by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill
In 2009, a group of twenty lead pastors in Denver, Colorado, gathered to think, dream, and pray over God’s vision for their city. The group invited the mayor at that time, Bob Frie, to join them and asked him a simple question: “How can we as churches best work together to serve Denver?” The conversation with the mayor touched on the sadly familiar list of urban social problems including disadvantaged kids, affordable housing, drug and alcohol abuse, loneliness, and elderly care. The list was long. Then the mayor said something that brought the group up short: “The majority of the issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or dramatically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.” The mayor went on to say that, frankly, programs to address the city’s problems were not as effective as relationships because they are organic and ongoing. “If we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.”
Two of the pastors in that meeting, Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, write of being embarrassed by the mayor’s statement. A group of pastors ask a government official how they might best serve their city, and he tells them it would help if their congregations simply obeyed what Jesus said about loving their neighbors (Mark 12:29-31). That day spawned a new movement within that group of Denver pastors: creative new thinking on Jesus’ simple and ancient commandment. They began encouraging their church members to do gospel mission at the most local level: loving those living closest to us in our neighborhoods. (The book sharing this experience and learnings has been recommended before in this space: The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door.)
Those among us who know well our parish history at St. John the Divine, remember that it was founded as an Episcopal Church mission station to a neighborhood, River Oaks. It was established to be a Christian community called to share the love of Jesus with those living near her members. Obviously, decades have passed and much has changed about the City of Houston as well as The Church of St. John the Divine, including the living patterns and diverse locations of our membership. But the call to love one’s neighbors as oneself is an eternal truth, clearly revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and reinforced in the teachings of Jesus.
Among the developments in much of U.S. Christianity over the last century has been the emergence of a perhaps unexamined presupposition: that the locus of one’s church is a physical address. To BE the church means to GO to church, to attend services, and participate in programs at a campus with attractive facilities, professional staff, and wholesome events (hopefully with ample parking!). Of course, as important as these realities are about the life of a church in our day, the physical campus of a congregation does not define what it is to be the church. To be the church is to be IN Christ, such that he lives in us wherever we “live and move and have our being.” And the vast majority of our lives are spent away from our church address. Indeed, most of our time is spent living and moving and having our being among people very close to us, especially family, friends, and co-workers, but also our physical neighbors.
In this season of life for St. John the Divine, I am leading us in discernment on what we all hope will be a compelling, fresh vision for our parish moving into the coming years, especially wanting to discern how the Lord is calling us to be a brighter light to the City of Houston. An emerging strategic initiative that you will be hearing more about in the coming weeks and months is a plan to develop Neighborhood Groups composed of parishioners living in concentrations of specific geographic neighborhoods whose purpose will be deepening fellowship but also intentional service to our non-member (and hopefully quite a few non-Christian) neighbors. These groups will be called simply to share meals together: to learn who our neighbors are, to pray for them, to serve in any way that is helpful or appropriate, and also to invite them into fellowship should they be open and desire it.
One of the tasks of any organization undergoing strategic visioning, and especially for churches today in this social milieu of declining Christian belief, is to reconsider the questions we usually ask. I will probably not be able to help continuing to ask the usual pragmatic questions I have always asked as a church leader: What is our membership? Are we growing? What is our budget? How well maintained and functional are our facilities? How well do our programs help our members grow in the faith? How much are we giving to serve the less fortunate? But what are some different and perhaps even better questions for our day and context?
I recently saw a question posed in another resource on the church’s call to love our actual physical neighbors and recommended below (The Neighboring Church). The question is this: “What is the smallest thing you can do to live more missionally?” The authors of this book state it plainly, and I agree: first to learn the names of our neighbors, and then to take the small steps to learn their histories, their hopes, and their needs. We might be surprised at how the Holy Spirit may move in these new expressions of an old saying I like to quote: “God’s light shines farthest where it shines closest to home.”
I look forward to a refreshed new ministry of Neighborhood Groups among us at SJD into the coming months that locates the simplest expressions of missional living precisely among those living closest to us. Stay tuned and thank you in advance for your interest and participation.
"Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial." —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
The Neighboring Church: Getting Better at What Jesus Said Matters Most by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis (Thomas Nelson, 2016)
This very helpful book addresses the theme of this issue and begins with a bold assumption: what worked for churches in the past in connecting to new people no longer works as well. Our institutional methodologies and vocabulary do not resonate with the culture as it did in the 20th century. The argument of the book is that what connects the gospel to the lives of non-Christians and/or those without genuine community is neighborly love more than institutional excellence. This highly recommended work lays out practical steps for ordinary Christians to learn to live more missionally right in their own neighborhoods for the sake of the Kingdom. This will be a key resource for us in the development of Neighborhood Groups at SJD.