on being a neighborhood church

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : March 12, 2007

Recently, I posted Missio Dei’s Rule of Faith.  Our rule clearly emphasizes a commitment to a particular place–the West Bank (aka, the Cedar Riverside Neighborhood of Minneapolis). In the comments of that post, Rachel asks:

My question is one that I have wondered for a while. Why the West Bank? What is it about this area that means the whole ministry is focused there. Maybe you have talked about it before, and I just missed it. I’d love to hear more about the need to be specific about the area in which MD is called.

Our seemingly narrow ministry focus has been a stumbling block for folks; we’ve had people who love the ideas of Missio Dei, but aren’t too hot for the neighborhood.  And so they’ve moved on.  It has always been an issue, and folks will continue to struggle with it in the future.  I have absolutely no doubt that we’d be several times larger as a community if we’d loosen up on our focus.  Why not simply commit ourselves to ministry in “the city” or perhaps in “South Minneapolis”–why do we focus on only one square mile of Minneapolis?

I know it betrays my charismatic roots, but I honestly believe that “God told me” to focus on the West Bank and gave me an accompanying passion, stubbornness, and affection to help keep me on task.  However, I do believe that there are some other, non-mystical, reasons.  I’ll break it down into reasons for neighborhood-centered church (which should be useful to my readers), and then reasons why Missio Dei is committed to the West Bank in particular (which may satisfy the curiosity of some of my readers):


  1. It subverts the consumer impulse…in other words, it re-orients the church away from “whoever likes what we have to offer should come” to “let us go to our neighbors.”
  2. With limited resources, limited time, and a small amount of people, it simply makes the most sense to focus those resources, time, and people into a particular community or place.
  3. It re-orients the way in which one things of “outreach.” Churches tend to be “equipping places” from which individuals and families go out and reach out on their own.  Occasional the church offers programs, but these programs seem disctince and abstracted from the regular life-rhythms of congregants.  When a group of people are committed to live life as much as possible in a particular place, then life-rythms overlap, and ministry flows out of a particular way of life in a particular place, rather than out of abstracted programs.
  4. When you focus your life and ministry in a particular place, your witness is more easily seen.  It is like focusing light with a magnifying glass.  The focus is narrower, but the light brighter.  As such, it is more easily seen and it bears witness to neighbors, and to the principalities and powers.  Especially when you get involved in working against injustice in a neighborhood.
  5. Such a focus encourages congregants to live in proximity. Your lives begin to overlap and real community happens without requiring additional commitments to “events.”  For Missio Dei, this means we have become more like family, though we only have one formal event a week.  It is easier to share meals, to go have coffee together, and to pray for each other as issues come up.  But this hasn’t made us more insular–since our commitment is to a place, the overlap of our lives has reinforced our commitment to our neighborhood.
  6. In such a context, hospitality to the stranger becomes easier.  We get to know the homeless people that frequent the neighborhood…and those who hang out at Hard Time all the time that don’t have a place to stay.  We get to know stories of people.  Different people at Missio Dei meet some of the same people.  So when someone comes for dinner or crashes somewhere, a handful of us know a bit about them and can share in offering care and hospitality.  Hospitality, in other words, become much more of a community enterprise and becomes a way to build deep relationships with folks in the neighborhood.


  1. The West Bank is an incredibly diverse neighborhood.
  2. It is a hub for immigrants–mostly Somali (and we know via Mt 25 that Jesus is present in the stranger).
  3. It is mostly low income and mostly renters (and we know that Jesus’ initial impulse is to minister among the poor).
  4. The West Bank is, perhaps more than almost any other neighborhood in Minneapolis, post-Christian.  I love that sort of challenge.
  5. The West Bank has only 1 other church in the neighborhood, but has 4 mosques.  This (allong with point 4) puts Christianity in the minority.  This is precisely the context where the Bible begins to make the most sense, and is also the shape of things to come.  Call it an intellectual interest, but I am drawn to such a context.
  6. The West Bank is a center for artistic expression–five theatres, tons of music venues, the University of Minnesota Arts Quarter…I love the raw creativity and imagination of this place.
  7. The West Bank is home to several college campuses…the perfect crucible for living out a faith that is intellectually honest, yet accessible (to those from other countries).
  8. And the West Bank is perhaps the center for counter-cultural and gutterpunk types…I love the idea of tapping into that vibe and redirecting it into kingdom-style subversion.
  9. In a way, this is the neighborhood in Minneapolis where it seems like Christianity would have the most difficulty taking root.  As such, it seems that if it is going to take root at all, it would require an authentic, re-envisioned, thoughtful, serious, Spirit-empowered, radically Jesus-infused approach to Church.

Any questions or thoughts?  Any other reasons for committing to a particular neighborhood?

Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 5 Comments

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    Great post! Thanks for explaining.
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    Mark -

    I am with you 100% - Danielle and I are really committed to our neighborhood, Lyn-Lake / Lyndale and want to get moving on ministry there. We are praying with some like-minded people about this opportunity. But it would be community focused, meeting needs in that area. Look forward to seeing you tomorrow!

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    Mark - WOW! Thank you. Maybe this was repeat info for some - but it just makes my heart so full to hear such clear vision and focus that has been laid on your heart, as well as other pilgrims in ministry with you. Thanks for taking the time to explain. Peace.
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    This is great stuff. My wife and I are moving to Minneapolis this fall. We've heard good things about what you got going there. I'd love to know more details about your neighborhood.
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    You'd enjoy watching a 20 minute video on of an interview of Ergun Caner. He gives some good discussion tools in explaining Christianity to Muslims in contexts they can grapple. [Muslims tend to love verbal grappling!]


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