Many churches have two mission contexts: A local neighbourhood (mostly strangers who happen to live close to the church building) and a social network (friends, family and connections of church members, most of whom live a long way from the church). In my observation, churches have increasingly neglected the local and rested their hopes on the social.
Here are six reasons to pursue strong local connections – finding effective ways to be present with, partnering with and inviting in the local community.
- It makes your church more Christian. If you love those who love you … do not even pagans do that? If your church is a church just for you and people that you like, it’s becoming a country club. Why pay a pastor when you could have a greens-keeper?
- It keeps your gatherings public. If your church only meets in your suburb, and doesn’t interact with it, it will be perceived by them as a private group, and Sunday content will drift towards sustaining long-term believers, reinforcing a ‘members only’ culture.
- It diversifies and so strengthens your church. A church where everyone else is the same ethnicity/wealth/education/personality is not heaven, it’s hell in disguise. God has something far better and far stronger in mind, but if you don’t love strangers you’ll keep Him out.
- It builds local community. The church is meant to operate as one interdependent body, which is hard when you’re spread all across the city, doing ‘life’ over here during the week and ‘church’ over there on Sundays. Facebook’s OK, but we’re called to more than just comment on our neighbours’ meal or lawn. The Word became flesh electronic and lived liked among us?
- It grows your church by conversion. Churches that deliberately reach out to, love and invite strangers grow by conversions. And And social invitations. Ironically, members are more likely to invite a social contact to a church that is focused on welcoming locals.
- It sifts your leaders for you. You want your church leadership to be more of the pull-over-to-help Samaritan type and less of the swerve-to-avoid Levite type. When a church focuses locally, the difference between those who roll up their sleeves and those who turn up their noses becomes obvious!
We have lived through an era of unusual peace, compared to the rest of human history. These patches of peace across history have usually occurred when a superpower looms so large that no-one dare rebel. We’ve had Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and more recently Pax Americana.
During Pax Mongolica a common saying was “A maiden carrying a nugget of gold on her head could safely wander throughout the realm.” Whilst a beanie may have been more practical, that short saying does reveal how the fruit of lasting peace are prosperity, security, trust, freedom of migration, freedom of women, and gap years.
But these empires come and go. Each seems invincible and permanent at their climax (before being undone by little things like germs and Facebook). It all reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a great statue (another fruit of empires) and Daniel’s interpretation. The statue represented a succession of empires (Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman) – and the prediction that none would last. A tiny rock “not cut out by human hands” would strike the feet (Romana), reduce those empires to dust and “become a huge mountain and fill the whole earth.” A very different superpower would emerge, and now has.
So amidst all the consternation that peace, security, justice, freedom and prosperity are all teetering, sacred agents have a role to remind people that these treasures have never been reliably built on the sand of military empires. It’s been a dream all along. Only when the lasting Pax Christi conquers our hearts and dissolves our violence will our daughters be truly safe to hitchhike in cash fascinators.
But it is happening. Still the mountain grows. It will outlast Americana and whatever faux pax comes next. And its borders are open now.
We live in a barroom brawl. A time of big arguments. Old assumptions are being challenged, and some old challenges to even older assumptions are being re-challenged and basically there are a lot of strong opinions flying everywhere. Politics. Sexuality and gender. Immigration and refuge. We can find ourselves surrounded by a lot of clenched jaws and fists. How can we be sacred agents in the middle of all that?
We each have our own opinions on all these issues. We tell ourselves that we got them from Jesus, but so often it’s more to do with where and how we were brought up. So the first snare to avoid is recruiting Jesus to your side of an argument without really discerning what He is saying.
But perhaps the biggest snare is in only being able to see two polar positions (us and them), or just a two-dimensional spectrum (black, white and shades of grey). What about colour?! Is there something else, something different, something bigger that God is doing that we’re not seeing?
When Joshua (all set for battle) encounters an angel, his reflex question is “Are you for us or for our enemies?” The answer was surprising “Neither, but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” That sure must have messed with Joshua’s assumption that he was the commander and Israel the LORD’s army!
When Jesus is brought a woman caught in adultery, it’s him they’re really trying to catch. They want him to define his position on Roman law and Moses’s law. Come on Jesus, are you Liberal or Conservative?! But Jesus bends down and writes in the sand. When asked by a man to “tell my brother to split the inheritance with me,” Jesus doesn’t bite.
Jesus does have opinions on sexuality, economics and justice, don’t get me wrong! But he sees that so often the wrestles we tie ourselves up in are more about game-playing and posturing than helping anyone or solving anything. And importantly, they blind us to what heaven is doing. No, Jesus doesn’t always side with the poor. Sometimes he goes to Zacchaeus’ house for lunch … and a lot of the local poor benefit.
As sacred agents let’s practise our sand-writing, lunch-going and listening-to-angels. Let’s step back from the swinging barroom fists enough to call “Drinks are on Jesus!” (John 7:37-38)
I’m clearly no scholar, but many moons ago at Bible College they tried to teach me New Testament Greek. Twice. I haven’t retained a whole lot – apart from being an alpha male with who enjoys a good pi. Still, one little thing my teacher mentioned has really stuck with me.
There’s a lot of vocabulary to learn of course, so we made hundreds of little flash cards to go through every day, with the Greek on one side and English on the other. “Here’s a trick,” my teacher said. “When you get a card right, put it in a pile to your left. When you get a card wrong, put it in a pile on your right. When you finish, leave the left pile, but pick up the other one and go through them all again, with the same method. Keep going until they’re all on your left.”
OK so perhaps that’s not revolutionary. But my teacher pointed out that we humans have a penchant for going over and over the things we already know (because that feels good), and avoiding the things we don’t know (because they make us feel inadequate). So many students waste precious swat-vac time revising over and over things they already know. By disciplining yourself to focus on what you don’t, you can learn a lot and very quickly. Did I take it to heart? All I’ll say is don’t take me on at Trivial Pursuit Genus I edition.
But it makes me wonder how we go about learning to be sacred agents. “Come follow me,” says Jesus, “And I will make you fishers for people.” The good news is that the Lord will teach us. The question is: Are we really wanting to learn?
When I hear Christians talking about what it means to be on mission, I hear us rehearse again and again – and again – and again the things we already know. We conspire to keep the conversation in a safe place. But what if we pressed into the things we don’t know and aren’t being effective in? What if one agent could say to another “I just don’t know how to…” or “I’m just getting nowhere with…”? What if our collective prayer was “Lord, forgive our slowness, but please, please, teach us to represent you to our neighbours in a way that really matters. We’re obviously missing something, probably plenty. Open our hearts and minds and eyes and ears and would you go over it with us one more time?”
In a boat, on a lake, Jesus leans over to his disciples and tells them to be very careful. It’s a captain’s safety warning, but it’s not about life vests, and it’s not, as the disciples first thought, about the supplies. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ It’s a warning for all who would set sail with Jesus on his mission. But what does it mean?
In a nutshell, the ‘yeast’ is a simple, little idea. But it spreads through a group and forms a culture it changes everything. The yeast of these groups were two different kinds, but both concerned with how to rule the world. Well, how to get everyone to behave.
The little idea of the Pharisees seems to be that ‘You can get people into line by shaming them.’ Point out people’s mistakes, make a public example of a few, and people will be too mortified to step out of line. This idea hasn’t run out of steam, we see plenty of it today. It’s the major weapon of our comedian-prophets who try to reinforce a particular framework of values by lampooning those who don’t share them. People who don’t fully support same-sex marriage are constantly shamed, for example. And does it work? Does shaming transform a society? No. It’s a powerful weapon, but at the end of the day, not an effective one.
The Herodians had a different little idea: ‘You can get people into line by coercing them.’ If you have the political power, you can set the rules and police them, and so just make people behave, punishing those who don’t line up. This is another familiar idea. Many people today seem to think you can shape society by getting the numbers in parliament to pass certain laws – say to legalise or illegalise abortion. But when you get the laws you really want, do you then get the society you really want? No. Coercion is another tool that so many clamber for, but in the end it doesn’t build what you want to build.
Jesus is setting out with his disciples to change the world, but it didn’t – and doesn’t – happen through shaming or coercion. Both of them breed elitism, hypocrisy and resentment. Watch out for those little ideas! As sacred agents, we’re not to use them on others or stress when they’re used against us.
And it all raises the big question: What is Jesus’ yeast? Discuss.
Jesus sure asked some tough questions. But he also asked some really easy ones, like “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Of course not. Even kids know that you get grapes and figs from the IGA.
When occasionally I’m tempted to despair as a sacred agent, I find myself repeating this over and over: “They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes. They don’t pick grapes from thornbushes.” When the media increasingly derides Christianity and lauds secular humanism, what hope do we have of reaching people? Well, plenty. Jesus was pointing out that the difference between good and bad philosophy comes to light through the kind of communities they produce.
Over the last decade, during which Christianity has faced very hostile press, parents have been falling over themselves to enrol their kids in Christian schools in unprecedented numbers. Why? Because when it comes to the crunch, when it really matters – such as your own kids’ future – people have a good nose for good fruit.
It happens very locally. Many Australians hate the idea of Christian chaplains in public schools, but love the actual chaplain in their own local school. My kids’ first school firmly resisted chaplaincy and any whiff of Christian input. The result? Parents were constantly asking us whether their kids could attend our kids club at the church next door to the school. Those parents had a nose for what’s stale and what’s fresh. It’s just common scents.
Which hints to me a tangible way forward for mission in Australian culture. If we don’t despair, but live fresh, distinct, communal lives invigorated by God’s Spirit, and simply be visible to and smellable by others, the ‘aroma of Christ’ will do its thing and many prodigals will come to – and follow – their senses.
“Everyone will know you are my disciples if you love one another,” said Jesus. Is your church that kind of community? And do you have ways for the neighbourhood to get a whiff of it?