God next door

Recently, I had cause to re-read Simon Carey Holt’s book, God Next Door: Spirituality and Mission in the Neighbourhood. Holt argues that mission, in our current context, where the  overwhelming percentage of the population have nothing to do with the Christian church, should happen in our own neighbourhood (as opposed to in our churches).

Jesus’ designation  of two commands “love God” and “love your neighbour as yourself” as the essence of discipleship should have always given us a particular focus for ministry in our  neighbourhood.If then the church is to be in ministry and mission in the neighbourhood, what should we practice? Holt suggests four neighbourhood disciplines.

  1. Naming: the act of identifying or naming the neighbourhood as a place of God’s presence. Far too often church-going Christians are thoroughly trained to only name the presence  of God in the special places and moments of the Christian life. Naming our neighbourhood as a sacred place opens us to the possibility that we might see God’s presence in the  streets and our neighbours’ homes and join in. It is about taking the time to get out into the neighbourhood and to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ the people who make up our residential  community, to notice the places where people interact and go to recreate and meet. Unless we take the time to observe, we may never see the Divine presence in the ordinary  places of our neighbourhood.
  2. Celebrating: Celebrating the neighbourhood and good neighbours is a sacred act because when we celebrate as community we acknowledge, as did the people of the Old  Testament, God’s ongoing provision, the new beginnings and transitions of life, what is good about our neighbourhood and poor experiences of relationships along the way.  Celebrating almost always involves hospitality. We know the power possible in the practice of hospitality and the sense in which sharing a table can be a sacred act – it provides  excellent spaces for genuine friendship, solidarity and mutual compassion. I can still remember the exhilaration I felt as I helped serve Christmas lunch for the homeless in inner city Brisbane several years ago. It felt like a sacred event, a religious experience unmatched by attending Christmas worship the following year.
  3. Nurturing: If naming and celebrating embrace what is good in our neighbourhood, nurturing begins by imagining what they can become. Holt argues that we need a “reimagining of our neighbourhoods  as fully human environments, places that acknowledge, compliment and nurture the humanity of all of those who live there.”
    “The discipline of nurturing  good places means inhabiting them, believing in them, investing in them and doing everything we can to make them fully human.”
  4. Inviting is a natural outflow of the previous three disciplines. As we practice them, we hope that those who share the neighbourhood with us will encounter Jesus and be transformed. Thus we see a beautiful unity of the great commission – “go into the world and make disciples” – and the great commandment – “you shall love your neighbour as  yourself.”

The Eaton/Millbridge Community Project, part of the Wellington Regional Mission, uses these neighbourhood disciplines in its practice of being the church in our neighbourhood.  Instead of ‘doing outreach’ we are the church in the community as part of our everyday lives. Instead of trying to get our neighbours to ‘come to church’ to hear the gospel, we try to live  out the gospel in word and deed.

Contemporary neighbourhoods for a variety of reasons seem to encourage individualism, self-protection, passivity and discrimination. In her  exploration of the nature of Christian spirituality in urban contexts, psychologist Sally Kenel concludes that its essence is in living differently, living humanly, and thus nurturing the  neighbourhood’s humanity. Living differently and humanly in this context would be to not only encourage, but actively live communally, compassionately and inclusively. It would be  providing ways in which the community can gather, listen to each other, celebrate together and shape a future together. That would be living out the gospel in the neighbourhood.

Karyl Davison, team leader at the Eaton/Millbridge Community Project. 

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