God is in the neighbourhood too

God is in the neighbourhood too

This is a paper by a friend Mark Johnston (Faculty, KCML) which is part of  series 'Snapshots in Mission' . While much relates to the New Zealand Presbyterian setting, nonetheless this paper raises questions for us in Scotland too.

It is my contention that an abbreviated theological imagination is sabotaging renewal of local mission. Insular lifestyles play an unconscious role in both defining and containing the geography of God’s activity. Missio Dei – the understanding that the God of mission has a church, as opposed to the church of God has a mission (Jurgen Moltmann) and thus mission is an attribute of God (David Bosch) not an activity controlledand masterminded by humans – needs to be embraced.Bringing such a change, however, is not addressable simply by presenting theology. Popular imagination and awareness, reflected in church-lived praxis, is going to take new forms of action to shift.

God in an insular church

It is obvious from many quarters that churches in New Zealand, particularly in the suburbs of our larger cities, find themselves struggling with degrees of social distance from neighbourhood and locality. In the last couple of decades the pace of social change has intensified. Economic adjustments, immigration, housing un-affordability, natural disasters and institutional re- structuring contribute to ongoing dis-embedding from locality. A sense of disconnect from neighbourhoods and isolation from neighbours is widespread.

As everyday life becomes even more diverse and complex, churches can become the familiar place of belonging and constancy for church members, gathered for purposes unrelated to the places in which people live.

Embracing gathered church models, Church life, despite all the rhetoric of mission, becomes highly introverted, aggregating spiritual and social significance to its own internal operations, predominantly on a Sunday. This retreat to an insular Church world is exacerbated by the attention required to resource this model, as members fund salaries, sustain costly buildings and volunteer to keep the multifaceted operations ticking over.

This form of church life, with its consequences for social distance from community and accommodating to dis-embedded lifestyles, is not a theologically neutral development. Gathered church comes to be regarded as a form of home-coming, a place for belonging and safety both for the human and the divine. In so doing, without realising it, insularity is mapped onto God.

As a result, the imagination in which church is “home” for God extracts people from valuing the everyday and seeing beyond-church activity as also spiritually significant. God’s agency in the world is forgotten. Symbols, language, and programs lean towards valuing the internal operations of church as the only place in which God is trusted to be present and active, yet the local expression of church was never meant to be a final destination, the only place in which God is encountered and known.

Insular mission

An insular God imagination affects how churches typically go about their community mission. Firstly, are the “come to us” invitations – strategies both religious and social designed to attract people to see the church as a potential home, a place and people to belong to, where people can expect to meet with God. Secondly, “outreach” amounts to excursions into the neighbourhood or surrounding vicinity. Programs imported from other contexts are introduced, and activities that can offer one-way tracks to a church’s religious and social life are favoured. The unspoken intention and criteria is seldom to remain with people where they are in their context, but to bring people back to the church context as home. Mission is centripetal. God’s action in the world is subsidiary to God’s action in the church.

Contextual attentiveness and deep listening to what is happening in the community or church members’ own lives in neighbourhood are seldom probed with lasting patience and humility. Discerning what the Spirit might be revealing and doing specific to here and now and the local existence of people is not a consideration.

But it needs to be. Or our God is too small.

Mission in Community: Listening in Mission

Over the last four years, KCML interns have been leading four-month long exercises with others in the congregations they are apprenticed to. They walk their neighbourhood streets, listen, dwell in scripture, and seek to discern the Spirit of God. In listening to God through scripture and for God as they walk their streets again and again, imaginations are beginning to change. Mission is becoming centrifugal – an activity pulling people outward to discover and join with the Spirit of God at work in theworld.

Intentional and guided dwelling is enabling some participants to develop a thicker appreciation of their locality. Discoveries are being made that register as exciting and revelatory. Neighbours are met, unexpected conversations take place, people feel liberated from feelings of alienation, anxiety, and fear about what “others” will think of them. Hospitable initiatives in the street have been hatched. For those who are regularly present in their residential communities, this exercise comes as an affirmation and a relief. Knowing their neighbours and paying attention could yield something spiritually relevant.

Shifts in imagination are detected when participants find new theological perspectives contained in the action- reflection exercises and the practice of lectio divina. When attentiveness to the Spirit of God is heightened, a change in reference takes place. There is a creative interplay between context, scripture, and people’s lives and attitudes. As Mark Lau Branson has pointed out, each facet affects the other. Prayerful listening to scripture makes us attentive. Being attentive in the community affects our reading of scripture and our lives; spiritual disciplines, including prayerful dwelling in context, change how we perceive and behave in our community contexts.1

When God is in the neighbourhood too, then new possibilities are present. What has been regarded as not a place of belonging, not a home, becomes spiritually significant in people’s experience. Neighbours and community spaces are revisited as transforming places of encounter with God’s presence. The Kingdom is near and it is not just to be found in the Church.

1. Mark Lau Branson, “Forming Church, Forming Mission.”International Review of Mission XCII, no. 365 (2003): 159