In 2006 there was a disturbing story out of England about a 38-year-old British woman discovered dead in her apartment. What was shocking was not that she died nor how she died. What was shocking was how long she had been dead. It was determined that Joyce Vincent had actually died over two years earlier yet no one knew. She was estranged and self-isolated from friends and family. She had resigned from her job and moved into a different flat. Her rent and her utilities were all set for auto debit payments and due to this, and some debt forgiveness plans, it took two years for bill collectors to demand possession of the flat. And that was how Vincent’s death was discovered.
Four years ago some crazy Baptists at my church sat in a room together asking the question – would anyone notice if we left Jefferson City? Would it matter to anyone if we closed up shop and disbanded the church? Would it take two years for anyone to notice the building was empty? Would they rejoice that there was now prime real estate available downtown to build a parking garage?
The focus of the question wasn’t about us and the need to be known, the need to have a big fuss made about us in the unfortunate event of our demise.
The focus of the question was our relationship with the community that God has placed us in to serve and to love. Did the community see us as advocates for their overall well-being or simply advocating for our own well-being? Could the community give witness to our overwhelming love and support for our neighbors or would they testify to a church who focused all her resources on the corner of Monroe and East Capitol? Would the city say – “you weren’t really a pain in the neck. You were more like a tonsil. We aren’t really sure what good you do but we know you can be removed without it really affecting anything.”
I think if more churches were honest we would recognize that a lot of what we do and a lot of what we preach and a lot of what we believe is preoccupied with the individual rather than the community and leads to being inward focused. Most things that focus inward eventually die. There are some churches around the world that have died and the community has yet to realize it – because they can’t tell the difference.
Should we matter to our community? It might seem like a no-brainer question to ask but sometimes I wonder. I hear a lot of “us vs them” and “circle the wagons” speech from Christians. I sense a lot of fear among the Church in the US. A lot of people are quick to remind Christians that we are to be “in the world but not of it” – a phrase that is based on some of Jesus’s words in John 17. Our meaning with that phrase, however, is often – “whoa is us. We are stuck in this God-forsaken world for a little while but just hold your virtues up and watch where you step until the good Lord can take you home.” We treat it like an obstacle course at Basic Training – just try to get to the end without falling in the mud or getting shot or worse yet – kicked out. The church is called to be separate in lifestyle but never called to be isolated from the people it seeks to influence.
So maybe it would serve us better — at least in light of all that Jesus said in John 17 and the rest of the Gospels — to revise the popular phrase “in, but not of” in a way suggested by author David Mathis: “not of, but sent into.” The beginning place is being “not of the world,” and the movement is toward being “sent into” the world. The accent falls on being sent, with a mission, to the world — not being mainly on a mission to disassociate from this world.
But regardless if you feel like an exile in America or not, the prophet Jeremiah has some words for us. Jeremiah 29 begins by saying, “This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem … to those carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” What follows are instructions on how to live as aliens in a foreign land. They are to build homes, settle down, get married, have children, and watch their children get married. God is basically saying – get comfortable. You’re going to be here awhile. Don’t wait until an elusive “someday” to get on with the business of continuing to be God’s covenant people.
The letter ends with an even more surprising word in 29:7, “Make yourself at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.” God calls the Jews not to just live in the city they are in exiles in but to love it and work for its shalom – its economic, social and spiritual flourishing. God’s word to the exiles was to pray for their conquerors for their fates are inextricably bound up together. There is no “us versus them” or “me versus you”. There is only us.
One of my favorite quotes is from Lila Watson, an Australian Aboriginal woman, who issued the following reminder to mission workers in her country:
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together.
Christians are, indeed, not of this world. We are citizens of God’s heavenly city, but we are called to be the best possible citizens of our earthly city as well and that only happens when we walk together.
All over our nation churches are throwing out the old measures of success. It’s no longer merely about size, budgets, spiritual gifts, or number of small groups. It’s about making a significant and sustainable difference in the lives of people around us – in our communities and in our cities. The question should no longer be, “How big is your church?” but rather “How big is the impact you are having on your community?” Or as Pastor Rick Warren said, “I believe that you measure the health or strength of a church by its sending capacity rather than its seating capacity.” Or even better “A lot of church members who are singing “Standing on the Promises” are just sitting on the premises.”
The city I serve in is incredibly blessed with so many churches who get it. Churches who are in the city, for the city. Churches who are seeking the welfare of their neighbors in so many creative ways without the publicity or spotlight. Churches who simply love this community. Last Sunday was an absolutely beautiful picture of this truth as we joined together for Mission JC, a Sunday morning where we join together to worship through service rather than attending a service. Our hearts are still full and our spirits still soaring from all that took place. But the reality is Mission JC is just one small vehicle of loving our city. It is by no means the pinnacle nor is it sufficient on its own. My prayer is that Mission JC will always be on the altar. If one day this program, this event gets in the way or supersedes the mission of serving our city, I pray we will be quick to surrender it in order to stay true to its purpose to send us out into our neighborhoods to love and to serve in the name of Christ, one body, one Church.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Mission JC is the unity of the churches – from the planning to the serving, it is a family project. Our community needs the family of God to work together. I truly believe that Jefferson City has the potential to become as close to “as in heaven as on earth” as possible this side of heaven. But it can’t happen without God and it can’t happen without all of the churches working together and cheering each other on. It also takes partnership with local agencies and organizations. We need partnerships not around theology but around our common concern for the city.
Let us seek the welfare of each other’s congregations and our community organizations and let all of us together seek the welfare of our city. Let us love her and work for her shalom. Let us be neighbors and not just consumers. Let us weep with our community and let us celebrate with her.
May we be quick to praise and slow to criticize our leaders and neighbors.
May we commit to do whatever it takes for children to just be children.
May the fears that keep our neighbors up at night be our priorities.
May there never be in our city a neighbor who, like Joyce Vincent, dies alone and forgotten.