Getting to Know Our Parish


Last week in this column, I shared the focus of the 2018 North Texas Annual Conference: “New Faces, New Spaces.”

The conference sparked my own interest in thinking about what it would mean for Kessler Park UMC to intentionally reach out to the new faces around us, and I posed the following questions: “Can we make space for the new faces? Do we need to create new spaces? What do we have to offer the people of Oak Cliff?”

Before we answer these questions, however, it is wise to ask a more basic question: Who are the people who live around us? What do they look like? What do they do? What kind of families are they in? How old are they?

Fortunately, the North Texas Conference makes available (for local churches) free access to the demographic findings of MissionInsite, a group which does extensive analysis of neighborhoods for churches and non-profit organizations. With just a few clicks, I was able to pull incredibly detailed information about the people in our part of town.

Over the next couple of weeks, I want to share some of the findings revealed by MisisonInsite. Before I do, I want to emphasize two things: first, demographic studies are no replacement for the work of spiritual discernment. Looking at numbers on pages does not excuse us from doing the hard work of getting to know real people in our neighborhoods and listening to their concerns. Demographics are nothing but indicators that might guide or point us in the right direction, but they cannot replace relationships and prayer.

Second, demographic projections are simply that — projections. They are not fact. They cannot be relied upon to give us 100% accurate pictures of the future. There are an unknown number of variables that go into the reality of neighborhood development and growth. Just because a report predicts that a particular type of people are going to move into a particular neighborhood in the next five years doesn’t make it so.

Again, I must stress that the usefulness of such numbers is simply limited to helping us orient ourselves to our own context and mission field. I always look for the things that surprise me, rather than the things that confirm my common sense observations. This is where demographic studies can be so helpful and enlightening.

This week, I would like to share some of the things that grabbed my attention upon reviewing basic demographic information about the people who live around Kessler Park UMC. My search area was restricted to a 1.5 mile radius around the church; this extends to Trinity Groves in the north, 12th Street on the south, a few blocks west of Hampton in the west, and just shy of I-35 on the east side.

One of the first things that struck me was the fact that there are at least three very distinct people groups in this radius: we are surrounded by mostly Hispanic neighbors (67% of the population, which is predicted to remain steady over the next five years), but our immediate neighbors are wealthier whites who are either at, or near, retirement. Furthermore, there is a ring of young singles moving into those apartments; they are mostly in their twenties, and they are a highly diverse racial group.

Overall, the population in this area is not projected to grow dramatically: in 2000, 38,600 lived within 1.5 miles of the church. By 2010, this number had dropped to 31,223, and is slowly moving upward since. Currently, 34,214 live here, a number which is only expected to grow 4.8% in the next five years.

Unsurprisingly, the two age groups which are expected to gain the most percentage-wise over the next ten years, are ages 18-24 and people 65 and older.

I realized that the exact location of KPUMC shields us from recognizing the great diversity in our immediate area. We are located in a beautiful, upscale neighborhood with rolling hills and carefully-groomed trees, and homes that are easily worth over half a million dollars. Yet compared to the entire state of Texas, the number of families living in poverty in the search area is significantly higher than the state average!

The estimated current average household income is $74,275, and this is expected to grow almost 14% over the next five years, but the growth appears to extend mostly to white families. In 2017, the median income of white families is $89,285; but for Hispanic families, the median income is $39,267, and only $29,347 for blacks.

Furthermore, the overall educational attainment of adults in this community is lower than the state average.

Remember these numbers apply to the people who live within a 1.5 mile radius of the church! This is what our parish looks like. This is the reality of the people whom we have been called to serve, give hope, and inspire.

This is a hard and complex question, but it doesn’t hurt to wrestle with it anyway: why doesn’t our congregation look more like the people in our area? Do we have all three distinct people groups represented in our church? Why not?

I also learned that the level of religiosity is “somewhat low” compared to the state average. But that’s a subject for next week’s column …

Lessons From the World's Worst Missionary

Jonah 2.jpg

    As I pointed out in the sermon on Sunday, the figure of Jonah is a caricature. He is a terrible prophet and a petulant little man. I consider him the worst missionary ever!
    That’s why he is such a helpful character to ponder as we consider how to do mission right. Starting next Wednesday night at 6:30 pm, I’ll be leading a class on missions, and attempt to lay out a full theology, strategy, and spirituality for the church as we improve the way we help and serve others.
    But first let’s see what we can learn from Jonah about how not to do missions:

  1. Jonah went alone. Missions is never a solo venture; it’s not meant for Lone Rangers. The first and most glaring problem with Jonah’s travels to Nineveh is that he didn’t take anybody with him. Therefore, there was nobody to support and encourage him, nobody to hold him accountable, nobody to talk common sense to him. When we attempt to do missions all by ourselves, no matter how noble or worthy, we are doomed to fail.
  2. Jonah didn’t learn the language. Did you notice that Jonah makes absolutely no preparation for his mission trip? He didn’t attempt to learn the language, the local culture, or anything else at all about the context to which he was traveling. I have a picture in my mind of Jonah walking through the middle of the city proclaiming, “In forty days, you will be overthrown!” in Hebrew, as people looked on with amusement since they couldn’t understand a word he was saying. The fact that the people and the king ended up being converted by this very brief sermon in a foreign language is a satirical jab at Jonah’s disinterest in actually communicating to the Ninevehites.
  3. Jonah didn’t befriend any Ninevehites. Again, the whole point of the story is that Jonah hated Nineveh. He didn’t want them to experience God’s shalom. That is most obvious by his absolute disregard of the people themselves. He didn’t take any steps to get to know them, understand them, or create friendships.
  4. Jonah viewed himself as superior to the Ninevehites. Obviously, Jonah thought his religion and culture better than Nineveh’s, and he saw himself as going to impose his worldview on that city. This is a subtle and malicious error that Christian missionaries have perpetuated throughout the centuries. Many of the 19th-century, so-called missionaries to Africa, for example, were nothing but Western colonizers, setting the stage for economic exploitation. But we make the same mistake when we view ourselves as superior to those whom we serve.
  5. Jonah was in a hurry. Note that he didn’t care to stick around the city very long. He did the absolute bare minimum of God’s command; he stuck to the letter of the law. Then he left and climbed the mountain to watch the destruction. He wanted immediate results to his missionary activity, and so often, the same is true of our own efforts. The truth about missions is that the most enduring, long-lasting, and best work is done over a long period of time. Short-term mission work is usually just that — short-term, and can be very damaging.

    Imagine how the Book of Jonah would have read if Jonah were a model character, an exemplary prophet. It would have been pretty boring! No big fish, no bean plant, no pouting prophet.
    Instead, we would read of a man who assembled a team of men and women who cared deeply about Nineveh’s history and culture, learned their language, listened to the people in the city, sipped coffee with them in their cafes, received hospitality from them, and lived with them for a long time. Perhaps eventually this team would get around to making suggestions, offering a hand, or building something. But this would only happen after a long period of listening, reflection, prayer, and study.
    Like I said, it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting as the whale story. But it would make a lasting difference toward establishing God’s kingdom.


Mapping Our Way in Missions


    I heard a (newer) member of the church say recently that she felt like she had grown closer to God since joining our community. That was music to my ears; one of my primary goals as a pastor is to foster spiritual growth. I am committed to helping each one of you to grow in your relationship with God.
    But she followed that remark with the observation that she didn’t really know how to get involved with any of the church missions. She was unclear about how to take that step.
    I understand her confusion. We have lots of mission projects, but they are a bit disconnected and disparate.
    Over the last couple of years, our church has taken significant steps in becoming more and more mission-oriented. We have been slowly reorienting our gaze outward rather than inward. We have fostered a number of new ministries through the formation of Catalyst Groups; we have bolstered the work we do with some long-standing organizations, like the Hillcrest House and The Well; and we have continued supporting other United Methodist projects.
    All this mission energy has been good for us. But it has also been a little disorienting, as this young member expressed. Some of you have complained to me that it feels like we do a little bit too much, that we have our hands in too many different projects. Others have said they would like to go deeper in their particular ministries, lack the tools and resources to make it happen.
    This spring, I will offer a class after Wednesday Night dinners to reorient our sense of mission. This class is open to all, and it will be the only class for adults on Wednesday nights, because I would like as many of you as possible to attend.
    I’m calling it “Mission Action Planning,” or MAP, for short. I've constructed it as a kind of primer on mission work. I'll talk about why mission work is important for the church, as well as what to do and what not to do when helping people. Some of the lessons are more theological and Biblical; others are more sociological and psychological. We’ll meet for 12 weeks, and you’re welcome to attend all or any particular session. I’m planning to cover the following topics:

What it Means to be a Missional Church
Being Present: Learning to Be in the Mission Field
Building Relationships: The Core of Mission
Cross-Cultural Competencies
Beyond “Helping”: Learning to Do Justice
Decolonizing Mission
Embracing a Missional Theology
Practicing a Contemplative Spirituality
Short-Term Trips/Long-Term Results
Releasing Outcomes
How to Form a Catalyst Group
The Role of the Mission Committee

    Some of the material might sound familiar to those who have been through Catalyst Training, and there will be some overlap. However, I’m adding new material, and changing much of what I have already taught. Plus we’ll have some guest presenters. You’ll find this to be a helpful refresher course in “how to do mission right,” as I like to put it.    
    The first class takes place after dinner on Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 6:30 pm, and will last for an hour. Please come and participate as we “MAP” out our missions, and learn how to effect creative change in our world.