I often do workshops with church folks who are very new to the missional conversation and to the idea of engaging in and with neighbours. I am often asked, why neighbourhood? What about affinity groups, social media and engaging in our work places? Of course we are called to bear witness where ever we are, with whomever we are, whenever… as the Spirit leads. But there is something unique and Biblical about bearing witness right where we live.
In fact, I have come to discover that there are numerous and significant Biblical and sociological reasons for landing our missional engagements (and by that I mean our very lives!) in our neighbourhoods. One of those reasons happens to be the unity of the church for which Christ prayed: “…that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”(John 17:23)
As those gathered at these workshops begin to wrestle with the neighbourhood proposal, one of the questions I pose is, how was the early church identified? Did Paul write to the Baptists and to the Presbyterians and the Mennonites? The only thing that separated the early church was geography. Early Christian communities were identified by their location and all considered to be part of the one church of Jesus Christ participating in His Kingdom practices right where they lived as His Church. As Watchman Nee put it already in 1938: “Locality is the only scriptural basis for the division of the Church into churches” (The Normal Christian Church Life, 46).
Paul often greets the church that meets in a home (Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Colossians 4:15, Philemon 1:2) and his letters are all addressed to particular places. In contrast, in North America today, it is estimated that over 90% of North American church attenders commute to their preferred service place. What if followers of Jesus in a neighbourhood were found together in a home there? What if, no matter our denominational affiliation, worship preferences or Sunday morning commuter practices, these same followers actually came to embody who they are already called and made to be, together, right where they live? After all, bearing witness is a ‘we’ activity. WE are the Body of Christ (1 Cor.12:27). WE are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matthew 5:12-14). The “you” in these passages is plural. WE are ambassadors, the sweet aroma of Christ….perhaps it is then, when we are together following Jesus, keeping His command to love our neighbours, that others experience good news, the Kingdom of God come near.
The ‘we’ in our neighbourhood is beginning to figure this out. We are coming to realize that we share a common identity: we are neighbours and Jesus’ followers. We also share a common mission: to love our neighbours like Jesus does and to embody the good news and shalom of His Kingdom together right where we live. And so, we get together regularly – Baptists, Pentecostals, Catholics, United Church of Canada, Christian Reformed, Alliance – at least some of us do. Many of us are still so involved in our commuter congregations that we have no time for neighbours or neighbouring or being the Body of Christ in this locality. Those who are beginning to make this shift however are learning about and taking up postures and practices such as asking what is God up to, faithful presence, hospitality and serving with. It’s a wonderful, challenging and freeing journey.
This unity – being together in place, has also been a shocking phenomena to our neighbours; a phenomena that suggests that there may actually be a God who welcomes, accepts and loves them right where they are too. It’s a paradigm changer. “What? You pray with the Catholics?” “Really, you get together with people from all different ‘churches’?” — Yes and it’s a beautiful, mysterious, inspiring experience… loving one another and all of our differences.
The unity of the church is not only about us all getting along as Christians, it’s about our very purpose for being ‘called out’ and ‘sent’ ones. It’s about our identity and mission. After all, didn’t Jesus say…
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:35
And so…”I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it.” – Philemon 1:6 MSG