This reflection uses “Moving Back into the Neighborhood” by Alan Roxburgh as a catalyst for pondering embodiment in the neighborhood. In this short article, Roxburgh reflects on the August, 2009, “Moving Back into the Neighborhood” conference in San Diego, CA, describing the participants’ motivation and the general conference activities. He says,
We didn’t talk about false dichotomies, like inwardly and outwardly focused churches, but looked at how God always begins where we are, in the midst of the ordinariness of our stories and the places where we live. These are places and ways in which the Spirit is calling forth a new imagination for the church.
Thesis: The more detailed our vision, the more descriptive our stories of life in familiar places, the more we can see God working in ordinary life and seek to join him.
Heeding the Call, Enfleshing the Mission
The life we actually live in the place where we actually are enfleshes God’s mission when we obey the Spirit’s call. The Spirit calls each of God’s people to join his mission, using particular skills and knowledge in particular places. (I say “particular” because too often heeding the general call is an excuse to heed the call insufficiently or not at all.) I am convinced that we are first called to the place where we already are, being who we already live, and doing what we already do.
But reluctance and misconception stand in our way. We hesitate because life is comfortable the way it is. We hesitate because we think God will always ask us to change everything (or at least everything we value). Dedication to our own comfort must be confessed. Misconceptions must be corrected. We must communicate and re-communicate God’s call to be his witnesses in the places where we are and doing what we do.
Sharing from Ordinary Life
God has chosen to do much of his work through ordinary persons; lofty education and training are not required for involvement in God’s mission. Now, I immediately realize the irony: I am writing this on the first day of my Ph.D. program. Who am I to write about involvement not needing formal training? Well, despite ample amounts of formal education, important pieces of my ministry flow from skills and knowledge gained in ordinary life.
For example, I write poetry. I’ve taken no classes to learn this skill; it’s just something I do. Yesterday, a friend related how much they appreciated my poem, “Prayer for the Infirm and Lonely,” and how they had sent it to a friend in need. I wrote this poem as an honest prayer for some of my friends. It came from ordinary life and is posted on an ordinary blog; God will use it as he pleases. I simply offer this ordinary skill. Who knows the result?
Shaped by Persons and Place
The particular expression of God’s mission is shaped by the persons who follow his call and by the places where they live. God has made us in particular ways and put us in particular places. Some of us build homes. Others take photos, make meals, care for children, plant gardens, write poetry, teach school, present dramas, or play music. The list is as long as the number of people. We live in suburbs, cities, villages, on farms, in one state or another, and in one country or another. All these variables combine to shape a particular expression of mission in a particular congregation.
So, before we go looking to famous authors and famous churches, let us look at what God has given us and where he has put us. Let us learn to tell the stories of our people and our places in sufficient detail to see what God might be up to among us. Let us tell the stories in community that we might challenge complacency and correction misconceptions. Let us go beyond storytelling to story-living, creating new stories in the place God has put us as the people he has made us.