No Program

As Iris and I are interacting with friends about Navigators Neighbors, we are both amazed and gratified by the level of curiosity and even hunger expressed by people who long to see God use them among their neighbors. People want to know how to get started and what we’re learning. As we tell stories and talk about the thrill of seeing “God’s Kingdom come and His will be done [in our neighborhoods] as it is in heaven,” we often can see the wheels turning and sense a hunger awakening in our friends. This sounds right. It seems doable. Then, inevitably, this question arises: What is the Navigators Neighbors program?
Sometimes the more sophisticated will not use the word “program,” but instead will ask about the model we use. While God’s people long for the Kingdom of God to break out, sometimes it seems that we only want it to break out in a formula or in some type of standard, replicable format, as if the Kingdom is mass-produced like a car or washing machine. I’ve wondered lately about why that is.
I wonder if the idea of a program or even a model creates for us the illusion that we are in control. The wild and organic nature of God’s Kingdom seems attractive but also scary. Jesus said that the Kingdom was like a mustard seed, like leaven, like a treasure, like a merchant in search of fine pearls, like a fisherman’s net, like a household, and like 10 bridesmaids with lamps. It looks like one thing and becomes something quite unexpected. It starts small and it grows large. The nature of its growth is unpredictable.
Jesus also said, “Here is another illustration of what the Kingdom of God is like: A farmer planted seeds in a field, and then he went on with his other activities. As the days went by, the seeds sprouted and grew without the farmer’s help, because the earth produces crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle” (Mark 4:26–29, NLT).
Like the farmer in Jesus’ parable, we have a significant role to play in God’s Kingdom, but we are not in control of the outcomes. No program, no model, no system of “five easy steps” can ever change that truth. Cultivating the way of the Kingdom in our neighborhoods is much like a farmer cultivating the soil. In the excellent book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison write:
To cultivate a piece of land is to prepare it for sowing, paying special attention to the health and fertility of the soil. Similarly, the cultivation of community involves organizing the gifts God has provided in our fellow church members and neighbors in ways that promote the flourishing of community in the church and the neighborhood.
In the last moments of Stephen’s life recorded in Acts 7, the Spirit led Him to recount the history of Israel. Just toward the end, Stephen reminded his executioners of the sad episode of the golden calf. This is how the Message Bible describes the event: “That was the time when they made a calf-idol, brought sacrifices to it, and congratulated each other on the wonderful religious program they had put together” (Acts 7:41). The people felt out of control as Moses met with God on the mountain, and they demanded a program or model from Aaron. Sadly, Aaron complied.
Are there any universally applied principles that we are discovering in Navigators Neighbors? Is there anything that is reproducible? Are there activities and initiatives that would work in all places? Yes there are. Prayer is universal, so are the way of love, faithful presence, the communal nature of our efforts, and the power of the gospel. This is not nebulous. There are concrete practices that we can begin right now and that we can coach others into. There’s just no program.

Al Engler is the director of Navigators Neighbors and Navigators Workplace. To contact him or to learn more about his ministry, click here