Title: Who Moved My Neighborhood?
Author: Mark E. Strong
Publisher: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022
Reviewer: Gino Curcuruto
Gentrification has dramatically changed the culture and landscape of many urban neighborhoods. The implications of these changes are far beyond the scope of this review other than to say that churches need guides to lead through the changing of neighborhoods and wisdom to know when they may be the ones driving people out. In Who Moved My Neighborhood? Mark Strong shares his experience of leading a church through the trials and challenges of seeing their Northwest Portland neighborhood gentrify. Strong is a pastor who has led a congregation through the gentrification of their neighborhood and has experience and wisdom to share.
The book is divided into two parts. Part One, “Navigating the Healing Process,” begins by validating the pain of seeing your neighborhood change and the feeling of once being embedded in a community to being excluded from the community conversations. To this end, Strong outlines his seven “R’s” of leading through changing neighborhoods: Regular, Recognition, Reconstruction, Realization, Rage, Reconciliation, and Revamp. He devotes one chapter to each “R,” and Part One of the book ends with reconciliation.
Part Two of the book, beginning with “revamp,” is entitled “Mapping Your Future.” In this section, Strong navigates the church forward into the new realities of being on a mission in their changed neighborhood. Strong guides the reader through this new reality by paying particular attention to questions about the church’s vision, identity, purpose, and relationships. His emphasis on responding to these four questions as the way to map your church’s future allows for more individualized approaches while Strong shares stories from his experiences. While some readers may be looking for a step-by-step process, they will be served well by the framework outlined in this book. Additionally, they will find an encouraging partner in Strong as he guides them through his experience using this framework.
This book’s strength is Strong’s recognizing and addressing the hurt and pain of people leading churches through neighborhood changes. His pastoral heart is demonstrated from the start of the book as he devotes the first half to navigating through a process of healing. Strong recommends that churches experiencing the disorientation of neighborhood shifts work toward healing and that this healing begins by naming the points of pain. “There is a cathartic element in acknowledging and remembering what was once dear to us. And it is a necessary part of the process to help move our churches to a new place where they can once again missionally engage in God’s purpose and plan for the community.”1 In making space for the naming of hurts and disappointments that the church incurs from a changed neighborhood, Strong helps start the healing process in reality, where we really are. To heal and grow, we must begin where we are and not bypass our pain. Strong seems to agree with this and recommends a process of recalling when churches first became aware of their changing neighborhoods. When did the church start asking questions like, “What happened to this or that business? Where is this family or that family? Who is building that new structure? Where are all these White people coming from?”2 Strong wisely recommends the need to retrace the changes the church is seeing so that they can begin healing at the site of the actual pain.
Helping churches navigate through gentrification in their neighborhood is no easy task. To endeavor to guide churches through this complex and multifaceted issue is admirable. While Strong’s process and experience provide support and guidance for readers, the book cannot possibly address all of the layers of gentrification. Understanding and engaging political economics, racialized structures, and other complex issues involved in gentrification will require study beyond this book. With this in mind, the book’s subtitle, Leading Congregations through Gentrification and Economic Change, may over-promise given the vast complexities of gentrification. Nevertheless, Strong’s book helps to bring the topic of gentrification to the forefront for churches.
From a theological perspective, I find it interesting that Strong focuses the conversation on the moved neighborhood of the church building. While he does mention that the gentrification of his neighborhood forced many members of the church to move out of the neighborhood, the center reference point for the neighborhood is the location of the church building. This point about the church’s site raises the interesting question of what the “church” is and where she is located. If the church building is the center point of the church, then any gentrification around that building’s address results in a moved neighborhood. However, if the church is primarily the people of God, then when the people move out of the community, does the church move too? These are essential missiological and ecclesiological questions to answer when discussing gentrification and its impact on a local church. It is unclear to me whether Strong sees the church as primarily the building, as in the location around which the neighborhood has moved, or the people, as in “you are the church.”3
Strong briefly mentions that his congregation considered leaving the neighborhood as the members of the congregation were forced out. It would be helpful to give more consideration to the questions of who are and where is the church. While this review will not provide any spoilers, this lack of discussion is magnified in the book’s conclusion as Strong explains what his congregation ultimately did in response to the gentrification of their neighborhood in Portland. Ultimately, the answer seems to be a both/and more than an either/or. However, when a book seeks to engage the changes in the built environment, clarity on how the church sees its place is essential.
Another question that Strong’s book brings up is: how do churches resist gentrification? He briefly mentions involvement in zoning meetings and organizing with neighbors. Yet, much more information is needed for churches to participate in resisting the onslaught of well-funded developers changing their neighborhoods overnight. Suppose the church wants to be active agents of shalom in the neighborhood. In that case, it will require more than merely adapting to changing neighborhoods but joining God in creating flourishing communities that are resistant to changes that harm residents.
The issues Strong raises in this book are important and necessary considerations, particularly for churches in urban neighborhoods. The pastoral care and process offered in this book will undoubtedly help some congregations who are not already aware of the gentrification in their neighborhoods. However, reading beyond this book will be required if you are looking for a more robust examination of how churches can actively work to change the structures and systems that lead to gentrification.
1 Page 24.
2 Page 19.
3 Pages 108-109.