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Does the location of your church matter? If it were two miles farther from or closer to a city center, would its programs or order of worship look any different?

If your church is in a neighborhood with a lot of stay-at-home parents, a 10 a.m. Coffee Break Bible study makes a lot of sense. If your church is in a neighborhood with a lot of recent immigrants, ESL (English as a second language) classes are a welcome ministry.

But it’s not always easy to “read” a neighborhood and discern the best way to connect with residents. To explore questions of ministry in context, a group of Calvin Theological Seminary students and faculty embarked on a bicycle tour of Grand Rapids, Mich.

The church and neighborhood tour, based on curriculum designed by Calvin College professor Don De Graaf, took riders through busy thoroughfares and mall parking lots, popular city parks and potholed streets.  

Away from the confines of the classroom, the group traveled from church to church, riding through neighborhoods and sharing impressions along the way.

At each stop, riders contributed their experiences to the teaching and the learning: one person lives in this neighborhood, another attends this church, shops on that street, or worked in that factory. As they shared experiences, sounds, and smells while riding their bikes, they began to catch a glimpse of a living, active community: a context for ministry.

To appreciate the context of an urban church, they needed to ask questions such as “What place does a church fill in this community that distinguishes it from the soup kitchen down the road?”

Likewise, to appreciate the effects of segregation, they needed to ride slowly, noticing that one neighborhood showcases pristine lawns and fancy cars while the neighborhood two streets over sighs under the weight of neglected roads and empty storefronts.

A few answers and many questions surfaced as the seminary cyclists rode the streets of Grand Rapids. The experiences will surface again in conversations, lectures, internships—and eventually in church and ministry settings.

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