“Seek the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you…for in its wellbeing you will find your wellbeing.” –Jeremiah 29:7, speaking to God’s people in exile in Babylon.
Recently my family and I have been walking through the neighborhood around the church building and inviting people to a special event celebrating the centennial of Morton Church’s official charter. There are several back roads and pathways off the main road that runs in front of the building. We were taken aback when someone who lives on a path less than a thousand feet away from the church driveway asked, “Where is Morton Church?” A similar encounter occurred at a home on the main road less than half a mile away.
My hunch is that these people knew that there was a church building nearby, but did not know or remember the congregation’s name, or anything about who we are and what we do as a community of faith. Talk about feeling invisible! But the truth is, these people have been invisible to us–to me, at any rate.
This experience highlights something I’m finding again and again as I study, reflect, and pray, seeking God’s way into the future: congregations must actively seek the wellbeing of the neighborhoods in which God has placed us. We must be a life-giving presence literally right where we are. This means forming new connections with our neighbors, which will inevitably bring us into contact with their joys and their pain. God is already out there on the move nearby, aiming to reach and bless our neighbors, and calling us to join him there.
The most important book I have read that fleshes this out is The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship, and Community, by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens, and Dwight J. Friesen. They point out what the automobile and other technologies have done to our sense of place. It is now possible to live in one place, work in another place, shop, and pursue other activities in yet other places. It is possible to drive many miles to worship in still another community. This disconnects people from one another, and it disconnects us from the literal ground we live on.
One shift that needs to occur is to recognize that the church’s ministry is occuring wherever we are in our everyday lives. We literally are the body of Jesus Christ every day. What happens on Sunday mornings grounds us for living as his body everywhere, all the time.
Another shift is to learn to observe the community around us carefully, and listen with openness to the people there. Jesus said that he came so that people might have abundant life. Another way to think of abundant life is life that is flourishing. As we observe and listen, we must listen to the Holy Spirit. How can we join Jesus in seeking abundant, flourishing life in our neighborhood? Moreover, how can we collaborate with our neighbors in the work of blessing the neighborhood?
Two things that keeps me coming back to this book are the ideas for discussion and exploration, and the beautiful prayers. Here is a sample:
“God, grant us the wisdom to listen attentively to your presence all around us. May we listen well to your dream for creation. May we listen well to our own lives. And may we listen well to the people and place we call home. By your Spirit enable us to discern our calling and have the courage to act. Amen.” (p. 132).
When God’s people were in exile in Babylon, they were unable to see how they could go on being God’s people. But through the prophet Jeremiah, God instructed them to seek the wellbeing of their Babylonian neighbors all around. God instructed them to be a blessing in this new, strange, and unchosen context in which they found themselves. In that way, they would find their own wellbeing. In that way they would find their future.
“Seek the wellbeing of the place where I have sent you”–still our call as God’s people. Or to put it another way, “Love your neighborhood.”