When my wife and I first starting dating, we were both in grad school and new to the area. Together we started going to a small neighborhood Methodist church that changed our lives. This group of people really formed us in thinking like missionaries in our neighborhood.
That’s been quite a few years ago, but we haven’t forgotten it. This past summer we sensed God inviting us move. We felt sent on purpose. It’s been a journey over several years now, and feels like following bread crumbs. There’s lots of trial and error. It feels like a lot of experiments. Here are some of the ways we’re framing our experience and things to which we commit ourselves.
All is prayer. Prayer is oxygen. This is so much more than daily devotions. This is constant devotion to God, continually attending to God’s presence around us.
Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.” A few years ago I spent time with a missionary in north Africa. He called his daily prayer time his “abiding time” from this verse.
In mission work, prayer is the most necessary thing.
2. Get immersed in the stories in Scripture.
Again, this is so much more than daily devotions. This is entering into the imagination of the world in Scripture. It’s being shaped by its stories.
Many of us have been trained to take the Bible and neuter it as mere motivational sayings and inspirational quotes. The power and punch of Scripture is the stories. God has acted. God continues to act in the same way—healing, saving, liberating, proclaiming light in darkness. Let them soak in your bones and shape your imagination of what God can and will do around you.
3. Love your neighbors
Take every means at your disposal to cultivate a deep, genuine affection for your neighbors, the people next door and across the street. Learn their names. Learn their stories. Know them as human beings, not evangelism projects.
4. Be a native.
As Eugene Peterson puts in the Message John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” The Incarnation—that Almighty God became a human being in Jesus—is the great model of mission. God became a native in Adam’s world.
God learned the language. God ate the food. God lived by the customs. This involves the deepest humility. I meet my neighbors on their terms. I enter the rhythms of the neighborhood.
5. Value margin
Anticipate interruption. Busyness is the great sickness of North American culture. Packing my schedule from sun up to sun down, keeps me from participating in the lives of my neighbors. My own packed schedule prevents my neighbors from knowing me.
Carving out intentional space, to mindfully practice Sabbath, allows God to surprise me. I can sit on the porch and do nothing. I can walk the streets. I can be seen. I can be available. But if I’m “too busy” I rob myself of those unplanned serendipities in the neighborhood.
6. Cultivate the fruit of the Spirit.
Mission work has a tremendous rate of burnout. This is true overseas as well as in the neighborhood. It’s crucial to be mindful that this is the Spirit’s work and not my own.
Cultivate practices and disciplines that nurture the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are the qualities that make us human like Jesus. These are the qualities that make our neighborhood (and burgeoning churches) more human communities.
7. Live to bless others.
One of the earliest mission mandates God gives is to Abram: “I will bless you… and you will be a blessing to others… All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” The language of “curse” echoes throughout Genesis 2–11, and God’s plan is to reverse that. Bless, bless, bless.
Simply being good and kind and a blessing to our neighbors is a sign of the kingdom, of God’s renewal of all things. In all the bad news we find ourselves surrounded by, we get to be agents of good news.
8. Be a listener.
I once sat in a denominational gathering where a very well-intentioned person expressed, “We don’t know what our community needs. How do we know what our community needs?” “Have you asked them? Have you watched them?” I responded.
Pay attention. Listen. Watch. Spend time being with others. What issues matter to the neighborhood? How did those become the issues that matter? Be open to admitting all your preconceived ideas and assumptions are wrong.
9. Resist a divide between sacred and secular.
Wendell Berry says, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” I’ve been culturally trained to compartmentalize church life and regular life. But that’s not the picture in the Bible’s stories.
There’s Jacob sleeping with a rock for a pillow at Bethel. There’s Moses and a burning bush. There’s Ezekiel at the Kebar River. There’s Peter taking a siesta on the roof of his hostel. So then there’s me on my front porch. There’s me at the post office. There’s me pumping gas at the gas station. “The earth is the Yahweh’s, and everything in it. The world and all its people belong to him.” Who knows where God is going to show up next?
10. Trust that God is already at work.
Alan Roxburgh tells this story: “Michelangelo was once observed pushing a huge rock through the streets of Florence. The bemused citizens turned to him in his exertions to ask, ‘Why are pushing that mighty rock, Michelangelo?’ His response was simple but decisive: ‘Because there’s a person inside longing to get out!’”
It’s not my job to start, establish, or plant anything. That’s the mysterious work of God already happening. My work is simply following the clues about what God is doing. There is a church longing to get out, longing to be gathered together.
11. Be a host.
Open up spaces in your life for your neighbors. Invite them to your table to share a meal. Extend hospitality. Some of my favorite memories from that first neighborhood church experience come from the meals where my wife and I invited our neighbors to share Sunday lunch with us in our tiny kitchen. These were people from very different places of life with very different life experiences.
When we make space for others, we make space for Jesus to meet us. As Jesus says, “I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” Walls break down when we invite others to see how we live.
12. Even better, be a guest.
While I was on staff at a church, I did a web development bootcamp in the community. At the church, I had a place of power and privilege. I was expected to have answers. At the bootcamp, I had no idea what was going on. I asked my neighbor if he could show me how he made his webpage do that because I was so lost. And I suddenly discovered that made me someone he wanted to be around.
A theology professor once told me his greatest evangelism tip was to ask his neighbor for help. Being willing to receive the hospitality of those around us is every bit as significant as extending it. To be a guest at someone else’s table extends to them the dignity of hospitality.
Charles Spurgeon has said, “Every Christian is either a missionary or an imposter.” You don’t have to live in a foreign country to be a missionary. You can be a missionary in your own neighborhood.
If you want to go deeper, I’ve found these books really helpful on this topic:
Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for Pastoral Workers by Gerald Arbuckle
Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan
Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan Roxburgh
Doing Local Theology: A Guide for Artisans of a New Humanity by Clemens Sedmak
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