Now that is an interesting question! One that many churches, at least the ones I have worked with over the years, do not ask of themselves. The more common question is: What is the church? A philosophical reason for being, an introspection into ourselves on repeat. But that is not the most helpful way to discern the place of the church in this world.
This question is the beginning of Tim Soeren’s Everywhere You Look, which points to an outward view of the local church.
We tend to look in the mirror as the local church, wondering how we can draw people into a Sunday service, or another event centred on ‘us’. The answer to the question of what church is for very easily slips into being about getting people into a room, inviting others to sit next to us on a Sunday. That is not a great picture of the ‘why?’ of church. It becomes a vortex of redundancy, and it once again puts us in the starring role.
Tim invites us to consider the ‘why’ of the matter as being about ‘God’s dream’ and building out from there. That means understanding a God who desires his kingdom to be built, to love into the lives of others, to know the neighbourhood. As we investigate God’s dream for the area around us, we become imaginative of what needs are present, but more importantly, we open ourselves to what the Holy Spirit may be showing us in plain site. Where God dreams, he is already at work, we need to see what he is up to with fresh eyes!
So, what happens when we seek God’s imagination through the Spirit? A number of things can happen, but a great starting point may be that we become curious instead of isolated. We move the church out of the position of being the ‘why’ and instead it becomes the ‘what’. That means we practice faithful presence, within the community, working with the strengths that are present, making connections that allow others to catch on to God’s imagination for the neighbourhood. We share in hope and a desire for renewal in the same space as those who do not yet know God’s desire for all people, in all places.
We are not the centre of the story. God is. When we gather with those who have the same desire, we can then seek out where God is already at work, and that means partnership. Do you know all the Christians in the neighbourhood? They may have their own core congregation that they meet with, but could they also connect in making God’s dream a reality with you? When we allow God to be at the centre of his work, we no longer have a place in rescuing people, because that is his work. By removing pride and seeing the neighbourhood as God’s place of imagination, we are no longer saviours, instead we are part of the ‘what’, and he is the ‘how’. That makes connecting so much more realistic in seeking the best in loving our neighbours, because it is not about an experience on a Sunday morning, it is about a relationship and a way of doing life all week.
Are you a risk-taker? Becoming part of a core group, one that faithfully seeks God at work, does community together, but also lives into the neighbourhood, takes a bit of risk. It means being open to making connections that could be uncomfortable; living openly and faithfully present with those who walk with you; it means seeing others doing great things for and in the neighbourhood that do not know God has a dream and working together with them. It is a little scary, especially if you have always known church as being your personal place of faith, where you know everyone for their Sunday practice, and you just hope other people find their way through the doors. You are in the neighbourhood, connecting, drawing others into faithful presence together.
The practice of rediscovering the neighbourhood means you do not have all the answers. You do not have all the ‘good stuff’ that makes the community stronger. You are not even looking for people who look the same. In fact, you are seeking new voices, different perspectives, uniting on things that strengthen the space everyone around you calls home. As we build relationships with others who desire the best for the neighbourhood, we share in our strengths, and find new ways to build lovingly into place.
Church is not for itself. Our focus is not on simply making it better. It is a space for listening and conspiring about what God is doing next. This is our starting point exploring God’s imagination.
The mission of God is reconciliation, so here are 3 starting points for us to create space to listen:
“From isolation to awareness” – Give and receive hospitality in Christ. Get to know others and allow yourself to be know.
“From polarization to curiosity” – This is how we increase the chances of showcasing the love of God. Ask questions, not stating differences. That is how we build trust, first with other believers, then with our neighbours.
“From fragmentation to integration” – Building a new culture of trust and risk-taking takes time, and it means removing barriers. It becomes less about how we disagree and more about how we move from strangers to friends.
It is not about a formula for getting people into the seats. It is about bringing God’s imagination to the neighbourhood, reconciling all that he created, back to him.
So where can you start? Who can you work with to seek what God has in store for the neighbourhood? You might be surprised by who could partner with you, “Discovering the church right where you are.”
Take some time to reflect on how this could look in your backyard:
Who is your core?
What are other Christians in your neighbourhood up to?
Who are the heroes and people at work within the community?
Now how are you connecting these things?
What is the dream?
Will this change how you pray?