Our church’s lament service took place in March; we had moved to Cincinnati the previous summer. I didn’t attend the service with my own sadness in mind—but it found me, in the dark and somber silence consecrated for those who showed up. The grief of our recent uprooting caught up with me in the pew that late winter night. Leaving home, even voluntarily, incurs a litany of losses.
I might have believed the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to an increase in geographical mobility, as companies—like my husband’s—sold their headquarters and opted for a fully remote workforce. Such flexibility allowed us to relocate to care for an aging parent, and the majority of Americans still report the desire to work from home full-time (while only 13 percent do).
Recent data, however, reveals that for four decades, geographical mobility has been on the decline in the United States. Although pandemic disruptions led to an initial increase in dislocation (often from urban areas to suburban or rural ones), these numbers have stabilized. More Americans are staying put.
Perhaps our national appetite for transience is waning. Still, I confess to feeling pessimistic about our collective commitment to geographical rootedness and responsibility. In our new telework, telehealth, telechurch environments, it seems nearly as easy to opt out of belonging to a place as it is to opt in. With socially mediated lives, there aren’t immediate and acute absences to fill if you change your address. With remote work arrangements, there are fewer opportunities to make new friends. In fact, what’s curious to me, in comparing our move in 2022 with that in 2011, is how little stands to change despite a change in geographical location.
Increasingly, there seems to be nothing inevitable about living locally. We can work from home, shop from home, socialize from home, worship from home. (According to Pushpay’s State of the Church Tech report published in January 2023, 89 percent of churches are still offering a hybrid model of online and in-person services, the latter of which has suffered a 5 percent decline.) The near totalizing of our digital environment mimics the material alienation of the American suburb that developed in the mid-20th century—though now, the garage door need never open.
As it grows more difficult to live in place, it grows more urgent for churches to inhabit a local identity and commit to loving real geographical neighbors.
Geographical belonging may seem incidental to human flourishing in a mobile society, but according to the biblical story, place is one of God’s first gifts to his people. In Craig Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell, the Old Testament scholar relocates the familiar narrative arc of creation, fall, redemption within the context of place.
As Bartholomew narrates it, in the very beginning, God’s people were implaced—given a physical home with God in the Garden of Eden, which he had planted for them. The curse of sin wasn’t just estrangement from God; it was displacement—exile from the garden and loss of geographical stability. The story of salvation, then, is about a recovery of all aspects of lost shalom, including the blessing of a physical, geographical home. In the New Jerusalem, we will be reconciled to God—and reimplaced in a city whose lights never dim.
No doubt, it takes intentional effort today to receive place as a gift rather than constraint. There is interruption and contingency—friction—in the physical world that I can elect to avoid by opting for a virtual experience of life. There are real neighbors suffering their lives, and if I allow open contact, their needs can easily impose in inconvenient ways—like the day a neighbor recently confided in me, ten minutes before a work call, a heart-wrenching anguish.
Even with a commitment to responsibly love our places, our efforts can be stymied by ignorance. With the demise of local news over the last decade, we have fewer resources to learn about the contemporary problems facing our neighborhoods and cities and towns. When local newsrooms disappear (and with them, reporting from city council meetings, school board meetings, and community fundraisers), this corresponds to “lower voter turnout, increased polarization, [and] a general erosion of civic engagement,” as McKay Coppins from The Atlantic has reported. It is difficult to love a place well apart from knowing its longings and hopes, its pains and problems.
Churches, serious about their local identities, can disciple in their people a love for a place and its people—but this too will require intentionality. It obliges church leaders to say frankly and gently, “Unless your health prevents you, get yourself here.” It requires churches to learn about their places—and to bring that learning into the corporate worship experience.
Admittedly, there is one particularly formative part of our church’s liturgy in Toronto—Prayer for the Church and the City—that I deeply miss. It was the part of the service when we prayed for the teachers’ union that was threatening to strike; when we lifted to God our municipal leaders by name; when we praised God for our city parks. Weekly worship always lifted my eyes and drew my attention to the concrete realities of my city and its needs. I suspect this is a more rare than common experience, many churches finding it easier, and perhaps less divisive, to speak of the next world rather than this one.
But if Christian faithfulness is embodied (and it always is), living locally is not optional. Love can’t be lobbed from afar. Often, it’s delivered in the form of homemade lasagna, which showed up at my door last September when a congregant from my new church learned I was sick. (We’d been to church a mere six times.) I might as easily have ordered a delivery from Uber Eats, but this would have prevented me from experiencing the blessing of learning to belong to my new household of faith.
We have just marked the one-year anniversary of our move to Cincinnati and two months of membership at a local church. There is so much I’ve yet to learn about my new city, so much outstanding effort to be made to love my new neighbors well. But I’m grateful to feel less the stranger, especially at church.
“Welcome,” they say on Sunday mornings, handing me a bulletin. And I think they mean it.
Jen Pollock Michel is a podcast host, speaker, and author of five books, including In Good Time: 8 Habits for Reimagining Productivity, Resisting Hurry, and Practicing Peace (Baker Books, 2022).