While in New York City for Spring Break just over a year ago I had the privilege of grabbing lunch with Rich Perez, Pastor of Christ Crucified Fellowship. CCF is a church plant in Washington Heights, which exists between Manhattan in the South and Harlem to the North. Rich is a product of Washington Heights, having been born and raised in the neighborhood. Shortly after coming to know Jesus Rich felt God calling him to plant a church to bring the gospel back to his neighborhood.

Rich and I had the opportunity to sit down over lunch inside a neighborhood Dominican restaurant. Our conversation was lively as I ate my arroz con pollo (Dominican arroz con pollo is very different than the Mexican version I’m used to. Equally good, but different) and Reggaeton played softly in the background. Along with me was six college students from the University of Texas that I was leading through NYC on an “urban ministry” exposure trip. My hope for the time was to get some gritty stories on how Rich has seen the gospel penetrate such an urban and diverse demographic in NYC. Much to my surprise the conversation really revolved around one line, “know your lines.

Can you talk to us about the significance of knowing your context when planting a church in such a diverse urban neighborhood?

You know the context of Washington Heights is the air I breathe. I grew up here, went to school here, my dad still lives here, this is home for me. Something I’ve learned in ministry is that above everything else you need to know your lines. You know what I mean?

Yeah… I think so… Can you emphasize on that thought? (I had no what he meant)

Of course. I used to work at this hotel here in NYC and there was a lot of celebrities that would come through. Part of my job was to go into the rooms and refill the bar. One day I’m in this room about to refill the bar when I notice the guy laying on the bed is Al Pacino. After a few minutes Al Pacino starts making small talk with me and before you know it we’re having a conversation. I’ve always been an artist and so when the opportunity presented itself I grew up the courage to ask Al Pacino a question. I said, “What is the one piece of advice you would give to an up and coming actor just trying to break into the acting scene?” Pacino’s response was simple yet profound, “Know your lines.” My response was something like, “That’s it?” He then went on to explain, “Only if you know your lines inside and out can you really make a character come to life. When you know your lines forward and backwards you don’t have to stop acting to think about what you’re supposed to say next. Instead you can fully immerse yourself in the character because you know exactly what the character would say, now you just need to focus on how they would say it.”

You get what I’m saying?

I think so…

(At this point Rich is going to give another example about knowing your lines using Will Smith. However, I don’t remember how Smith was brought up. He either met him too, or was watching something about him. Either way stay with me). 

Alright let me keep going. So Al Pacino tells me the key to be a great actor is to know your lines. Then I hear about Will Smith wanting to fully take advantage of the opportunity he had when he was cast as the main character for Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Smith was so determined to personify his character he not only learned his lines, but he learned every line for every character, for the first 3 seasons of the show.

As a matter of fact when you watch Fresh Prince in those first seasons you can sometimes see Smith is lipping the lines of the characters he’s sharing a scene with. When asked why he did that Smith said, “If I know every line of every scene and everywhere each character is going to be, then I know how I can improvise and further bring my character to life.” You see Will Smith like Al Pacino understood by knowing your lines he had the freedom to adapt and focus on bringing his character to life based on everything going on around him.

That’s crazy! What does this have to do with understanding your context when it comes to urban church planting?

With a smirk on his face Rich began to answer. Great question. What I learned from Al Pacino and Will Smith was that I need to be laser focused on knowing the gospel inside and out. Forward and backwards. I need to know as much as possible about the good news of Jesus Christ. If I know the gospel, like really know it in my head, in how it changes how I live, and how it really is the only hope for the world, then I know I can take it to any context.

You see by knowing the gospel inside and out, “knowing my lines,” I now have the freedom to adapt, engage, and show the relevance and truth of the hope we have in Jesus to this specific place and people. Does that make sense?

If you have a firm grasp of the gospel then how you live and speak in all areas of your life will begin to experience the hope that we have in us. At end of the day regardless if your planting in Washington Heights, Atlanta, Austin, Los Angeles, wherever, you can acclimate and adjust to any context because you know your lines.