Neighbourhood Matters

By Karen Wilk

Commuter Church. As associations of commuters, North Americans churches have functioned and sought to achieve their purposes in “spaces”. Commuter congregations occupy a generic space once or twice a week under the assumption that what we do there will attract and bear witness, disciple and grow those who attend and those whom we want to attend. As a result, the church is not a stake holder in the neighbourhood and while perhaps able to be a service provider and “do outreach” there, she is not an incarnational presence. Consequently, for church members who “volunteer” in this space, there is no sense of personal ownership or commitment. As “outside Christian volunteers,” we can choose when to engage, and can opt in and out of caring at all because we feel no particular responsibility for the people or the place. In contrast, as one Neighbourhood Life (NL) member noted, “being a neighbour makes it more real and integrated, like church is supposed to be – an extension into all of life – and neighbours can reveal how God works, how the world works and [thus] the context in which we live.”

Commuter church participation in a neighbourhood also fosters a certain response in the neighbourhood who is receiving the “volunteers and services”. The neighbours recognize that the church has its own agenda, and that it may, or may not, understand or have the best interests of the neighbourhood in mind. A number of NL/NEW participants told stories of such experiences, particularly of how difficult it was for them, “as the neighbourhood” to try to help the commuter congregation “get” what they were doing. For example, one NL couple awkwardly found themselves in the middle of a dispute between some neighbours and the commuter congregation who was planning to build a new facility in their neighbourhood. Indeed, a commuter congregation can engender negative responses from the residents as one church recently experienced. Their “community survey” revealed that residents were very frustrated with the parking habits of Sunday morning attendees.

Space Versus Place. The occupation of space as opposed to place however has deeper implications for the church than teaching commuter attendees where to park on Sunday mornings. It forces us to wrestle again with what it means to be the church. Can we fulfill our mandate as God’s people simply by doing good deeds somewhere/anywhere and going home? Might a church that operates in a space, a building which is not the “habitus” of its people, be missing something critical not only to its witness but to its identity and formation as the people of God? What did Jesus mean when He prayed for the church to be one? As the culture is rediscovering the importance of place; of “going local”, perhaps the Spirit is also nudging the church to re-examine what it means for her to be “the personal presence of Jesus by the Spirit in the world.”[1] “A disembodied church,” it has been quipped, “doesn’t have a leg to stand on!”

Contrarily, the good news in the Scriptures portrays a God who goes on mission in person and in place. The wonder of the Incarnation is the presence of the loving God in our ordinary, everyday lives. To this, the church is now made, empowered and called to bear witness in her very being – ”as an incarnational presence. If this be so, the postcommuter shift in our culture is an invitation from the Spirit for the church to think again about the implications of her formation in detached spaces around a myriad of affinities from doctrine to musical preference. Meanwhile, fresh expressions of church, such as Neighbourhood Life are seeking to do experiments as the Body of Christ in person and in place. In this new (old) paradigm, church is less about a space, a service and an organization and more about being a community of Jesus followers doing life together in a neighbourhood such that they alert others to His kingdom come near. “When we began to recognize the significance of neighbourhood, of place,” one NL Community participant–who is an elder in his commuter congregation– explained, “that’s when our congregation decided to be a community of communities and commit to this [neighbourhood life] but we were really the only ones who actually did it; measured and paid the cost.” Perhaps Michael W. Smith’s struggle to find his “place in this world” is actually the struggle of an ethereal church now stirred by the wind of the Spirit to reimagine what it means to be the people of God by finding her “place in this world.”[2]

Join Karen Wilk in Ontario Saturday May 27th!

Sent to Neighbour

[1]. Craig Van Gelder, “Incarnating the Gospel in Culture” (DM 7613 Lectures, Northern Seminary, Chicago, IL, June 18-22, 2012). Emphasis mine.

[2]. Michael W, Smith, Go West Young Man, Album, 1990.

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