When a topic or question comes up in three separate conversations in one week, I come to the conclusion that I need to be able to clearly articulate what I think about the issue. The big question that seems to be a recent conversational theme goes something like this: How important is it to live in the same community as the people you seek to serve, minister, lead, and generally display Jesus to?
My answer: very important, because proximity matters.
So, you may wonder, why do you think proximity matters so much?
1) When your welfare is directly linked to that of the community around you, you tend to serve and care about the people with much more authenticity. You can say with integrity, “we’re in this together.” It’s very difficult to develop a true sense of solidarity with a community of people when you’re an outsider who commutes in from a different community to serve. The prophet Jeremiah addressed this principle when he wrote the Hebrew exiles in Babylon: Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf ; for in its welfare you will have welfare (Jeremiah 29:7).
2) Displaying Jesus happens best when we “do life” among people. I’ve heard the cliche that becoming a follower of Jesus is caught as much as it is taught, and there’s some truth to this. Nothing replaces the opportunity for others to see how Jesus influences the real routine of our lives: family, friendships, work, recreation, trials, and even the mundane issues we deal with like shopping for groceries or mowing the grass. The Apostle Paul reminded the Thessalonians of how he had lived among them (1 Thessalonians 1:5) and opened up his life to them (1 Thessalonians 2:8). Paul’s daily life among them is what gave credibility to his ministry.
3) Placing ourselves in physical proximity does not automatically produce relational closeness, BUT being an ongoing presence in people’s lives greatly increases the chances. Meeting serious needs and building quality relationships takes time, perseverance, and intentionality. We don’t have to look any further than the incarnation of Jesus to see a model for how this works. In John 1:14, the Apostle John writes, He made His dwelling among us. The word dwelt literally means Jesus pitched His tent or tabernacle among us in the mess of our world. Throughout John’s gospel, we see Jesus’ path intersects with the most unlikely people, inserting Himself in the midst of their sin, their mistakes, and their struggles.