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Matthew Watson and Justin Fung on Neighborhood Spiritual Histories

Both church planters and established congregations can explore spiritual histories of their church neighborhoods. This helps them better communicate the gospel in the places where God calls them to serve.

Matthew Watson, pastor, and Justin Fung, pastor of liturgy and spiritual formation, serve at Christ City Church in Washington, D.C. The church plant is less than ten years old. In this edited conversation, Watson and Fung jointly explain why it’s so important for church planters and ministry leaders to learn about how God has already been at work in a specific place. 

What does it mean to do a spiritual history of your church neighborhood?

A church planter or ministry leader entering a new neighborhood typically does research. The newly arriving leader asks questions to understand a place’s history, demographics, culture, and values, such as:

  • What is the origin story of this city, neighborhood, or community?
  • What are the pivotal moments in the history of this place?
  • Who are the historical figures in this place?

Engaging the spiritual history of a place requires understanding how churches and ministries have already worked in a place. For example, how has a past ministry, revival, or church planting taken root and shape? This may yield insights into ways that a geography may be open to, resistant to, ripe for, or absent of ongoing gospel witness.

It’s also important to ask how this place’s recorded history affected its values, hopes, dreams, or disillusionments. In other words, how does this city’s or neighborhood’s history affect its spiritual well-being?

Can you give an example from your context?

Our context is northeast Washington, D.C. The entire city’s history is dotted with racist origins. Time and time again, D.C.’s city sovereignty has been withheld and checked, largely because the city has historically been predominantly African American. Even today, the city’s 700,000 residents, of whom the largest population demographic is African American, lack voting representation in Congress.

Yet D.C. has a rich, vibrant history of faith and church planting. For example, the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church was one of the first African American churches in the city. It planted six churches between 1848 and 1877. Before, during, and after the Civil War and Reconstruction, Nineteenth Street continued to preach the gospel and provide a spiritual and physical haven for black Americans. Many local churches and ministries that traced their beginning to this mother church went on to plant new churches and ministries, all amid crushing racism and oppression.

Why did you choose to do a spiritual history of your church neighborhood?

Failing to understand a place’s spiritual history means failing to understand some of its most important factors. Often we view geography as a neutral thing. However, geography is contested, especially in urban and built environments. Roads, bridges, buildings, and condos don’t naturally grow in a place. Built spaces, neighborhood construction, and cities reflect the values of a place—and they show what is valued less, or more rightly put, who is valued less. 

Studying a place’s spiritual history alongside its written and oral histories helps a minister discern the place’s idols and also where the Spirit is at work. If some places in a city are built in a way that communicates that some people matter more than others, then the church’s prophetic work is to dismantle those structures. This dismantling communicates the good news that all people bear the image of God. Conversely, failing to learn a city’s spiritual history can produce uninformed ministry that causes harm rather than faithfully pointing the community toward hope found in Christ.

Knowing our city’s legacy of racism informs our gospel proclamation and demonstrates our public witness to the power of Jesus. To know the spiritual history of a place is to see its spiritual beauty and brokenness, which in turn informs the church’s vision and calling for the flourishing of the place to which God has called it.

How did you piece together this spiritual history?

By listening, reading, and showing up. We listened to those who lived here longer than we have. We listened to their stories and asked questions. We listened to recollections of the remembered history of Washington, D.C., at the neighborhood level. Listening to a place’s oral history is just as important as knowing its written, “official” history. Oral histories are looked overlooked, especially in historically marginalized and oppressed neighborhoods and communities. 

We read and studied the histories of our city, especially of neighborhoods closest to where we were called to serve. We asked local leaders and scholars for titles of top books on D.C.’s neighborhood history, not just its federal or national history. We read those books and then began following the blogs, Facebook and Instagram posts, and Twitter feeds of local historians and journalists. We kept (and continue to keep) our ears to the ground, always on the lookout for those who wrote or write about neighborhood histories through the lens of sociology, public administration, history, and the arts.

Lastly, we showed up. We took walking tours of our city and listened to the neighborhood historians who led them. We met up with both “official” historians and front-porch historians to learn the contours of our city’s history. We attended civic meetings, city council meetings, and neighborhood association meetings. We showed up at school board meetings, especially at the school where our church meets on Sundays. We asked about the history of the school, including who it was named for and how that naming might affect the school’s ongoing spirit, vision, and mission.

Christ City Church meets in a school named after Myrtilla Miner, an Anabaptist civil rights activist who established schools in the District for children of color. She had a long history of working for the empowerment of African Americans. Miner Elementary School continues to do the hard work of racial equity, and Christ City has been invited into conversations and plans aimed at bridging the performance gap between white students and students of color. Listening, reading, and showing up has informed our prayers and shaped our ministry with Miner Elementary School.

How has doing a neighborhood spiritual history affected Christ City Church’s worship?

It affects our Sunday corporate worship liturgy, which includes a time of corporate confession of sin or a public profession of faith. We also recite the Lord’s Prayer and celebrate communion each week. Over the years, we’ve asked authors, journalists, storytellers, and other writers within our church community to write our public confessions or professions of faith. These reflect lived reality in our city and our shared faith in Christ amid brokenness. We understand that our city’s spiritual history and current issues are often modern manifestations of historic injustices. We match these insights with a corporate prayer of confession of collective sin or a communal reminder of our shared faith in the God of redemption.

And how does understanding your neighborhood spiritual history affect congregational life? 

We think hard about civic engagement. D.C. is rapidly gentrifying. For families that have lived in D.C. for generations, gentrification represents another example of the disempowerment they have experienced for years. We look for ways to take small steps toward solidarity with neighbors who have experienced political disempowerment and now are experiencing economic disempowerment.

Just as people address their carbon footprint as a way to care for creation, we're addressing our “gentrification footprint.” We do this by preferencing black-owned businesses and businesses that are fifteen years or older.

Consequently, we tell those in our church that if they are going to dine out at a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop ten times this month, make sure at least half of those visits are to older, established, black-owned businesses. Understanding how structural sin affects our community leads us to this specific strategy of communal compassion and justice seeking in a place that we and our neighbors call home.

How do you make sure that people continue to keep neighborhood spiritual history in mind?

To quote author William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” The practice of learning the spiritual history of a place is ongoing. As a church we need to keep excavating and interrogating the history of the place to which we’re called and where we serve. Otherwise our ministries run the risk of being less contextual, less effective, and ultimately less faithful.

Even if we remain in the same city or neighborhood for decades, both that neighborhood and our congregation can change. Those collective changes require that we regularly revisit our learning so we can keep listening for how God and the Enemy have been and are at work. Furthermore, new voices continue to arrive into a city—voices of the young, the recently arrived, and the immigrant. Their experiences with a place and its history must also shape our understanding of the ways the Spirit might invite us to proclaim and display good news. Consequently, learning the spiritual history of a place is an ongoing practice. 

We share our contextual learning in our sermons, and it informs our liturgical prayers. Practically, we have hosted seminars for our members on D.C. history. We also encourage members to attend seminars and workshops around the city, particularly those hosted by other ministries.

What steps do you recommend for churches that would like to do a spiritual history of their neighborhood or congregation?

Follow the pattern of listening, reading, and showing up. Find conversation partners within the city or neighborhood you are rooted in, listen to their stories, and ask questions. Work to hear the remembered and oral history as well as the written history. Read books, articles, and blogs that touch on city or neighborhood history.

As you learn, ask, “How might this history affect the values of this place? What values shaped this story and the city’s decisions?” Work to make meaning of the history as you understand the history.

Lastly, show up. Be an active character and presence in your neighborhood. Engage in public meetings, learn what people are passionate about, and seek to learn where that passion comes from. Learn prayerfully and humbly, and work to ensure your gospel witness is contextual and faithful even as you follow the Spirit’s guidance.

How might you adapt these steps—especially “show up”—in this current climate of COVID-19 restrictions?

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly creates challenges to incarnational ministry for a neighborhood-based church such as Christ City Church. As meetings and gatherings move to virtual communities, we stay attuned to virtual gatherings with geographic centers. For example, we remain active in the parent-teacher listservs, Twitter conversations, and Facebook groups. While we can’t occupy the same room, we can make sure that we’re showing up online and keeping abreast of our community’s needs, fears, and hopes. 

In some ways, by being a non-anxious presence in these virtual spaces, we are able to hear more voices than we might have heard in the regular, in-person meetings. We are discovering that the online spaces allow for introverts and internal processors of the group to find their voice, and they are sharing their ideas and concerns. Virtual platforms allow for more than one person to “step up to the mic,” so we hear from more neighbors about how they are experiencing this historic pandemic. This broader perspective is helping Christ City know how to respond spiritually and physically with care, compassion, and God’s love.


Explore resources from affiliates of Christ City Church, such as Christian Community Development Association, the V3 Church Planting Initiative, and Missio Alliance.