We’re accustomed to driving through our neighbourhoods on our way to work, activities and even to church, where much of our spare time is devoted to programmed activities. When we get home, we park our cars in the garage and close the doors behind us. We might enjoy a barbeque on the deck in our private, fenced-in backyards but, other than to wave in passing or say “hello” as we bring our garbage to the curb, most of us don’t give much thought to the people living across the street from us.
Is this the best way to be a faithful, relevant and engaging presence in Canadian society? How do we reach those outside the church who have lost interest – or never had any – in joining us in our pews? The answer, according to the folks at Forge Canada, is genuine relationship. What they propose is a grassroots movement that moves away from structured programming and events designed to entice and keep people in the church to being believers who know we are the church and take the command to “love your neighbour” literally.
It might sound radical, but the shift, focused as it is on connecting, building relationships and investing ourselves into our neighborhoods, is not so far from what Christ and the early church modelled or from how God works through people today.
IN OUR MIDST
Forge Canada is a networking organization headed up by missionally-minded leaders. The vision of the organization is to “establish multiplying missional Christian communities” by “equipping leaders and churches to become missional, to multiply and to transform their neighbourhoods.” Through offering resources and support, and through their cross-country tour of Into the Neighbourhood workshops last fall, they are working to foster a new culture within the church and raise up believers who are intentional about being present in their neighbourhoods, building strong relationships with their neighbours, and living their lives as the gospel within their communities.
David Fitch, author of Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission, joined the Forge Canada team as a speaker at their workshops. “God always works through presence,” Fitch says. “Presence is the centre point through which God will change the world.”
Those who attended workshops were challenged to consider whether or not we believe God is already present in our neighbourhoods, and that the “kingdom of God is in your midst” as the scriptures say (Luke 17:21). While we would all agree that he is present with us, do we trust that he is in our neighbourhoods through us? And do we believe he is present in our neighbourhoods apart from ourselves?
“Commit to a place for 10 years and watch God work,” says Fitch. The task of loving our neighbourhoods and building into our communities is not accomplished overnight. Establishing genuine relationships takes time, vulnerability and humility, and it might mean dropping some current activities to open up space in our lives for our neighbours, but this is the commitment to which Forge is calling believers. When we are present in our neighbourhoods, we are able to tune in and attend to what God is doing around us, and create what Fitch calls “sacred spaces”; that is, spaces and opportunities for God to manifest his presence and make himself known. These are opportunities we miss completely when we do not know each other.
PEOPLE VS PROGRAMS
Last fall my daughter Mikhaila, a student at Tyndale University, went to Toronto’s downtown area with friends several times to hand out care packages to some of the down-and-out people they often encounter on the streets. Their goal was to connect, meet some practical needs and attend to what God might be doing there.
One afternoon they handed out several packages and engaged in many conversations, but there was one woman in particular with whom it seemed they had a divine appointment. She was sitting on a step in a storefront and gladly took the package, but Mikhaila noticed that she seemed distraught. So often we distance ourselves from others’ messy lives, but Mikhaila did the opposite. She sat down beside her. As the woman began to tell her story, Mikhaila sensed that God had already been at work in her life through other people. She wondered if she was ready to receive more than the hygiene package, so she began to share words of life. The encounter on the street ended that day with a time of joyful prayer as the woman eagerly received the gift of salvation for herself. Tears of pain and sorrow turned into tears of gratitude for newfound hope as sacred space was opened up through a university student who was attentive to God.
Although this encounter is of a different nature than the call to long-term investment in our neighbourhoods, it still goes to show us that God is “at hand” and his kingdom is among us! We do need to attend to his presence and create sacred spaces in which he can move; and people do need human connection much more so than programs and events.
We have to enter into relationships with the right attitude, of course. It is offensive, to say the least, to be someone’s targeted “outreach project,” and nothing will sour a relationship more quickly. Bob Goff, internationally known speaker and author of Everybody, Always, says, “Love doesn’t need to keep track of the outcomes. People aren’t projects.”
Karen Wilk is a pastor and Missional Leader Developer with the Christian Reformed Church as well as a National Team Member with Forge Canada. In her book Don’t Invite Them to Church: Moving from a Come and See to a Go and Be Church, she shares some stories about the rich quality of relationships that have been established in her neighbourhood since she and her husband started hanging out less at their church and more with their neighbours. “We have hosted monthly bridge parties; wine, cheese, and art nights; backyard barbeques and campfires; and international dinners. Our neighbours have hosted various gatherings too. It’s been great fun to get to know them and begin to trust, care for, and depend on each other as neighbours.
“We do all these things without another agenda, which is why we can relax and develop relationships. We don’t love our neighbours so we can invite them to church. In fact, we have discovered great freedom and joy in loving our neighbours because God is already there among them.”
“Let love be genuine,” says the Apostle Paul (Rom 12:9). In other words, genuine love is not hypocritical. Love is not love if it is only offered with evangelical interest.
As followers of Christ, we don’t need to carry a sign or wear the t-shirt proclaiming our beliefs. Genuine love for God works itself outward, and it will be out of love that we will pray for our neighbours, work for their well-being and share our faith when we’re given the opportunities. We can trust that wherever God is calling us to love people, he is already there.