to receive healing and wholeness. And time to regain the relational balance needed for the church to minister to the neighborhood. First, we have to understand the process, and then we have to walk through it.

This process involves the seasons or phases a church experiences and must work through in order to recover from loss. Sure, it would be nice if God miraculously healed our pain and immediately restored what has been removed. However, he chooses to walk us through the valley and not transport us out of it. As with any type of significant loss, dealing and coping with a church’s grief takes time and work. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis journals about his personal discovery concerning grief. He writes, “The other end I had in view turns out to have been based on a misunderstanding. I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.”

Lewis’ words not only ring true on a personal level but also chime powerfully in the soul of a church trying to regain its equilibrium. In Lewis’ terms, to clear up any “misunderstanding,” we must understand that getting our missional, visional, and relational feet back under us does not have a simple canned solution. It’s not a state with calculated dimensions and a handy road map. It is a process where journeying will be required.

Our church’s experience in identifying a healing process was arduous. Honestly, we were pretty clueless, and for years we failed to even recognize that we needed a healing process. For us, one of the early indicators that neighborhood change was occurring was a shift in our community conversation. Typically, when things were “normal,” the conversations around our neighborhood were about people, places, and projects we were all aware of. Over time, however, different questions began to fill up the communication channels: What happened to this or that business? Where is this family or that family? Who is building that new structure? Where are all these white people coming from?

The problem wasn’t so much that these changes were occurring but that our community was not being included in this new neighborhood narrative. I remember numerous conversations with church members and longtime neighborhood residents that could be categorized under the caption, “What in the world is going on?!” We were dazed, frustrated, and angry. We were wondering where in the world God was in all this transitional sludge. We prayed for a canned solution and a quick fix for our dilemma. But, like Lewis, we had to discover that God’s answer was for us to learn and walk through the process.

The difficulty in understanding and identifying the need for a healing process is rooted in our inability to sort out the confusing internal web tangled within our souls and minds. We are so busy trying to make sense of the overwhelming external reality that we overlook what is happening to us internally. We are so preoccupied with what is developing on the ground level that we fail to give the needed attention to what is being deconstructed beneath us, within our hearts. In other words, we do exactly what God says humans do: We look at the outward appearance of things and not so much at the heart (1 Sam 16:7).

When we suffer personal loss, we can walk into a pastor’s or counselor’s office and find help to get through our pain and hardships. But who tells the church how to cope with the loss of a neighborhood and how to recognize and walk through a necessary healing path or process? Who explains to the church why understanding this process is important and describes exactly what it looks like?

Thankfully, our church was eventually able to identify our process — though only after we had journeyed through it for several years. However, after we were able to wrap our minds and hearts around it, our church found a great source of comfort, healing, and encouragement.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to share this process with a few churches and their leadership teams. To my surprise, their responses were all very similar. First, they all were comforted to discover a framework that articulated what they were feeling and experiencing. Second, they were given the freedom to mourn and weep and express their pain. Finally, they were energized to re-engage their new neighborhood in faithful ministry. Here’s what we’ve learned. Hopefully it will be of help to you too.

Unfolding the Process

The process consists of seven phases a church experiences and has to work its way through in order to recover and navigate its old but new neighborhood. 

Regular: The process of remembering your old neighborhood.
Recognition: The gradual awareness of your moving neighborhood.
Realization: The realization of your moved neighborhood.
Reconstruction: The attempt to rebuild your moved neighborhood.
Rage: The anger over your moved neighborhood.
Reconciliation: The coming to terms with your moved neighborhood.
Revamp: The navigation of your church in a new neighborhood.

The first three phases — regular, recognition, and realization — occur prior to the finality of a moved neighborhood. However, they are still very real parts of the process simply because churches need to understand how they have emotionally arrived at the place where they are presently. A neighborhood move is not an overnight process, and even though a church may have been subtly aware of what was taking place, the whole time there was dismantling taking place in its soul. This dismantling produces questions — and a sense of helplessness and pain that must be addressed in order for a church to find healing and new strength. The next three phases — reconstruction, rage, and reconciliation — are equally important. Reconstruction deals with the church’s attempts to transform the neighborhood back into what it once was. Rage addresses the deep anger the church feels because of what has occurred. And reconciliation is the process of the church coming to grips with its new reality in order to move forward. These phases are the essential stepping stones that empower the church to reach the revamp phase, where the church can grapple with the hard questions it must answer to refuel its mission and vision for its future. Each community will navigate these seasons differently and on different timetables. However, moving through each stage is critical for a congregation’s long-term healing and resilience.

Adapted from Who Moved My Neighborhood? by Mark E. Strong. Copyright (c) 2022 by Mark E. Strong. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

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