By Shannon Youell
Church planting is developing an expression of God’s kingdom in a neighbourhood.
In the beautiful and familiar passage of John chapter one sits one of my favorite verses: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”
Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message this way, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood” (John 1:14).
God, in Jesus, moved into the neighbourhood! He went to the local school, shopped at the nearby shops, visited over the fence with his immediate neighbours, went to barn dances at the local community center, memorized the Torah at the local synagogue. He lived there, right there, God with skin on, where humanity, created in His image, lived. And He lives in my neighbourhood, in your neighbourhood. He dwells among the world He so loves and His presence invites all to participate with Him in the ministry of reconciliation.
I love this image as it helps me understand and re-see that God is already at work in the places around me. What does that mean for us as we wrestle with God and imagine with Him where he is already at work in our neighbourhoods? And where, exactly, is the neighbourhood where we are to develop this expression of God’s kingdom? Is it the neighbourhood where the building is that we gather for worship? Or the one in which we live? Or work? Or where the jogging trail, the coffee shop, the grocery store that we frequent during the week are?
Perhaps, the answer is the same answer Jesus gave when the Pharisee asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ short answer: the people right in front of you! Right where you have been placed. Right where you are. This is where each of us, as image-bearers of Christ, are compelled by love of neighbour to develop an expression of God’s kingdom.
We form relationships with those around us, in communities whose health and well-being affect our own health and well-being, because, as we are reminded in Jeremiah, we are not set in a place to endure until heaven, but to “seek the peace of prosperity [of the place I’ve put you]. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (29:7).
Eugene Peterson takes us on a journey of “a conversation in spiritual theology”—the subtitle of his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. The book is an amazing read, but I want to focus our attention on his observations about place in his chapter titled “Christ Plays in Creation.” He talks about how God created place for humans and it is local. It is wherever we are. And it’s not perfect; there’s a serpent slithering around. Peterson writes this:
This place, this garden, is not utopia, is not an ideal no-place. It is simply place, locale, geography, geology. But it is also a good place, Eden, because it provides the form by which we can live to the glory of God (page 74).
And a few pages later he acknowledges, “Getting to know the neighbourhood, the nature and conditions of the neighbourhood, is fundamental to living to the glory of God. It is slow and complex work” (page 78).
I wonder that much of our wrestling to define neighbour and neighbourhood has to do with what we need to come to terms with. Developing places where the glory of God is seen does take some slow, often tedious, and complex work. It requires commitment and shared heart with God about who he loves. t demands dying to what Peterson calls “self-enclosed” lives—to opening ourselves up to an adventure of learning who is around us, and where the gospel story intersects in their own stories. It means putting aside what we think is needed and discover together, in a neighbourhood, what is needed to usher in God’s shalom that brings healing, hope and goodness to that place.
In urban planning and developing we are seeing an intentionality in reclaiming community. In reconnecting neighbourhoods to shopping and recreation and community issues. As Christ Followers, we should be doing the same—looking neighbourhoods as places we already live, work, play and pray in. But just like in urban planning, we must be intentional. We must make an effort and take a step out of our comfort zone.
Is there a local community issue? Attend the meetings, research all sides, get to know all people involved.
Help out cleaning up the parks; participating, not just attending, local community celebrations; read to kids at schools; do a bakery or grocery pick up run for your local food bank once a week.
Make an effort: engage, encourage. Be intentional. Get to know the people around you. Start walking your neighbourhood, your local community. Chances are you might run into God taking a leisurely walk down the same streets as you.
I could share with you some stories of those who have committed themselves to this type of intentionality in their place of context, but how about you tell some of yours with all of us.
Send us a story over the next few weeks to encourage, inspire and equip us to join God where He lives…in our neighbourhoods!
CBWC Church Planting Coordinator