Written June 10, 2011 for my “Asian American Churches and their Missional Contexts” Class at Fuller Theological Seminary
For the Shalom of the City: The Challenge of Neighborhood-Church Relations for Gardena Valley Baptist Church
How can Gardena Valley Baptist Church (GVBC) strengthen its relationship with its neighborhood? This has been a recent topic of conversation among the pastoral staff of the predominantly Japanese/Asian American Protestant evangelical congregation, with its majority Asian, Latino, and African American Gardena neighborhood. The 100 year anniversary of GVBC is on the horizon, raising questions about whether neighborhood people will attend the festivities, or if it will be a party full of the usual church-goers. This concern is reflective of a larger issue: What causes divisions between the two entities? How can GVBC embrace its calling to be the initiator of reconciliation to bridge the divide with its neighborhood? What can GVBC do in order to make this relationship a reality?
This last question is the focus of this paper. It emphasizes the importance of understanding one’s paradigms in how they view church and missions, and how those paradigms can be limiting to see what God is up to in the neighborhood. To accomplish this task, this paper has four main sections. Section one discusses how structural change can be accomplished by changing the church’s paradigms, especially letting go of old and restrictive paradigms. Section two discusses GVBC’s current missional perspective and its attractional efforts to reach out to its neighborhood. The third section deals with different missional paradigms and how to re-imagine new ways the church can be and do. Section four discusses the missional conversation’s relevance for GVBC, and in light of this discussion, how GVBC can reconsider its approaches to engage its neighborhood. Ultimately, the researcher hopes to challenge his readers by helping them consider the paradigms they hold about what it means to be the church and how to do missions, and then to re-think and re-imagine what the Creative God of the Universe could be calling GVBC to.
THE NATURE OF CHANGE
Asking how a church can strengthen its relationship with its neighborhood automatically implies that both of these entities are estranged from each other and need to be reconciled. The church cannot point the finger at the neighborhood and say, “It’s your fault our relationship is strained.” As a people of God, God calls the church to take the first step towards reconciliation and healing with its neighbors (2 Cor 5:18; Matt 5:24). That entails change, systematic and structural change that does not occur overnight.
Robert Quinn, a renowned expert on organizations and management, lays out a key aspect of both personal and organizational change. His discussion of “the hero’s journey” is germane here.
The hero’s journey is a story of individual transformation, a change of identity. In embarking on the journey, we must leave the world of certainty. We must courageously journey to a strange place where there are a lot of risks and much is at stake, a place where there are new problems that require us to think in new ways…we must step outside our old paradigms...Traditionally, our paradigms, myths, or scripts have told us what to do. They have helped organize our lives. Whenever we follow them, we feel safe. But today, our environment keeps changing. Because environments are dynamic and our myths are based in the past, our strategies often fail, and we feel a sense of alienation. Increasingly, it is becoming necessary for us to re-create our paradigms, myths, scripts, or frameworks. (Emphasis mine)
Quinn emphasizes the outdated-ness of many paradigms, because paradigms are often static in a dynamic world. Hence, people must constantly re-imagine new and innovative ways of being and doing. He infers that imagination, risk, and stepping into uncertainty and away from the status quo are key aspects to changing a paradigm, and thus beginning the change process. Think of the many great pioneers who revolutionized and changed their various fields: Karl Marx saw the problems in capitalism and re-imagined a completely different economic ideology that revolutionized half of the world’s economic systems. The Beatles changed the history of popular music by boldly surpassing the confines of Rock n’ Roll as it was known in the 1950’s, and re-imagined a different style and genre of music. More recently, Steve Jobs revolutionized technology by introducing innovative gadgets that no one had ever seen before.
In the church context, people must challenge their paradigms and imagine something different from the way church and missions are currently organized. These paradigms shape and often limit their scope of what is possible, thus making it extremely difficult to imagine different ways of being God’s people and living God’s mission. Perhaps that is why Jesus, when describing the Kingdom of God, did not give his disciples clear cut definitions, but vivid and illustrious imagery. “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field…is like a mustard seed…is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into dough…is like treasure hidden in a field…is like a merchant looking for fine pearls…is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish…is like the owner of a house” (Matt 13:24-52 NIV 2011). Perhaps “the kingdom of God is when God’s new future breaks into the present to change the ways people think about the world.”
GVBC’S CURRENT MISSIONAL PERSPECTIVE
GVBC’s missional perspective is currently changing. The church just kicked off its fourth capital stewardship campaign in February 2011. This was not simply a campaign to raise money to pay off the building; it was a spiritual growth campaign, in which the senior pastor felt God was calling GVBC to strengthen its trust in the Lord in the areas of family, finances, and neighborhood. Paying off the building’s debt was God’s indirect way of strengthening the church’s faith.
There has been a big push towards loving the neighbors, both GVBC’s neighbors (its geographic neighborhood) and the church members’ neighbors (in their areas of residence). Most of the pastors’ recent sermons have posed challenges to the congregation to love their neighbors, shine Christ’s light, or live everyday lives in worship to God and service to others.
From a business point of view, GVBC has been successful in its growth towards loving its neighborhood. The children’s ministry went on a few prayer walks around the neighborhood, praying for the residents and passing out flyers inviting the youth to church events. The neighborhood ministry held a service project at a local park in Gardena, in which it painted the park. The evangelism team feeds the homeless at another local park once a month.
These are all wonderful activities, and GVBC’s love and concern for its neighborhood have grown tremendously in the past few years. But one must ask, “Where does the church go from here? Have these events effectively strengthened the church’s relationship with the neighborhood? Is there another approach GVBC can adopt? What’s wrong with its current approach?”
Missional leaders Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren argue that this approach, similar to the approach of thousands of churches across the U.S. engaged in neighborhood outreach, is attractional. The church holds events and activities to reach out to non-believers in order to bring those people into the church to meet Christ. This approach is problematic for two reasons. First, it assumes that people who do not go to church are looking to join a church or a Christian community, which is less and less true nowadays. Second, this approach “has become the primary focus of churches, and as a result they miss what the Spirit is up to in the world.”
Take GVBC’s neighborhood outreach activities as examples. The children’s ministry went out in order that neighborhood kids and their parents would come to church events. The neighborhood ministry’s painting-service project had implicit hopes that the residents who lived around the park would see this act of kindness, wonder why a church would paint a park without getting anything in return, and then come to GVBC out of interest. Again, these activities are not bad in of themselves; in actuality, they are huge steps for GVBC. But to reiterate, this attractional method of organizing church outreach is becoming less and less effective in this day and age. The challenge then, becomes how the church imagines something completely different from the attractional method of outreach.
IN SEARCH OF IMAGINATION
The discussion about revamping a church’s outreach opportunities is really about reimaging what Christian community can be. It is not necessarily about doing things differently or taking new action plans (although those aspects are included); “mission is…the essence that pervades all the church is.” In that respect, to become missional is to re-imagine the church’s identity and what it means to be a community.
Roxburgh writes in his other book, Missional Map-Making, that building a new sort of missional community/church requires cultivating a new core identity.  He says that people will not begin acting fundamentally different unless their very identities are challenged or changed, for humans are creatures of habit. Similar to the Jews in the Old Testament, God created crises of identity during their exile in Babylon so that they had to “reexamine their founding stories and again be able to discern the ways of God.” Since most people do not actively seek to change, cultivating these transformed core identities must come from the church leadership. This requires creating environments in which dialogue, listening, and trust can be built so that the whole church can begin sharing their personal stories, connect their stories with the biblical narratives, and then believe that they can shape the world through their lives and imaginations. It is the individual and communal empowerment of the church laity that will be effective in today’s neighborhoods.
The church not only establishes an environment of trust and listening within the church walls; it needs to happen in the neighborhood as well. Church people can join community organizations, hang out at local restaurants, coffee shops, or libraries, go on walks and initiate conversations; the possibilities are endless. The purpose is to build relationships and to find out what God’s Spirit is up to, and then join or partner with the neighborhood. But Roxburgh offers a caveat: “This is not a strategy we take to a context [neighborhood]; it is a way of life we cultivate in a place where we belong.” This requires loving the neighborhood without putting strings on the relationship, demanding that they come to church, or cajoling them into accepting Jesus.
To engage the neighborhood, the church can enter into and listen to the neighborhood’s narratives. Listening stops the church from being quick to judge and imposing its own assumptions onto the people. Listening also involves “becom[ing] part of the life of the context, not just [being] an observer.” This process of listening not only helps church members get to know its neighborhood; it also helps understand some of its themes, “the values and meanings that underlie the surface activities of the neighborhood.” Discerning the context’s themes is important so as to act with compassion and understanding. For example, a white church entering into its largely Native American neighborhood without being sensitive to the deep rooted pain of manifest destiny would be simply ignorant and unloving.
The second step is to engage Scripture in light of the church’s new understanding of its neighborhood. This process seeks to interact with and ask questions about how Scripture can guide, teach, or challenge the church-neighborhood relationship. The church learns how to read biblical narratives with a lens of the neighborhood, “which reshapes [their] imagination about the mission of God and allows [them] to begin seeing Scripture in a new way.” It asks questions such as, “What is the gospel when people expect Jesus to meet their private spiritual needs but nothing else?” Or for GVBC’s context, “What does it mean to be the ‘family of God’ in a city with a small-town mentality, in which people do not hunger as much for a family because their families and cousins have lived in the South Bay for several generations?” This is the call of the church-neighborhood relationship: “Mission emerges out of [the Church’s] collective struggle to understand what it means to be God’s people in this kind of world.”
RELEVANCE FOR GVBC
The call to enter into the Gardena neighborhood will be a challenge for GVBC. The struggle of reexamining the church’s core identity and community will be a negotiation that, if done insensitively or without trust and agreement, could end up causing a schism. This is a process of community formation, which always requires some form of negotiation between the parties involved. Four Korean American Christian scholars discuss this process in their book, Singing the Lord’s Song in a New Land, saying “the practice of community formation requires members to tease out what is the ‘normative’ and ‘acceptable’ core of what a community believes.” In other words, a community must negotiate what to keep and what to discard in order to move forward.
One of GVBC’s greatest strengths is the church’s historical Japanese American roots, amplified by its geographic location. It is situated in the heart of Gardena, a historically Japanese American city and often dubbed a de facto Japantown. The church is across the street from a plaza full of Japanese restaurants, small businesses, and a Japanese supermarket.
In an interview with Dave Shinoda, a former pastor at GVBC, he mentioned how he believes GVBC is a very unique Japanese American church. It has a certain gravity that pulls Japanese Americans towards it, which is stronger than other churches. Church is not only a place to congregate and socialize with other Japanese Americans; members can also attend Sunday service and then re-connect to all things Japanese as they frequent the businesses across the street. GVBC’s geographic location allows its members to maintain and strengthen a strong connection to their cultural heritage simply by going to church each week. In this way, the cultural identity formation of the church is intertwined with its geography. The church’s connection to the land undergirds its strong historic and cultural roots.
GVBC’s location also represents something they had to fight for; it was a struggle to maintain throughout its almost 100 year history. After the U.S. entered WWII, Japanese Americans living on the West Coast lost all of their possessions, including their property, and were relocated into concentration camps. Once the Japanese Americans returned to the West Coast post-WWII, GVBC relocated to La Brea because they lost their original site. It wasn’t until 1949 that the church and its members returned to its current site in Gardena. Asian American Studies student Nicole Kikuchi, in her study on the history of GVBC, understands that “having a church building that the congregation could call home was greatly significant in the church’s existence because it was concrete, tangible, and most importantly, stable.” In the 1980’s, the GVBC Board of Deacons discussed moving the church south, closer to Torrance where many of the church members lived. They ultimately decided against the move because of its long history in Gardena.
For GVBC, as well as many other Asian American contexts, land, represented by the church’s geographic location, is not just a place where people gather to worship. It has a much deeper, much more meaningful significance. Pak agrees, for she says, “the ‘land,’ and, more specifically, the ‘new land,’ has an important meaning for a people who experienced…displacement in their own land and who im/migrated to new lands…the place of worship is an important factor in the whole experience of practicing faith.” In Roxburgh’s terms, understanding what geography represents to GVBC is vital to understanding its underlying ethos, and thus its strong hold upon it.
GVBC’s tie to its location is an asset that the church cannot and should not abandon. GVBC’s connection to the land, and by extension to the Japanese American heritage, creates an intense commitment and investment to the people and place of Gardena. Even if church members no longer reside in Gardena, some still regard it as home. The church members will always be invested in GVBC because the church is their spiritual haven. This is the place that represents heritage, culture, community, and in some ways, almost the very presence, comfort, and promise of God.
Although GVBC should not abandon this commitment to its geography and heritage, it needs to seriously reflect upon the ramifications of engaging and entering the neighborhood. If it does, the church’s Japanese American majority demographic may vastly decrease and diversify; its emphasis, mission, and values may reshape; its identity may get confused; its members may disagree and split; or it may create a vibrant and beautiful relationship with its neighborhood. But if it doesn’t, what will the neighborhood think, especially upon the eve of the church’s 100thanniversary? Will GVBC be remembered as a church that was faithful to where God placed it, to care for and connect with its immediate surroundings? Or will it be remembered as a church that stayed safely within its shell, distant and estranged to those who drive past it every single day?
A NUANCED CALLING
In Numbers 13-14, Moses sends a troop of spies to survey the land which they would settle in, the new territory that represented the fulfillment of God’s promise to the Patriarchs (Gen 12:1-3). As the spies return, they report to Moses the terrors of the mighty Canaanite inhabitants and the giant Nephilim who pose threats to their settlement in the land. The rest of the Israelites cry out in dread, regretting ever coming with Moses into the wilderness. It’s been 38 long years, and they are wondering if God’s promise to settle in the land will ever occur. Their worry turns to defeat, as they wish to return to Egypt, where at least they would have food, shelter, and stability. In response, Joshua and Caleb, the only two spies who are willing to act because they trust in the Lord, say:
7The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 8 If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. 9 Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them. (Num 14:7-9)
They exhort the people to trust in God even though the situation seems extremely uncertain, terrifying, and risky. God was leading them into a land that they had never seen, never explored, and never experienced. It was the final destination that they were focused on for all those years wandering in the desert. Now they are only miles away, and their terror forces them to concede and turn back to Egypt, their representation of comfort, stability, and certainty.
These are all challenges and crossroads that GVBC must contend with on its journey into the neighborhood. The church must deal with the very real challenges of fear, material ambitions, and a desire for cultural comfort and familiarity. Indeed, the cultural homogeneity mindset is one of the most difficult paradigms to change. Staying homogeneous and “inward focused” seems analogous to turning back to Egypt, that place of stability and certainty, while going into the neighborhood is sure to threaten the church’s cultural identity, like Israel daring to enter the Promised Land of uncertainty. But perhaps it is not as black and white as that. Perhaps in some ways, we must question how much change is healthy and how much will be damaging to GVBC’s core identity. Insensitively discarding a heritage can be just as bad as refusing to give one up. But we must also understand that shifting paradigms towards the neighborhood does not necessarily mean abandoning a rich and vibrant cultural heritage.
Perhaps this paradigm shift comes not in an either/or perspective; perhaps we do not have to choose between the diverse neighborhood and the Japanese American church; the return to Egypt or the taking of the Promised Land. Instead, we can envision the Japanese American church using its cultural identity and the neighborhood’s diversity as assets for each other. God has been revealing a foretaste of the Promised Land, represented in the beautiful shalom of GVBC’s reconciliation with its neighborhood. Perhaps realizing GVBC’s calling to re-enter its neighborhood will not completely change the church, but GVBC has the opportunity to follow God’s Spirit in this neighborhood that they so love and cherish. It is the neighborhood housing GVBC that has been a spiritual and emotional home for so many church goers, so why not enter and love this nostalgic land? And perhaps God will grant the church an even strong empathy for the people as they enter the neighborhood, so that church and neighbor may work together to revitalize the land, and seek together the shalom of the city (Jer 29:11).
Kikuchi, Nicole. (March 16, 2011). “The History of Gardena Valley Baptist Church.” The Rafu Shimpo, pp. 1, 7.
Langley, Steve. Personal Communication, March 15, 2010.
Quinn, Robert E. Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.
Pak, Su Yong; Unzu, Lee; Kim, Jung Ha; Cho, Myung Ji. Singing the Lord’s Song in a New Land: Korean American Practices of Faith. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2005.
Roxburgh, Alan J. Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Roxburgh, Alan J.; Boren, M. Scott. Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, Why it Matters, How to Become One. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.
Shinoda, Dave. Personal Communication, December 22, 2010.
 Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996), 45-46.
 Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church: What it is, Why it Matters, How to Become One. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 35.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 17.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 18.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 45.
 Alan J. Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making: Skills for Leading in Times of Transition. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 134.
 Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making, 142.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 85.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 87.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 88.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 89.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 90.
 Roxburgh and Boren, Introducing the Missional Church, 69.
 Roxburgh, Missional Map-Making, 179.
 Su Yong Pak, Lee Unzu, Jung Ha Kim, & Myung Ji Cho, Singing the Lord’s Song in a New Land: Korean American Practices of Faith (Louisville: John Knox Press), 69.
 Dave Shinoda, personal communication, December 22, 2010.
 Nicole Kikuchi, “The History of Gardena Valley Baptist Church.” The Rafu Shimpo (March 16, 2011), 1.
 Kikuchi, “The History of Gardena Valley Baptist Church,”7.
 Steve Langley, personal communication, March 15, 2010.
 Pak, Singing the Lord’s Song, 18.