I remember exactly where I was sitting.
I had come for a pick-me-up, not a smack in the face. "No one is more transient than American pastors. They're like rocks with no moss." The room was still. We all knew it was true. Michael Frost wasn't just an Aussie speaking to American church leaders that day; he was a prophet. We have lost a theology of place.
I originally moved to Colorado for a work vacation. I had no long-term commitment to my city. It was more like "friends with benefits." I moved here for what the mountains offered me. But nine years later I can say if God wills it, I'm staying.
I often connect with transplants who are planting churches in our city. They are usually in the honeymoon stage, naively positive and fiery. A few sips into my coffee I ask them, "If this church fails are you going to stay?"
Our eyes are constantly lifting from our communities and people right around us to find the next place "God will call us." Sociologist Peter Berger refers to this transience as "psycho-spiritual homelessness." I call it paying spiritual rent. But we need to learn to pay spiritual mortgages right where we're at.
We Westerners love the idea of going across the world. There's no mistaking that Jesus told us to do this. The scope of the Great Commission couldn't be clearer: Jesus charged his disciples to "go and make disciples of all nations." But the world has changed. Thanks to decades of globalization, Global is right here, right now. We take missions trips and collect experiences in exotic places. Many Christians have "a heart for the nations," buy fair trade, wear TOMS shoes, sponsor a child, and pray for unreached people groups … but can't tell you the names of their neighbors. We have accidentally depersonalized missions by imagining villages halfway across the world instead of our next door neighbors. I'm not saying we need to stop praying for, serving, and going to the nations to tell people the life-transforming story of Jesus, but ministry wanderlust can lead us to miss people right in front of our noses.
Acts 1:8 describes a Spirit-filled group of disciples who saw the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the whole world. But let's not forget: they were first witnesses in their own city. The place you already live is the most obvious, but most overlooked, place to start ministry.
Missional and incarnational are the two sides of the ministry coin. All Christians are to be "sent ones." The American church is starting to catch on to the missional side of "going well," but we are largely devoid of the incarnational side of "staying well." There's something exciting and sexy about traversing the world, but committing to stay in one place and work for its good might be the most transformative thing you can do.
Here are three principles that I believe are essential for learning to "stay well."
- Stay in relationships. I have a friend named Matt who I have been walking with for almost nine years. He doesn't understand my life as a follower of Jesus or pastor, but he likes hanging out with me. I have earned a lot of credibility with him. I'm guessing you have people like Matt in your life—friends or family members who don't understand you but respect you. Introducing Jesus to people takes time, often years of committed friendship. When we uproot we send the wrong message and we miss the opportunity to see what God might do in these people's lives. A pastor named Scott told me, "When we plant churches and the money runs out, we bail on the community. But if God really called us to plant in that community we need to stay because of the call not the cash."
- Stay in neighborhoods. We have been lulled to sleep in our neighborhoods. Dave Runyon, co-author of The Art of Neighboring writes, "Most of us form relational ties based on affinity. We tend to spend time with people who have similar interests, who make us laugh, and who are in a similar season of life. However, when we are intentional about forming relationships based on proximity, we are stretched to know and love people who are very different than us."
My family has experienced this dynamic first hand. After a year in our house we realized we didn't really know many neighbors. Sure, we'd smile and wave at people, but that was about it. So we decided to make an effort to change. We moved our grill from the back porch to the front yard. The sidewalk became a meeting place. The local school became a missional zone. Now we gather with friends, neighbors, and school parents on the corner for "Free Coffee Friday." I've experienced some pretty exciting things in ministry, but never anything like this. We have block parties, neighbors just dropping by, and late night knocks on the door with emergencies. God has used these relationships for his glory and helped us trade our love of privacy for a bigger vision of his gospel.
- Stay in cities. At some point we all think about moving away. Often this is for legitimate reasons like a job or proximity to family. But we should examine the influence we would trade by moving and let that factor into our decision. I'm convinced that part of Satan's plan is to lessen the impact of Christians through transience.
In our post-Christian culture, we have myriad obstacles to reaching people with the gospel. A church planter in Denver named Bryan explains the challenges presented by people's lifestyles. "Their finances, work schedule, hobbies, and activities are built around whatever brought them to the city in the first place, so meaningful commitment to a church is an infringement on their lives. These unique challenges of the city can certainly be overcome by the gospel, but it often takes years for these changes to take root in someone's life."
These realities led their church to launch a campaign that asked young, mobile Jesus followers to make long-term commitments to the city by buying homes in the area. That may sounds strange to us. We Westerners place a high premium on freedom and individual autonomy. We always want the option to pick up and move. But perhaps the most countercultural and faithful thing we can do is commit and stay.
Alan Briggs is director of Frontline Church Planting.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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