There is a something comforting about walking into church on a Sunday morning; we come inside the walls within which we expect to be spiritually fed and nourished. Sometimes it is easier to keep our faith private and to allow our public persona to be a separate part of ourselves. It’s not that we lack integrity; we can live out our values and character publicly while holding a very private faith at the root of who we are.
But I wonder whether our biggest obstacle to overcome in building community connections is our own fear; the fear of allowing something very private to become very public. God’s call to go public with our faith is often met, at least for me at times, with fear, confusion and trepidation. It’s almost as if we imagine God’s call is for us to become someone other than who we are. Growing up in various denominations I learned that God’s call to take our faith to the streets somehow implied that we should all become ‘foreign missionaries’. But in the past decade or two the Canadian church has begun to slowly realize that God’s ‘mission field’ is all around us. It is in our ‘mixed economy’ of spiritual backgrounds and beliefs, or in the rapidly growing segment of the ‘nones’ in our society – those who check ‘none’ in the religion section of a census survey.
Instead of ducking our heads in the sand at the call to a foreign mission field, we currently face a dualistic crisis. What I mean is that we believe that in order to effectively be sent on ‘mission’ to our neighbourhoods we need to pretend to have a certain kind of faith, career or vocation that we just don’t have or would never be happy having. It’s almost as if we have a split personality: one who we are and another when we pretend to be someone we are not. Or we spend so much time volunteering with our church’s outreach efforts that we never learn how to have an integrated faith life where our existing relationships, pastimes and responsibilities our are the primary place where God’s mission takes place in our lives, all around us, every day.
Understanding that our own individual life and experience have intrinsic value and worth, because God loves both us and the people we love, frees us up to embrace ourselves and our surroundings more completely. We begin believing that God has created us with certain characteristics, skills, gifts, vocations, limitations, careers and friendships that are not secondary to God’s mission. Rather, they are God’s mission. We can realize that all our relationships, which already exist, are all a part of God’s mission in the world. (For example:. volunteering at the local hospital gift shop or reading program at a neighbourhood school; being part of a local book club or library; shopping regularly at a local store or farmer’s’ market; working as a crossing guard, being part of a knitting or quilting group, member of a dart team at a local pub).
What Is God’s Mission Exactly?
Whether I’m conscious off it or not God’s Spirit is always at work in all of our lives. The beauty of joining God in God’s mission is that it’s already happening all around us. This perspective then takes the burden off of our shoulders and places it back on God’s (like God needs us to?). Regardless of your doctrine of election etc. the common grace of God’s missional Spirit at work is that we all become participants, observers, joiners, celebrators and ambassador of God’s creativity, originality and awesomeness.
One turning point for me recently was thinking of our Judeo-Christian creation story where God’s Spirit ‘hovers’. I have some favourite stories in the Old Testament that highlight God’s Spirit at work. My favourite, and probably the most scandalous, is God’s Spirit at work by providing for Rehab and her family, and for Caleb and Joshua. God only knows how the two Israelite spies came to find refuge with a city prostitute but there is no question that the relationship which was established by God brought about further salvation for Israel and Rehab’s family.
The stories I like best about Jesus on mission are at dinner parties and celebrations. Sure, because he was there, but more importantly because he didn’t fit some kind of mold of what or who you should be at a party. Each ‘party-story’ of Jesus’ is slightly different for whatever reason. But he was clearly comfortable being with the people that His Father had put in His life.
The disciples are slow to catch up on this integrated faith life thing. But they learn slowly, gradually over years of falling over their own two feet, the same way we do. Their journey wasn’t often pretty or well put together but they slowly learnt that following Jesus around the countryside, in and through cities meant that God’ would literally touch every part of their ‘secular’ life.
An Integrated Faith Life
Forming an integrated faith life is crucial to strengthening our pre-existing community connections and to better engaging our neighbourhoods as Christian communities.
However you have come to this point in your life; you are where you are; you live where you live. And the relationships you have right now are the community connections that your local church needs in order to share the gospel and to thrive. You and your church also have a lot to learn from your neighbours and wider community. You need them in your faith lives as much as they need your faith life in theirs. The kind of spirituality that is infectious and gospel-oriented is about mutuality and reciprocity for the sake of the community. It is within a diverse spiritual ecosystem that God’s Spirit begins to create weird and wonderful works of art.
Start Where you Are
If your church is asking, “How do we build connection with our local community?” You likely already have the answer in the everyday interactions, acquaintances, and friendships that are already present. What is required is for you to see them differently?
It takes real courage and faith to break down the dividing walls between religion and secularism. But Jesus is the Master Wall Breaker. Much of his life on earth was about helping us to reorient our worldviews, helping us see things differently. Maybe today Jesus is trying to help us see the community connections we already have in a new and different light.
Putting it into Practice
It is nice to read an article about community connections. But how do these words come off the page and into practice? I would guess, initially, through conversation. If your local church is serious about having a greater positive impact in your neighbourhood, you’re going to have to talk. Talk with each other, with new people in your church, and with the people you already know in the community.
I once asked the Right Rev. Dr. George Sumner, former Principal of Wycliffe College, “How do we bring about change in a church where no one wants to change?” His response: “Start small fires of faith and fan them.”
If you’re in a church that seems slow to change, gather two, three or even four others and start a conversation. Share vulnerably about your personal life. Who are your neighbours? Who do you work with? What are your friends like? Is there anything they’re/you’re struggling with? What are their/your needs, interests or hobbies and how might you collectively serve them better? Talk together. Pray together, and GO from there!