Witness

3 Ways to Practice Love through Neighboring

What would it look like to join with God’s mission in your neighborhood so that the reign of God flourishes in that place?

The Missio Dei is to bring reconciliation, beauty, truth and justice to our universe. The missio Dei is to bring shalom to our world, in other words, a wholeness and a restoration to the way things are meant to be if God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

If God’s love manifests not only in universal ways but also in particular ways, then this means that the ordinary activities, people, and culture of our neighborhoods is of interest to God. God is more than interested. In fact, God loves your neighborhood.

We have to keep in mind that God is on mission in the neighborhoods where we are placed to bring shalom there. Our task is discerning that work then thinking about how to join in so that the reign of God flourishes there.

The way I describe the reign of God or the kingdom of God is that it is an alternate reality where God’s shalom is embodied perfectly. So the kingdom has come through the death and resurrection of Jesus, but it is not fully present and will only fully manifest at his return.

At present, our reality intermingles with the alternate reality of the kingdom. While we wait for Christ’s return, we work with God on his mission so that the kingdom flourishes in our contexts. When I walk around my neighborhood I can see traces of the kingdom through some of the activities, events, buildings and public spaces that I encounter. However, I can also see the darkness, brokenness and hopelessness in my neighborhood that is waiting for redemption and restoration through my embodying shalom there.

How do we discern the mission of God in our neighborhood to grow God’s reign there?

1. Form Partnerships: Working with Existing Groups and People

Instead of thinking “What can I start up that is new in my neighborhood?” I decided to join with good works of service that were already going on in my community. I did that for a few reasons. Firstly, because I wanted to get to know people not interested in Christianity. Most people, especially in our secularized world today don’t wake up on Sunday mornings thinking, “I might go to church today”. So instead of a “come to us” approach, I tried a “go to them” posture.

Secondly, I figured that these people had been in my neighborhood longer than me so they knew the dynamics of the culture. I thought I could learn from them. As we work with others who have similar values to us we are better able to discern what God is doing outside the Church in order to join his mission in the broader context of our neighborhoods.

Most people don’t wake up on Sunday mornings thinking, 'I might go to church today'. Click To Tweet

2. Practicing “Stickability”: Moving Beyond Cultural Exegesis

We are not commanded by Jesus to engage in cultural exegesis, as helpful as that exercise is. Instead, we are called to love. And that is more challenging and costly. Cultural exegesis—the analysis of a neighborhood by mapping the area, working out where are the hubs, and networking with locals—is important, but we are called by God to go further. We are called to love the place where we live and the people there. For me, that has meant moving into an area and committing to stay there long term.

Practicing faithfulness, stability, and stickability in a neighborhood can be downright ordinary and unglamorous. It often means learning how to say no to opportunities that would take us away from that place which God has called us to love. However, this is how we learn about the day-in, day-out rhythms of the places where we live and can listen for the heartbeat of God there.

3. Committing to Reciprocity: Mutuality and Hospitality

I have already implied this with my first point about partnering with others. Reciprocity is important because we must commit to humbly learning from others. As we do this, I believe we better hear the voice of God. Henri Nouwen in his book Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life says, “People we meet, some great in the eyes of the world and some almost invisible to the larger society, are often conduits of God’s wisdom.”

Not only that, we must learn to let go of our control and accept hospitality from our neighbors. In The Art of Neighboring the authors say this,

When it comes to neighboring well, one of the biggest temptations is to turn neighbors into projects. We put on the ‘superneighbor cape’ and rush out to serve our neighbors and make a difference on our block. This really isn’t a bad thing, but if this is all we ever do, then our relationships will be empty. If we don’t allow people to meet any of our needs, we limit what God wants to do in our neighborhood and our life. Allowing ourselves to be on the receiving end can be harder than it looks. Our tendency is to put ourselves in positions of power—in this case always being the one to give.

So how do we learn to better receive, listen, and learn from others? If Christianity is about cruciformity, then how do we give up our power and learn to receive?

Discerning God’s mission in our neighborhoods means loving the place where God has called us to be. It is a call not to celebrity Christianity but rather to the hidden, deep work of God right under our noses. It is a call to the ordinary labor that often bears fruit slowly as we sow, in the same way that a farmer experiences joy and frustration in his or her work.

It is also radical work as missionary work often is, loving people as best you can and accepting God’s forgiveness when our inevitable failures and weaknesses emerge. But the hope and joy is that God is present. God who is with us grounds himself in the mess of life and is always working to redeem what we think is beyond redemption.

 

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