Place and the People of God

Last time, I wrote about the fragmented state of our society and how, with a deeper commitment to place, the church might play a role in its healing. Here I wish to encourage Jesus’ followers to be the church right where we live.
What is the local church? Recently, Tim Watson, who bills himself as a “Beat Liturgist,” weighed in on a spirited dialogue on the question. Tim Watson is a vicar of Leeland Church in Gosport in the United Kingdom. I find his poem to be a beautiful description of “local church”:

Local church
Meets local hurts
Seeks local meets
Preaches local speech
Greets local folks
Kindles local hopes
Undoes local yokes
Unites local efforts
Prays local prayers
Loosens local snares
Addresses local cares
Befriends lonely locals
Shares local hospitality
Forfeits local power
Turns global local
And local glocal
Prophesies local words
Drinks local beers
Meets local stares
Local kingdom prayers
This poetically illustrates how we as the body of Christ don’t merely go to church but are the church! It is what happens when we believe and operate as if “place”—the neighborhoods and communities where God has planted us—deeply matters!
In my last article I wrote about how fragmented our society has become. This prompted me to think about the church and how God desires us to be part of the solution—how wonderful it is when we have a healthy view of place, yet how challenging it is if we’re fragmented as well.
Indeed, the church is divided between Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant branches. In 2010, the Protestant segment included 200 major denominations and an estimated 35,496 independent or nondenominational churches (The Association of Religious Data Archives). Of course, this does not even count the number of organizations like our own.
Really though, the number of denominations is not the main problem. The challenge is that in any individual neighborhood, the church is dis-membered. What I mean by this is that many of the believers in any given neighborhood in the United States don’t even know one another. Yet God wants us to work together in the place where we live.
Think with me about this as you read 1 Corinthians 12:13-18 in The Message:
By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. . . . The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.
. . . A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. . . . If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.
Let’s look at a few phrases in this passage. First, “we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives.” To truly say good-bye to such lives, we will renew our commitment to the place God planted us. Our homes must be more than places to sleep, our neighborhoods more than places we merely pass through.
Second, “We entered into a large and integrated life.” When this is reality, it will be evident in the fruit of our ministries. The Navigators vision calls us to “joyfully lead integrated lives,” and, of course, help others do the same. This especially happens when we are committed to place.
Third, “It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together.” I love it when I see “different parts functioning together” taking place in our neighborhoods and communities!
Finally, “God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.” For this to become reality, we’ll pay careful attention to the members of the body of Christ in our places. Then we will truly “re-member” the church—that is, as “the church disbursed,” being the body in our neighborhoods and communities!
Where are people returning to place? Where is the church being re-membered? This morning I received this blog post written by Michael Frost after his recent trip to Colorado Springs. It describes how thousands of believers from 35 churches gathered one weekend to serve the community, and it’s worth a read. So is his newest NavPress book, Keep Christianity Weird.
Frost has a wonderful way of encouraging the church to be different, to live differently in (but not of) this world—to reimagine what it means to be the people of God in our time! And in our time, nothing is more different than a group of believers from a variety of expressions who simply love the people in their place!

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