Engaging the Negative Spaces
The goal and hope of church planting is to see new people come to Christ so that they can be discipled and gathered in a new church. In it’s purest form, church planting is evangelism that results in disciples being made who then gather as the church for the purpose of making more disciples and sending those disciples. The challenge is engaging places where believers can connect with people who do not know Jesus for the purpose of leading them to Jesus. It is this mission that drives church planting. Churches typically reach into spaces where they are most comfortable, where people look like them, etc., but more often than not there are many other churches reaching into those places as well.
Brian Sanders of the Tampa Underground, a network of Micro churches in Tampa, Florida, speaks about how they were reaching all types of people in the city of Tampa – not just the suburbs, but the city. He used an image from the art world to illustrate how they were going about their mission in Tampa. When someone is painting or drawing a picture there are two types of spaces on the canvas – positive and negative. The positive space is the image you put on the canvas and the negative space is what is left. (Google “negative space images” and you can see many great examples.) The point was that the positive space is where the canvas has already been engaged and the negative space is where the canvas has not been engaged – it’s what is left. Sanders said that they began to look at Tampa to see where the church was engaged and where it was not, who was being reached and who was not. What they found were countless numbers of people not being engaged in a meaningful way by the church.
Tampa has one of the largest adult entertainment industries per capita in the country. The employees in this industry are examples of a negative space where the church was not engaged, for obvious and challenging reasons. He said it was as if the church drew a line in the sand and said to the Devil, “You can have those people.” Jesus is not okay with this and we shouldn’t be either. Arkansas has its own negative spaces as well and we need to learn to see into those spaces to determine ways to reach new people for Jesus. Will it be difficult? Yes. Will it be messy? Probably? Will it be worth it? Absolutely.
So how do we find and determine those negative spaces in which to engage? Here are some thoughts that might help.
1. Pray. It sounds cliché, but prayer rarely gets the time and attention it deserves for God to lead us to people and spaces where he’s already at work. Reggie McNeal advocates an exercise where the church spreads out to different points in a town or city to sit, watch and listen to people, and pray. He says to pray, “God help me see what you see and hear what you hear.” After an hour of watching and praying, the church gathers back together to talk about what they saw and heard. Typically, common needs and patterns are revealed which can then help give the church a pathway for engaging its community. The body of Christ can do a lot of important things after it prays, but nothing more important until it prays.
2. Talk to people. Once again, this may sound trite and cliché, but there’s no substitute for engaging people in conversation. Talk to key city leaders and community influencers (law enforcement, education leaders, city leaders, business leaders, etc…) Talk to random people in different neighborhoods as well. Engage your neighbors in this conversation. Here are a few questions to help get the conversation started:
- What do you see as the biggest needs in our community?
- What do you think we could do to respond to those needs?
- What are three things you’d love to see happen in this community that you believe are impossible? Don’t forget we serve the God of the impossible.
- What is the narrative of the community? What is this particular community’s history/story? What are the events/people who have shaped this community and made it unique?
3. Visit www.city-data.com. This is a great website that compiles basic demographic research as well as community related news articles and development information. You can find education information, community development information, among many other things going on in the community. It’s a great resource to mine info about a community. The ABSC can also run extensive demographics for any area/community that will go beyond what City-Data provides.
4. Do events “for” the community and “with” the community. Any way the church can partner with and do things with the community, the more proximity and presence it will have with people in the community. The more closely engaged the church is with the community as a whole, the stronger the presence the church will have with the community. It’s not enough to simply be a church “in” the community; we have to be a church “for” and “with” the community. God will always honor that commitment to engage. Once again, talk with community leaders, leaders in the school system, and longstanding members of specific neighborhoods. Much insight can be gained for how to engage the community from these leaders. Typical events for engaging negative spaces may be block parties in different parts of a community; medical and dental clinics; offer free babysitting for single mom’s night out; host a free art show for starving artists in a community, etc… The more we define these negative spaces the more creative the church can be in ministry and mission.
5. Listen more than we talk. This is extremely difficult for many. Send the extroverts and introverts out together for conversations and let the extroverts start the conversation and let the introverts listen. Whatever it takes to gain insight. Listening closely to what people say and to what they don’t say will give us clues as to our community’s deepest needs. The church and its non-Christian neighbors often have the same concerns for our communities. This can also foster further conversation and common ground for the gospel to do its work.
None of this is rocket science, but I hope it will spur some conversation and activity in our churches and with our communities. Here are a couple of resources that may be of help also as we endeavor to impact our communities:
- The Externally Focused Quest: Becoming the Best Church for the Community by Eric Swanson and Rick Rusaw
- The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships right outside your Door by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon
- Missional Essentials: A Guide for Experiencing God’s Mission in your Life by Brad Brisco and Lance Ford
Dave McClung is a Church Planting Strategist on the Church Planting team of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. He served on the Evangelism and Church Growth Team for 4 ½ years prior to joining the Church Planting Team and has served churches in Arkansas and Texas before joining the ABSC. He and his wife Christy live in Sherwood, AR. with their four children.