At Canaan we are trying to live into our tagline “the church where love makes the difference,” which we have found to be a very dangerous statement. Christians often tell people we love them before we have ever lived with, listened to, or learned from them. If we are going to be genuine, presence becomes a precursor to love and a foundational principle for ministering to the needs of our neighbors.
Discussing our responsibility as the body of Christ all over the world is a necessary dialogue. However, we must also discuss the specific role for a local body in a geographic location. The apostle Paul did not just write to the universal church in his letters. He wrote to specific groups of Christ followers in specific places, dealing with specific sets of issues and needing specific encouragement. He addressed Corinth about desiring special roles in the church, when love is supreme. He wrote to Ephesus about their syncretizing of Artemis worship, a female-dominated religion, with Christianity, thus urging the women to humble themselves and allow the men an opportunity to lead. These are specific issues with specific solutions, which we have often tried to spread like mayonnaise over the entire church. We like to assume that the things we value, the places we live, and the societal lenses through which we see the world don’t affect the way we read the Bible. We like to assume that the way we view or understand biblical writing will remain the same no matter whether we live in a rural province in China or in Englewood on the south side of Chicago. But it does not.
This is why it becomes important for the local church to be concerned with presence, listening to neighbors, and knowing what’s going on where they are. We then become God’s presence in a place, the tangible representatives of God in our local context. If we are going to represent God’s presence in a place, then we have to be aware of the gifts, assets, needs, burdens, sorrows, joys, and so on of that place. We cannot just have a church service once or twice a week; we must be aware of and involved with everything going on around us. This includes knowing what’s going on in families, with the schools, on the streets, and with the gangs, and being aware of what injustices are occurring. We stay aware of everything going on around us so that we know how to live as representatives of God’s presence for all people.
Unfortunately, in many communities local churches are an afterthought when it comes to community transformation.
This has lifted the weight of kingdom work off the local church and put it onto parachurch or not-for-profit organizations. While the work of these organizations is important and necessary, there would be less need for them if the local church were doing its job. Even if the need for parachurch organizations did not decrease, their fundraising needs would decrease because they would become extensions of a local church and connected to those resources. The local church should be known as a community asset and a partner to all the community leaders and organizations that desire to see that community flourish. It is my heart’s desire to see greater transformation happen through the church’s participation.
When I speak of transformation I don’t approach it as this formulaic guaranteed set of guidelines or rules. I don’t believe that it is a guarantee that the surrounding community changes because of the church’s community involvement or because we seek to love our neighbors. However, I do believe that when God is involved transformation always happens, though it is not always the transformation we are expecting. True transformation begins when you continue to do the things God has called you to even when the only thing changing is you. I have lived and worked in a marginalized community for decades and the biggest changes have been how I perceive people, how I describe the place I live, and how I protect it and make sure no one negatively portrays it from the outside.
To be honest with you, that is a huge change from where I was before I left Englewood vowing never to return. Not only has there been a dramatic change in my perspective but there has also been a change in the perspective of my family, friends, and congregation due to my transformation. It is contagious. My mom moved back into the community and some of my congregants did the same. Even my friends from college began to encourage me in the work I was doing. I decided that if the number of shootings in our community never went down or the narrative in the media wasn’t changing, I was still going to pray and work there because of the change happening in me. Lamenting the loss of life and the pain I experienced in our community was growing my desire and need for God to hear my prayers. I was learning quickly that true transformation began with me.
Ultimately, proximity and presence are biblical attributes, and no matter where you live they are the best mirrors of God and windows into what the world could look like if we all mirrored God. We have to ask ourselves how we can best change our proximity and presence to those around us, whether our close neighbors or people we have traditionally only been able to relate to from a distance. Jesus reminds us over and over again through his words and actions that unless we come out of our comfort zone and get close to one another, transformation will be out of our grasp. The vulnerability that comes with closer proximity is difficult for all of us. It is not natural to be vulnerable and expose our internal weaknesses and fears. We often only have small circles of people we allow into our lives in this way. I want to affirm this as truth and warn against opening ourselves too soon to too many people. Yet I also want to challenge us to recognize that it is when we enter into genuine relationship and experience—the closeness that comes from vulnerability and conflict—that God promises to dwell with us. When sharing guidelines for handling conflict in the church, Jesus says that where two or three are gathered in his name, he will be in their midst. (Matthew 18:20). He is endorsing the messiness of relationship and the difficulty that comes with being close to one another and at the same time promising to enter into that messiness with us.
Adapted from Church Forsaken by Jonathan Brooks. Copyright (c) 2018 by Jonathan Brooks. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Jonathan Brooks (“Pastah J”) is senior pastor of Canaan Community Church in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. A sought after speaker, writer, and artist, he has contributed to two books: Banned Questions for Christians by Christian Piatt and Making Neighborhoods Whole by John Perkins and Wayne Gordon.
Visit his website and read his blog at pastahj.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @PastahJ.