Week 9, Day 2: A Local Church
If a church does not attend to its geography,
whatever is going on inside it is vapid and superficial.
- Willie James Jennings
READ: JEREMIAH 29:1-14
About six centuries before Jesus was born, the people of Israel were in captivity in Babylon. All they wanted to do was be free of the Babylonian oppressors and return to their homeland. Home, for them, was where their ancestors had lived and where the temple was; home was the Promised Land.
But to those struggling against the constraints they found themselves in, God sent a letter through the prophet Jeremiah, telling them:
Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare. (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
This is not the word from the Lord that the people of Israel wanted to hear! And yet God, staying true to his desire to bless all people through his people, commanded them to invest themselves and their efforts into their local setting.
Jonathan “Pastah J” Brooks ministers in the same neighborhood of Englewood in Chicago that he grew up in. He thought once he left for college that he had made it out, but God called him back to care for the place that others have written off. In his book Church Forsaken: Practicing Presence in Neglected Neighborhoods, he writes of the vital importance of “reestablishing the value of place in our communities.” Too often we live disconnected from our neighborhoods and our cities, consuming from them what we want with no regard for their welfare. This is the opposite of what God commanded the people of Israel in exile and the opposite of what we are invited to do.
At Christ City Church, we strive not only to care for those who are part of our church community but also to care for those in our neighborhoods and our city who may never enter our doors. Jesus loved everyone who came across his path. This means we must be present where we are — for however long we are there. A friend had an art piece done with these words as a reminder: “Bloom where you are planted.” This is why we partner with local organizations, why we commit time and energy and financial resources to Miner Elementary and the Parent-Teacher Organization, why we support the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project; it is also why we engage on issues of affordable housing and foster care.
There is something to be said that Jesus — God made flesh — lived and worked in a certain place at a certain time; he limited himself to a small region on the outskirts of the Roman Empire. What if the places God has called us to are the places whose flourishing he desires for us to seek? Pastor Zack Eswine writes:
God has arranged it. To open his book [the Bible] necessarily requires an act of love for unknown neighbors and places. To access him, we have to read pages of stories about people whose names we cannot pronounce from places we’ve never heard of. To know him, we have to do context and background into the specifics of mundane life among people who at first glance are irrelevant to us. Think about that for a moment, won’t you? After all, you are an unknown person in an unknown place who will seem irrelevant to most people in the world today, not to mention those who will read about your life centuries from now. And yet God gathers up every detail of your days with love and interest. The next time you open his book, remember the local knowledge that God wants you to inhabit, okay?
Benedict of Nursia, who established the practice of lectio divina, also added to the traditional vows (for monks) of poverty, chastity, and obedience the vow of stability. In his day, monks would often drift from monastery to monastery; he wanted them to learn how to live with the group of people God had given.
For us as a church, this means that we adopt a posture of listening and service. We listen to the needs of our city rather than simply proclaiming what we think is needed; and we serve with organizations and people who have been in DC for decades. We are not the first to be where we are, nor will we be the last. Jesus, by his Spirit, has been at work long before we arrived on the scene, and will continue to be after we leave. Our job is simply to be faithful to God in the place he has put us with the resources he has given us.
However long you end up staying in this city (or any city), God has a calling and a commission for you while you’re here.
REFLECT & RESPOND
The following is a series of questions, from JR Woodward and Dan White Jr.'s book Church as Movement, designed to help us think through what it means to live into the local mission of our church. Take a one or two questions in each section for your devotional and pray through them as you respond. You can always spend more time on them later!
Porch (i.e. where you live)
From independence to interdependence
Are we open to using our home for hospitality with neighbors?
Am I open to sharing my resources with my neighbors?
Do I know my neighbors’ names?
Have I offered to help them, shovel their driveway when it snows, help with their brakes, or babysit their kids?
Do I use holidays or occasions (Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays, etc.) to create connecting points?
Pathways (i.e. where you travel)
From unconscious busyness to conscious habitation
What routes do we want to take to engage our neighbors?
Do we walk? Do we drive?
Are there people along our pathways we’ve never noticed?
Are we open to stopping along the path?
Do we consistently take the same pathways?
Pivots (i.e. where you meet others)
From consuming perks to beholding people
Are you a regular?
Have you made introductions?
What communities collide there?
Where are your regular pivots? (the YMCA, McDonald’s, the bus stop, the park, the pub)?
Parish (i.e. your area)
From indifference to responsibility
How do we fuel a love for this place?
What is beauty in our place?
What is the brokenness in our place?
How do we make the pains of this place our pains?
"If a church does not attend to its geography, whatever is going on inside it is vapid and superficial."
- Willie James Jennings