by Linda Rex
Last evening I attended a neighborhood association meeting for the community around our Nashville church site. I’ve been enjoying the opportunity to meet and get to know our neighbors a little better and to see them at work as they join together to bring improvements to the Highland Heights neighborhood.
One of the things being impressed on my mind more and more as I build these relationships is the understanding that God often works in community. Although I would not characterize all of these people necessarily as “churchgoers”, nevertheless I see in them a sincere desire to do the right thing and to make their world a better, safer place in which to live. I see them participating in God’s love and life—his work in the world to further his kingdom life right here and right now in the midst of difficult and sometimes alarming circumstances.
The longer I have served in this neighborhood, the more God has worked to change my attitude and approach toward this community. When I first came to the Nashville area, I was overwhelmed by the urban sprawl and the impersonal way of living and being which comes with living in the big city. I was frightened by the prospect of interacting with people in the church neighborhood because the community seemed dark and dangerous. Some of the people who we sought to help seemed to bring with them chaos, dishonesty and a determined effort to use and abuse those of us who wished to help them.
Since that time I have had multiple opportunities to meet and become acquainted with people who live and work in the neighborhood surrounding our church. I have found the demographic is dynamic—it is constantly changing. And our neighborhood is in the midst of a transition which is creating its own struggles and dangers.
I have learned our neighbors want a place where they can live together in peace, where their children can play safely in the front yard, and where they can enjoy their belongings without fearing someone will come and steal them. They want to have community events where they can get together and do fun stuff like at their recent East Eggstravaganza, which provided a safe environment for kids to play, learn and have fun. They just want what we all want—to live joyfully together in peace, being able to go about our lives without concern or fear.
This sounds to me like our neighbors want to live in Christian community, although I realize they would not call it by that name. And they would not want to have anyone limit them to a “Christian” or “church” box in order to have that community. Sadly, for them, “church” and “Christian” have negative connotations, because they are perceived as a means of restricting community not creating community.
And I do not believe this is what God intends. Too often our modern Christianity here in the West has had the “us” against “them” mentality. Some are “in” while others are “out”. We fail to realize God does not work within our restrictions. I have met many people who are seeking to follow Jesus faithfully but who are disenchanted by the gracelessness and pride of the modern church, and so they do not attend church services. But they are active in creating Christian community and following Christ.
There was a time here in America where a church building was a place the community would gather, where children might be schooled, where community concerns were raised and resolved, and where the community would come together for celebrations. Not everyone was a Sunday-go-to-meeting type of person, but they knew the church building was where the people came together for the essential matters of life in their community.
Today, however, a church is seen as non-essential, as even intrusive upon a community. It was suggested last night that our neighborhood group could meet in the community center at a church since it was a quieter venue, and more conducive to gathering as a group and talking. But a valid concern was raised—wouldn’t people be put off from attending meetings by the knowledge they were being held at a church?
There was discomfort with the idea of meeting in a church building, even though we would not be meeting in the church proper, because there was this innate fear someone would try to force them into believing something or doing something they were not comfortable with. There was not a perception of the church building as being simply a community gathering place.
This whole experience has been enlightening to me. I am beginning to understand more and more why there is a disconnect between us as a church community and our neighborhood community. The two ought to be so intertwined that it is hard to see the difference. Even though they are not one and the same community, they both include participants in God’s life and love. They are both at work in their own way of furthering his kingdom work in the world.
God is at work in every person’s life, whether they know it or not. And God is at work in these community groups, calling people together to do his work in the world. We can continue to isolate ourselves and create unnecessary divisions between “us” and “them”, or we can participate in his work to create harmony and unity, and to bring healing, health and wholeness to a broken world.
Our little church community in Nashville has been serving the people of their neighborhood for many years with the weekly lunch we serve at our Community Café. We have been striving to build healthy relationships with the people we meet, to serve and pray for them at this event every Sunday. This is an effort to serve our neighbors—and in my mind is very much a way exclusive of our worship services in which we hold “church” every week. We participate in God’s work in the neighborhood in this way.
But there are also other ways in which we can stop being “churchy” and start being good neighbors. We can become a community center where people can gather for fun and fellowship. We can begin to participate in community events and help to keep our neighborhood safe and clean. We can help tend to the needy, poor, the widow(er)s and orphans. There is much to be done when it comes to participating in God’s work in our neighborhood.
Whether or not people become members of our church or become Christians as a part of this process, in my mind, is irrelevant. That’s God’s call and is up to him whether or not that occurs—such things are a work of his Spirit. What matters most is we are being what God created us to be, his children living in harmony, unity, in our own diverse manner as equals in a loving, compassionate community. As we serve one another in love, following Christ wherever he leads us, we will find ourselves and our community transformed. May we be diligent in so doing.
Abba, thank you for all the brothers and sisters you have given us in Christ your Son and by your Spirit. Change our minds and hearts so we will begin to include others in our life of fellowship, and we will begin to participate more fully in what you are doing in this world to create your community which reflects the oneness, diversity and equality and love in your being as God. In your Name we pray. Amen.
“I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” John 17:23