My recent book, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, argues that forming a mission-shaped life in our time involves the recovery of neighborhood. Congregations must be re-imagined around the location of their members in neighborhoods. This requires us to ask new kinds of questions. We need to ask questions such as: What is God up to ahead of us in the neighborhoods and communities where we live? How might we join with what the Spirit is doing in these fertile places of transformation and change? How is the Spirit calling us as a congregation to change and re-imagine who we are? How then are we to be formed in the light of what we are discerning in our neighborhoods?
These are radically different kinds of questions than the ones currently being asked by denominations and congregational leaders. . . .
Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood argues that it is in this boundary-breaking work of the Spirit where we encounter God. The location of this encounter is, literally, across the fence, across the street, in our neighborhoods. This sounds profoundly counter-intuitive. For too many people neighborhoods are convenient containers where they park their cars and shut off the lights before embarking on another day out beyond the local. Some scorn this focus on neighborhood. It sounds so ‘old fashioned‘ (a favorite ad hominem of those who want to make an argument but have little basis for it). Others point to the brave new world of the Internet and the emergence of the non-locale. The new social media has, indeed, changed how we communicate but this can never replace the local. Some argue we now live in a world of non-local, affinity relationships so neighborhood is an outmoded idea that misses all the new ways people are relating to one another. In brief, because the book addresses this issue, affinity means homogeneity, it’s about finding people like me. But, what Paul was framing in the first half of Ephesians, is that affinity is precisely what the Cross and Resurrection came to overcome. An Incarnate God who, in the language of John’s Gospel, came to pitch his tent right beside ours is One whom we meet in those ordinary, pedestrian places called neighborhoods. For too long we’ve lost sight of how we came to this situation where neighborhood ceased to be the primary place where our lives became embedded. In terms of the Christian narratives: sans embededness, sans Gospel.
In his book, The Religious Crisis of the 60s, Hugh McLeod1 describes critical changes in European and North American culture between the late fifties and the early seventies. These changes have a huge bearing on our loss of capacity to appreciate the critical importance of neighborhood as the primary space of God’s activity. Literally, we have been socialized to not see neighborhood. McLeod argues that through that critical fifteen year period massive social changes occurred that fundamentally altered how we see our world. A primary generator of these changes was the emergence of a new affluence in the post war era.2 It made certain forms of living available to larger and larger elements of the populations. People shifted from communities that connected them to relatives and neighbors to new home purchases in the burgeoning suburbs. At the same time they could purchase the conveniences that made this form of living possible — the car and television. In McLeod’s states: “The growing centrality of the home and the nuclear family led to a decline in the importance of the neighborhood and the extended family…result was a growing willingness of individuals, and sometimes families, to develop their own codes of behavior with limited reference to neighbors (whom they hardly know) or relatives (who were less likely than formerly to live in close proximity.”3 He documents how this began to radically change people’s relationship with church and other forms of socialization. By the mid-60’s the house, the car and the television had become the three essentials of a new lifestyle. The house became a refuge closed against its neighbors. McLeod summarizes: “The new climate of increasing affluence seems to have been particularly threatening to those institutions, of many different kinds, which were associated with membership of a local community… Cars, televisions and the increasing number of couples buying their own home combined to promote new patterns of family life, at once more mobile, and more focused on the home and the nuclear family, and less dependent on the neighborhood.”
This is not an argument for some lost time or the recovery of some romantic, nostalgic moment prior to the 60s.
Nor does it suggest home ownership, cars or televisions are wrong. Our societies were catapulted into a time that resulted in a heightening of individualism, an unhealthy focus on the nuclear family as the source of all things necessary for social life and the eviscerating of a sense of need to extended communal belonging best found in neighborhoods. It wasn’t planned but it was celebrated by a generation shaped by expressive individualism and strong notions of personal freedom. That experiment had massive unintended consequences including growing numbers of people cut off from supportive relationships and congregations that are more about homogeneity and affinity than centers of radical hospitality or belonging.
John McKnight and Peter Block provide data based on extensive interviews about how this loss of neighborhood has eroded and weakened a sense of belonging in North American society.4 The book goes deeper than McLeod’s work to analyze the course of this malaise. It described interviews with people living in suburban housing where the common assessment of their lived experience is expressed in these kinds of statements:
- I live in a ‘poverty of wealth’. I do not know my neighbors. Everyone has lawn care…relationships are formed by the ability to buy things. I learn about my neighbors from the cleaning lady and handyman.
- We have some conversations with those who pass by. I don’t really know them, but there is some reciprocity. It is mostly accidental contact. You can go whole winter and barely see a neighbor.
- We are isolated and insulated in our cars. No sidewalks-we drive everywhere.
- We know three people in the neighborhood and feel disconnected.5
All of this strangeness to the neighbor began long before computers, the Internet and social networking. These are really extensions of a much deeper malaise. Christian imagination is about framing an alternative story of God’s presence and reign. It is a story other than individualism, affinity, self-containment and consumption. If that story is to re-emerge in the late modern Western countries then it will require the conviction of some group that they have to re-embed themselves in neighborhoods. For Christians this means learning again to join God in the neighborhood. It is about having our eyes opened that we might see the strange invitation of Spirit for the churches to rediscover and recover their vocations as God’s missionary people in the local.
1 Hugh McLeod, The Religious Crisis of the 60s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
2 See Chapter 5, 102-123.
4 John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler, 2010). See pages 9-25.