by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
In the most recent issue of Light for the City, I shared my hopes that members of St. John the Divine will increasingly experience our homes as the most basic unit of mission for loving our neighbors and the city. An emphasis on developing “neighborhood groups” anchored in our homes will be a key strategy for growth and maturity going forward. We will be reminded that in the New Testament the Christian home was not described as a mere physical dwelling nor limited to a spiritual image. The home was the practical domicile in which Christians lived out the gospel among family and friends and extended the church’s mission to neighboring households.
What would a practical example of that look like in our own day?
I sometimes share the experience of a clergy acquaintance of mine, the Rev. Paul Maconochie who is a Baptist pastor. I first met Paul in Nashville 12 years ago. At the time, Paul was the lead pastor for an Anglican-Baptist joint congregation in northern England: St. Thomas Anglican Church in Sheffield. In 2014, Paul moved to the United States to serve at Grace Gathering, a non-denominational and multi-site congregation in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
In a conversation with Paul three years after his arrival at Grace Gathering, I spoke with him about his ministry inquiring how he and his family were acclimating to their new environs. Paul and his wife, Elly, had purchased a home in a lower-middle-class neighborhood and moved in with their two teenage daughters. Soon thereafter, the Maconochies invited two other families from the congregation to gather routinely with them for prayer and discernment about how to serve their neighborhood. Specifically, they considered those in the immediate neighborhood who were unaffiliated or inactive in a church congregation.
These three families gathered weekly on Friday nights, usually in the Maconochies’ home. Paul cited Acts 2:42-47 as revealing the rhythms the group sought to embody: meeting frequently, praying and engaging Scripture together, eating meals as an extended family, sharing resources with one another, and offering mutual encouragement to go forth and add to their number. I remember Paul telling me that these weekly home gatherings were “the big rock that had to be placed in the jar first ahead of all the smaller rocks.”
And then this: after several months of weekly fellowship, the three families decided to go forth and knock on every front door on the Maconochie’s city block as well as the street directly behind it. They introduced themselves to these neighbors, learned their names, and began praying for each one every day.
Soon thereafter, the group came up with an idea to host a neighborhood gathering. They delivered handwritten personalized invitations to an afternoon English Tea hosted by the Maconochies in their backyard. Despite the unfamiliarity of English Tea in Fort Wayne, Indiana (!), approximately 40 neighbors attended. In recounting this experience, Paul shared with me that residents “who had lived together in the neighborhood for 30 years were meeting each other for the first time.” The event was entirely social in nature.
The energy from the tea was so positive that the core families decided to invite the neighborhood some weeks later to another social gathering, this time a backyard cookout. At this event, several individuals and families were identified as “persons of peace,” those whom the hosts discerned as open to deeper engagement. These were subsequently invited to the group’s routine Friday fellowship meals where the vision for a committed group sharing life and loving the neighborhood was articulated to them. These newer participants accepted the invitation and coalesced over time as a mid-sized neighborhood group. Paul shared that over 50% of their neighborhood group were non-church members.
However, the Spirit was at work. As this hodge-podge collection of neighbors gathered routinely for food and fellowship on Friday nights, learned to pray for one another and their neighborhood, and even developed a service project together as volunteers at a local Christian healing center for military veterans, a number of the non-church members came to Christ and joined Grace Gathering.
I recall this conversation with Paul Maconochie often and continue to find his experience enormously encouraging. When it comes to ministry and mission, the tendency sometimes in large, corporate churches like SJD is toward greater specialization, professionalization, and complexity rather than toward simple expressions of gospel living that all lay members may embody. I repeat: we are wise to remember that in Christ, the most powerful is so often the most ordinary and simple. Jesus called ordinary men and women to be his followers, and the primary place where we live and from which move and have our being is the home.
“Households constituted the focus, the locus and nucleus of the ministry and mission of the [early] Christian movement ... Christianity forged its way into secular society through individual household communities as the basic unit of its mission ... The conversion of such domestic units … meant that households of Christians became the basic social and cultic centers, economic support systems and practical means for the further extension of the Christian movement.”
—John H. Elliot, A Home for the Homeless: A Socio-Scientific Criticism of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy, pages 188-189