A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a guy who equips people to start churches in one of the least Christian and most resistant areas of the world. Although the people group he focuses on includes very few followers of Jesus (less than 1%), there are several households of Jesus followers in each population center. His goal is very simple: mobilize and equip these followers of Jesus to live out the message and mission of Jesus together to their community. His challenge is perplexing and far from simple: these families retreat from their communities to safer places where they can worship with other Jesus-followers and often send their teenage children to neighboring areas where they can be better educated as Christians. The result is obvious: followers of Jesus are actually removing themselves from the areas where greater gospel influence is most needed.
Please understand that I’m not trying to judge my extended spiritual family from a safe distance oceans away where I never fear persecution and receive a pay-check for planting and pastoring churches. What perplexes me most is that we do the same exact thing here and have far less excuses. We (church leaders) often pull people away from their neighborhoods and networks of relationships to “go to church” rather than mobilizing and equipping them to be the church in the midst of where God has purposely placed them. We can unwittingly make the people we’re leading busy for Jesus while actually pulling them away from living out His mission in their social context: seeking the lost, serving the least, and making disciples.
For this to happen we need to make several shift in our mindset:
#1) God has sent us wherever we are. It’s fairly irrelevant whether we view where we “do life” as the product of our personal choice or external circumstance. Either way God’s purpose remains for us to live out His mission, and He desires for us to live where we are with a sense of “sentness.” When the disciples were filled and sent out by the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, they began with where they already were. What may seem like an extreme example is when the Apostle Paul even challenges slaves to live with gospel centered intentionality and an eternal perspective in the midst of their circumstances (Ephesians 6, 1 Corinthians 12, Titus 2).
Do we honestly believe God is at work in the community around us? Do we believe God is actively drawing people in our community to Himself? Do we believe God has purposely placed our neighbors where they are so that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him? If we believe God is purposely at work with our neighbors who do not yet know Him, then we must also believe He wants to purposely use us to share the gospel with them.
#2) God designed us to be on mission together. The American ideal of individualism and the increasing normalcy or relational isolationism have both infected the church. There is virtually no contrast between how Jesus-followers relate to their neighbors when compared to the rest of the neighborhood- we rarely really know them. An even stranger phenomenon is that members of God’s family can live on the same street and have no functional fellowship with each other or partnership in the gospel. I imagine this would have seemed unfathomable to the New Testament era church. As we read the narrative of the early church in the book of Acts we see cities around the Roman Empire with multiplying households of faith committed to being on mission together.
The idea of being on mission together is central to the church’s scriptural identities as a spiritual family in Jesus and the body of Christ. The implication is that we need each other to live out Jesus’ mission in this world. One of the most powerful witnesses to Jesus being at work in us is our love for each other as His disciples (John 13:34-35). Think about it… What would it take to develop authentic friendships with the other followers of Jesus in your neighborhood? What would happen if you began sharing meals with each other and praying together for your neighbors? What if you began engaging your neighborhood together?
#3) Sacred space can happen anywhere. Anywhere Jesus shows up is sacred space. He stated, where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst (Matthew 18:20). Whenever I used to read this, my first thoughts was how this applies to activities like worship services, Bible studies, community service projects, or some type of organized church outreach activity. The fact that Jesus specifically mentions “two or three” makes me believe He’s letting us know that as we’re sent and scattered, He’s going to be wherever we come together as His followers. This can be working in the community garden, hiking in the mountains, watching a football game at the neighborhood pub, playing with kids at the park, or cooking out in the backyard with neighbors. None of these activities sound especially spiritual, but I’m pretty sure that if Jesus were alive today those are some of the things He’d be doing. He was doing the cultural equivalent in His day (Luke 5:27-32, 19:1-10).
If we limit where we see God at work to church buildings and Bible studies, that’s a very limited scope. What if we expected Jesus to “show up” at places like the pub and the park? How would it impact where we hang out and how we approach relationships in these places?
#4) Reorient the rhythms of our lives. One definition of a rhythm is a regularly recurring sequence of events, actions, or processes. For numbers 1-3 to become a reality may require subtle adjustments in our weekly/monthly rhythms but for many of us will require radical adjustments. We’re talking about reorienting our relationships, our schedules, and the places we go. To live with a sense of sentness requires the same type of open-handedness that Jesus required of His followers 2000 years ago:
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.