by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
There are two strong theological convictions informing my reflections in this new bi-monthly column, “A Light for the City.” First, the fellowship of the church is the locus of the gospel for Christians. Christ called into being a new social reality — localized communities of believers serving as the primary place where the gospel is to be received and lived.
Second, the congregation exists for the sake of the world around it. A local church is never intended to be an end in itself. Indeed, the congregation should be regarded as the localized, tangible expression of hope for society. Our raison d’etre is God’s mission.
These two convictions are connected because our loving fellowship is not only a gift for ourselves. It is the best service we can offer the world. Deep and vibrant Christian community creates a warmth and light that cannot help radiating forth to others outside the church.
However, it is also true that each one of us as individual Christians must always be asking the question: How can I personally fulfill the Lord’s Great Commission in my own life? “Go therefore and make disciples…” (Matthew 28:19); “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). At a time in Western cultural history when the church at large is experiencing declining membership and diminishing social influence, what shape might grace-filled witness take in personal interactions with neighbors, co-workers, friends, and acquaintances? Perhaps precisely in response to our post-Christian times, believers should remember again the great gospel paradox: God’s power is revealed in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Several years ago, I was present for a talk given by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. Originally from Uganda, Sentamu served as Archbishop of York from 2005 until his retirement in 2020. His talk was on reaching the unbeliever in today’s world.
After studying at Cambridge University, Sentamu was ordained and had several appointments as vicar prior to being a bishop. During one ministry appointment, he lived next to an unfriendly, aloof neighbor named David. Initially, Sentamu wondered if David’s standoffishness was because of race. Sentamu is African. One day, after noticing how immaculate David’s lawn was compared to his own, Sentamu walked over to his neighbor and asked if he might borrow David’s lawnmower. To his surprise, David brusquely responded, “no!” A day later, however, Sentamu heard a noise coming from his front lawn, looked out the window, and saw David cutting the grass himself.
Inspired by that act of kindness, some days later Sentamu invited David over for a barbeque. While David accepted, he brought his own food and insisted on cooking it himself, explaining he didn’t require the charity or hospitality of anyone. Nevertheless, as time went by, David began to do various chores and helpful things for Sentamu who was unfailingly gracious and thankful.
Finally, one day, David asked, “So, tell me about this Jesus you believe in.” The two men talked, and Sentamu received the background story. As a child, David’s family had belonged to the very church of which Sentamu was vicar, and his mother had died when he was a ten-year-old boy. The church did not respond well or help with the needs of the family much. He had resented the church ever since.
I recall Sentamu’s making this point at the conclusion of his talk: so often we Christians think our missional duty is to give something to others that they do not believe they need. But what if we approached them from the disposition of our own neediness. What if our first witness is one of openness to receiving gifts of grace in humility? My notes on that talk include this quotation: “People are much more open to receiving what we have to share if we are willing to humble ourselves and be put in their debt.”
Why do I share this anecdote above? I invite you to ponder that. To think as a Christian about these times is to consider anew what it means to engage in our missionary responsibility without being in charge. To be sure, the church is not in charge of culture in our day and age. But God is! And it is his mission anyway. But we are privileged to be God’s chosen instrument for the sake of the world, inspiring one another through our mutual belonging to “go forth to all nations,” a peculiar and blessed witness that may begin in humility as close as next-door.
“One reason Paul caught more fish than anyone else was that he had his flies in the water more than anyone else. “Brother,” he would say, “there are no flying fish in Montana. Out here, you can’t catch fish with your flies in the air.” His flies were in the water at least twenty percent more of the time than mine.”
—A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean
The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door by Jay Pathnak and Dave Runyon (Baker Books, 2012)
If there is hope for the return of social health, I believe it will be renewed by flourishing close-knit neighborhoods, civic and volunteer groups, non-profit service organizations, local schools, and healthy religious communities. This excellent book invites modern Christians to a fresh engagement with our Lord’s Great Commandment to love God and “love your neighbor as yourself.” What shape might genuine neighborly love and concern take in your life and in mine? First, before we can love our neighbors as ourselves, we have to get to know them! Second, visible new expressions of simple neighborliness might just be one of the greatest gifts the church can offer our broken world.